Ah, the Christmas commercial.
It is a uniquely British event. Every December, the public eagerly awaits the release of Christmas ads from brands big and small. And then the discussions begin. Which ads were great and which were ho-hum? Which were inspiring and which moved people to tears? Which were a laugh, and which had a more serious and meaningful tone?
Big budget and big impact, Christmas commercials have become increasingly popular outside of the UK too. Consumers everywhere are tuning in on YouTube to watch the latest Christmas ads from brands halfway across the world. Some companies in the US and elsewhere want to get on the bandwagon, and are coming out with their own Christmas commercials. Other companies are beginning to wonder whether they should.
What’s so special about Christmas commercials?
- For brands, the Christmas commercial is an opportunity to garner millions of views, generate a delightful buzz, and boost brand awareness and engagement throughout the Christmas season.
- For advertising agencies, it’s a time to show off their creativity and stand out.
- For consumers, Christmas commercials have an undeniable magic – a mix of anticipation and the uplifting vibe of the season – that makes them so stirring and cathartic.
There is one thing that the best Christmas commercials all have in common: effective storytelling. The ads, no matter how long or short, typically feature a complete narrative arc and a host of lovable and relatable characters. Often, there is a twist at the end or an inspiring message, and always an emotional punch – whether it be heartwarming, harrowing, hopeful, or humorous.
Let’s take a look at some of the best past and current Christmas commercials, and what they can teach marketers about great storytelling.
1. National Lottery
This commercial runs for three-and-a-half minutes – long for an ad, but not a lot of time to tell a story – however, it does so superbly. It’s a classic tale of a romantic near-miss, as two strangers meet on the train. He writes his phone number on a small piece of paper and throws it to her through the window as the train pulls away from the platform. But the number gets smudged. As it happens, the paper he wrote on was a winning lottery ticket, so she just had to find him. We won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say, a fun plot and some great acting makes the Christmas love story come to life.
Storytelling takeaway: A great story does not have to be a long one. Develop a plot or narrative, and see how you can pare it down to the essential elements – enough to draw people in and tell a complete story while sticking to a standard commercial length of 2-3 minutes.
Here’s an example of a classic Christmas ad that totally pulls at the heartstrings. A single father notices that his daughter is completely attached to her snow globe. She won’t go anywhere without it. So he comes up with an idea: to recreate the snowy scene in the greenhouse in the garden and grant her the perfect Christmas surprise. How? By borrowing some equipment from sympathetic neighbors and ordering the rest from Amazon, of course. There is no script in the commercial; the story hinges on the emotional expressions of the characters. By the end, when the slogan “Joy is made” appears on the screen, you actually believe it.
Storytelling takeaway: Sometimes, there is no need for a script. A complex emotional story can be told visually. A picture really can tell a thousand words, and a video, even more.
This Apple Christmas commercial from 2021 has a certain “fly on the wall” appeal, following a family as they travel to grandpa’s home for the holidays. You almost feel that you are right there with a real family – the constant chatter, childish arguments, and the parents handing over the iPad to keep the kids distracted. Then the plot turns heavy, as we realize that grandpa is mourning the recent loss of his wife. While the parents think they are keeping the kids busy and quiet with the iPad, the kids are actually creating a beautiful digital presentation in memory of Nana. Heartbreaking, heartwarming, slightly cheesy, but completely polished too. It’s definitely got the feel of the Apple brand all wrapped up for Christmas.
Storytelling takeaway: People connect to stories they can relate to. There is no Santa Claus here, or magical wishes granted – just pure, human, realistic storytelling. When done right, it’s the simplest everyday stories that can truly melt hearts.
Ok, so this is not strictly a Christmas commercial in the John Lewis style of storytelling, but it is totally cool and also tells a captivating story. In 2013, Canadian airline WestJet set out to grant some passengers their wishlist in real time. The airline set up a video booth of Santa at the airport, asking people boarding a particular flight what they want for Christmas. A flat screen TV, a toy train, even socks and underwear were among the requests. Unbeknownst to the travelers, there was a team waiting in the wings, recording all their wishes. As the plane took off, the team bolted into action, running to the mall to buy all the gifts, wrapping them, adding name labels, and getting them to the destination airport on time. As the passengers waited for their luggage, their Christmas wishes came true on the conveyor belt. Disbelief, tears, hugs, and kisses abound. A fantastic campaign and the kind of story everyone wants to hear about. To date, the video has garnered over 50 million views.
Storytelling takeaway: People love to dream. They love a happy ending. Give it to them via story so they can experience it vicariously and associate it with your brand.
The story told in this 2020 Christmas commercial is as big and grand as you would expect from a brand like Coke. A father goes away to work over the Christmas holiday at an offshore wind farm, and his young daughter tearfully sends him off, together with a letter to Santa at the North Pole. Sitting on the rig, drinking a Coke, he sees a postal boat so he jumps in a dinghy to give them the letter. All sorts of chaos and unexpected twists and turns occur on the journey, until finally he arrives on foot at Santa Claus’ cabin, which is “Closed for Christmas”. Despair, sadness. Just then, a shiny Coke truck pulls up, with Santa at the driver’s seat. He takes Dad home and as Dad gets out of the truck, Santa passes him his daughter’s letter. Dad opens it, only to discover that what his daughter wanted for Christmas was for Dad to come home. A long road back to where he always belonged.
Storytelling takeaway: The journey narrative is always a winner. Sometimes, a journey is physical, sometimes emotional, and often it’s both. But all true journeys lead to one place – back home, to oneself.
6. Hobby Lobby
Christmas is a time of coming together, overcoming animosity, and creating peace on earth. Naturally, this is a theme you often see in Christmas commercials. Hobby Lobby does a nice job of taking this concept to a very relatable level. Two girls set up competing stands selling hot cocoa in the winter snow. Trying to win over customers, they step up the game with ever more creative displays and signs. One of the girls simply can’t compete and abandons her stall. The other girl, feeling sorry, comes up with an idea to sell marshmallows together with the hot cocoa. She offers the idea to her rival, and they join forces, warming hearts everywhere with their joint effort. As the slogan tells us, “Christmas is what you make it”, but it’s not preachy – this is a simple story based on a broad storytelling theme that works.
Storytelling takeaway: War and peace – the coming together of people – is a powerful narrative, and especially resonant at Christmas time. Use it to your advantage.
7. Sainsbury 2014
Continuing on the “war and peace” theme, who can forget the beautifully superb Sainsbury Christmas commercial from 2014. For the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of World War 1, Sainsbury told the famous story of the “Christmas truce”. These were impromptu ceasefires along the Western front around Christmas 1914, in which both sides ceased their hostilities for a short while, came together in No Man’s Land, and played a bit of football. The production company did an excellent job of recreating the famous events and capturing the desire for peace and love that characterizes the human heart, especially at Christmas. Incredible, powerful storytelling that is still remembered and viewed nearly a decade later.
Storytelling takeaway: History is replete with awe-inspiring stories that people can relate to. Take a walk back in history and see how it can inspire your storytelling by tying it to the world today in a meaningful way.
The latest Christmas commercial from British supermarket chain ASDA features the beloved character Buddy the Elf, from the classic 2003 Elf movie. Played by Will Ferrell, Buddy the Elf turns up at an ASDA store hoping to be recruited as a worker. His ASDA colleagues don’t recognize him, and some sweet, slapstick humor ensues. Set to the strain of Sinatra’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, the ad uses the celebrity power of a familiar and favorite movie character to offer an enjoyable taste of Christmas that families will love. And remember, “Have Your Elf a Merry Christmas.”
Storytelling takeaway: Cultural references are a great way to make your video ad part of a bigger, richer story. Whether it’s a character, plotline, song, or quote, you can tap into the audience’s sensibilities via pop culture.
Speaking of British cultural references, there is no one quite as iconic as Paddington Bear. The Barbour brand, maker of the famous waxed jacket and other luxury clothing and footwear, has created a lovingly illustrated commercial in which Paddington searches for a unique gift for Mr Curry, the mean tempered next-door neighbor. The polite and good-hearted Paddington wants to give Mr Curry something truly unique, not just your ordinary Christmas present, and with the Barbour Re-Loved campaign, he does. He surprises his recalcitrant neighbor with a recycled Barbour wax jacket, and softens both Mr Curry’s heart, and those of everyone watching. “One of a kind-ness” indeed.
Storytelling takeaway: Nostalgia is powerful. It is something people can rally around and connect to. Combine nostalgia with warm-hearted sentimentality of the holiday season, and you’ve got a recipe for Christmas commercial success.
Back to the idea of cultural references, the ALDI grocery chain released a Christmas commercial that is a spin on one of the most famous modern Christmas movies, Home Alone. This time, though, it’s Kevin the carrot who gets left behind and has to beat the baddies by himself. Santa makes an appearance and all’s well that ends well, of course (and with a slightly rude joke thrown in for good measure). This ad works on the kid level and the grownup level, and the story is narrated as a poem, giving it a soothing rhythm and a traditional holiday vibe. Good old fashioned fun.
Storytelling takeaway: Tell a story with verse. It’s your chance to be creative, unique, and engaging. Make it a story that your audience can relate to, but think out of the box. Not a boy, but a carrot!
11. Coca-Cola, again
Yes, we’ve already discussed a Christmas commercial by Coke, but we couldn’t let this one slip by. It’s powerful storytelling in just 30 seconds. We see a man tasked with cooking the Christmas meal, and his grandmother is constantly there, reminding him to get started, gently nudging him on without saying a word. When the family arrives, and everyone sits down to eat, the punchline is revealed – his grandmother has passed, but she was there in spirit, guiding him every step of the way. In this commercial, Coke is exactly right: “The holidays always find a way.”
Storytelling takeaway: Use the surprise factor to increase the emotional impact. The tug at the heartstrings is made more powerful when it is unexpected.
12. Doc Morris
Doc Morris is an online pharmaceutical store in Germany, and this Christmas commercial is an emotion-driven fest for all generations. It opens with a weary grandad looking over photos of his past with sad longing. He lingers on a photo that the viewer can’t see, and then gets a flash of motivation. For weeks, he goes out to the garage and practices lifting a kettlebell as family and neighbors look on with wonder. Finally, Christmas is here and he goes to his daughter’s home for the festive dinner, giving his young granddaughter a Christmas treetop star decoration as a gift. And what does he do next? He lifts her up high so she can put the star on the tree. Yes, it was his granddaughter’s photo that he was looking at all along. Even the background music on its own is enough to get the tears flowing. This is about as Christmas-y as it gets!
Storytelling takeaway: Christmas is the one time when marketers shouldn’t skimp on emotion. Customers are expecting it at this time of year, so let all the sweet and sad sentimentality hang out.
Christmas may not be the right time to shock audiences, and this 2015 ad from the German supermarket chain Edeka is a prime example. Some people loved it, some people hated it. We won’t give away the plot because it’s worth watching for yourself right till the end, to make up your own mind. Bold and daring, definitely. Attention grabbing (both negative and positive), yes. Does it do justice to the tradition of Christmas advertising? The jury’s out.
Storytelling takeaway: The plot twist – the shock factor – can work for you or against you. Use with caution.
We hope these Christmas commercials have tugged sufficiently at your heartstrings to take notice. Use them to inspire your seasonal storytelling and marketing strategy.