What makes a holiday ad worth running year after year

Katie Sweet, Janine Klimko and Rhys Hillan

It’s Thanksgiving in the US this week so you know what that means…The holidays are officially here! Of course the holiday season has crept up earlier and earlier into November in recent years, but Black Friday makes it official. 

At Zappi we’ve been talking a lot about UK ads the last few weeks, so we thought it was time to turn our attention to the US. And there’s no better place to look than some classic holiday ads most of us have seen before. 

What makes them so memorable? What gives them staying power so we can watch them again and again? We had to know! Read on for our analysis.

🎄 Top performing holiday ads

Check out our full series of top performing holidays ads in the US and the UK.

First, the holiday ads we picked

We looked at five classic holiday ads from the US — some of which have aired year after year so you might already be familiar with them. But if not, here’s a quick summary.

The first is Hershey’s “Christmas Bells,” a 15-second spot that features a formation of red and green Hershey Kisses that act as handbells that play “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” It has run each year since its introduction in 1989, and though it has seen a few tweaks (the audio and graphics were revamped in 2012), it has remained largely the same.

M&M’s “Faint” is a 1996 ad that features the brand’s recurring characters, red and yellow M&Ms. Red and Yellow are putting out M&Ms for Santa, who surprises them by already being at the house to put presents under the tree. Santa is surprised by the existence of talking M&Ms, and they all pass out from the shock of the situation.

Campbell’s “Let It Snow” from 1995 features a chilly snowman who ventures indoors to warm up. As he eats a bowl of Campbell’s soup, he begins to melt! But not to worry, once the snow melts away we discover the snowman is a young boy who is now nice and warm at home.

“Santa,” OREO’s 1987 ad, features the classic jingle “Who’s That Kid with the OREO Cookie” and a child trying to stay up to see Santa. While the boy sleeps peacefully in an armchair, Santa dips the OREOs left out for him in milk.

For a slightly more recent ad, we looked at Coca-Cola’s “Arctic Beach Party” from 2005. In this ad, a family of the brand’s iconic polar bears crashes a party of penguins. A young penguin invites the family to join the party by offering the young polar bear a coke.

Our research indicates that all of these ads are still very well loved. The graph below shows the percentage of “lovers” for each year’s ads compared to the US norm. “Lovers” is defined as the percentage of respondents who gave the ad an 8 or above on a scale of 0-10 for the question “Overall, how much did you like the ad?"

You can see that around three quarters of Americans love these ads, which is no easy feat!

Based on the question: “Overall, how much did you like the ad?” Lovers are calculated as the percentage who gave the ad a 8 or above on a scale of 0-10.

And importantly for the brands, these ads are not just loved, they drive brand appeal and brand consideration as well. That shows us that these ads are working for the brand in addition to entertaining the audience.

Ads are plotted on this graph based on how they score on two metrics: Brand consideration and brand appeal. Brand consideration is based on the question “Based on everything you’ve seen and heard, how likely would you be to consider the brand?” Brand appeal is an aggregate measure, calculated as an average of brand linkage (“How well does the ad link with your impression of the brand?”) and overall appeal (“How much do you like the ad?”).

And despite the fact that many Americans have seen these ads many times, they are still seen as unique.

Ratings are based on a 0-10 scale for the question “How unique and different was the ad?"

While each ad takes its own approach, they have a number of shared traits that make them timeless: 

  1. They are part of the magic of the holiday season 

  2. They focus on brand

  3. They appeal to all ages

  4. They elicit strong happy, love and cute emotions

  5. They use universally familiar holiday music

Let’s dive into each of these in turn.

1. They are part of the magic of the holiday season

A holiday ad isn’t a holiday ad if it doesn’t successfully capture the feeling of the season. Each ad puts the viewer in a festive mood by conveying the magic of the holidays. For the M&Ms and OREO ads, that’s the anticipation we felt as children as we waited up to glimpse Santa. For Coca-Cola, it’s snow and the feeling of togetherness. For Campbell’s, it’s the feeling of home. And for Hershey’s, it’s a simple link to holiday bells.   

No matter how they approached it, each ad was able to create direct ties between their brands and holiday spirit. 

We see that come across again and again when we asked respondents what they liked about each ad: 

“Getting into the holiday season.”

“It’s Christmas time!”

“Christmas is coming!”

“The holidays are very close.”

“It’s getting close to Christmas!”

2. They focus on brand

It’s impossible to escape all the messages this time of year announcing deals we need to act on quickly. Those certainly have an important role to play in the holiday season, but the key to making a timeless holiday ad is a focus on brand, not promotions.

Each of these ads gives the product a key role to play in the story, but never allows it to feel too commercial. 

The OREO ad shows a child leaving the OREO cookies out for Santa. The Campbell’s ad shows a child being warmed up by Campbell’s soup. And the Hershey’s ad focuses exclusively on Hershey’s kisses performing a traditional holiday song. 

With the product prominently featured in the story, you can’t miss which brand the ad is from. But that never takes away from the holiday vibes. 

Note in the graph below that these ads each scored significantly above the norm for both brand linkage and brand feeling — which means that respondents felt that the ads fit the brands and gave them positive impressions of the brands.

Ratings are based on a 0-10 scale for the following questions. Brand feeling: “How did the ad change the way you feel about the brand?” Brand linkage: “How well does that ad fit with your impression of the brand?” Brand score is an average of brand feeling and brand linkage ratings.
3. They are relevant to all ages

It can be difficult to create an ad that feels relevant to multiple generations, but these ads were able to do just that. 

When looking across multiple metrics we find that ratings tend to increase with age — yet ratings are still quite high even among the youngest cohort (18-34 year olds), showing near universal appeal for these ads.

Ratings are based on a 0-10 scale for the following questions. Brand linkage: “How well does that ad fit with your impression of the brand?” Brand consideration: “Based on everything you’ve seen and heard, how likely would you be to consider the brand?” Overall appeal: “How much do you like the ad?”

Of course it’s worth noting that some of us have seen some of these ads many, many times over the years. Particularly Hershey’s “Christmas Bells,” which has aired each year since 1989. Some viewers have seen it only once or twice while others may have seen it for over 30 years! Over time, exposure to it has predisposed us to positive feelings and sentiment toward it. 

“Nostalgia” or “nostalgic” was cited in verbatims across ads (appearing over 60 times). Clearly, all of these ads remind respondents of when they were kids, often because they actually viewed these ads when they were kids!

4. They elicit strong happy, love and cute emotions

For these ads, eliciting positive emotions was the clear path to success. Whereas we find in the UK that a holiday ad can dip into sadness at some point in the story as long as it resolves in a happy way, all of these ads stay away from any negative emotions at all. “Cute,” “happy” and “love” are at the top of the list of emotions evoked for all five ads — far outpacing the US norm.

Hershey’s is the best in eliciting happiness and love, while OREO leads on cuteness. 

Hershey’s also elicits much stronger excitement than the other four, which is likely linked to the excitement of the upcoming holiday season.

5. They use universally familiar holiday music

Finally, most of the ads rely on traditional holiday music to foster universal appeal and remind us of the holidays.

Hershey’s uses “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” Campbell’s has “Let It Snow,” Coca-Cola has “Little Saint Nick” and M&M has “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” from the Nutcracker. OREO is a bit of an exception, as it uses what would have been a present-day jingle for the brand at the time the ad originally aired.

These classic songs get the viewers in the holiday spirit and help to keep the ad timeless — as these are songs that aren’t going to feel dated any time soon. 

The songs used in each ad are often cited in verbatims, for example: 

  • Hershey’s: “The music and bouncing Hershey kisses made me feel great. Joyful music and animation made me feel in the holiday season.”

  • M&M:  “It was cute and seasonal liked the Christmas music”

  • Coca-Cola: "Upbeat, music was good, made you feel cheery"

  • Campbell’s:  “It was clever. It had a Christmas tone with the music. It was simple and effective.”

  • OREO: “I liked the music and theme of the ad.”

Final thoughts

We love to see ads so successful that, in many cases, they could run for many years without becoming stale. And we’re still talking about them 30 years later!

Imagine the impact a single 15-second spot like Hershey’s “Christmas Bells'' has had on the brand after over three decades! And the return on investment the company must have received from this one ad. It’s something most brands can only dream of. 

It sounds impossible, but it can be done. These ads were able to tap into the magic of the holiday season, focus on brand and give a key role to the product, appeal to multiple generations, elicit on positive emotions and make use of classic holiday songs. 

Looking to score a hit with your next ad campaign? Talk to us to learn how we can help.

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