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Endearing or manipulative? The emotional psychology behind Christmas advertising


How can you usually tell when Christmas is just around the corner? Do you finally accept its inevitability once you’ve eaten your first mince pie of the year? Maybe you get into the festive spirit early after hearing Mariah Carey belt out ‘All I want for Christmas’ in mid-October. Or perhaps you’re a late bloomer and only grab the tinsel out of the attic once you’ve watched Home Alone on VCR.


Over the past 10 years, a new tradition has emerged and developed to engage older audiences whilst also capturing the imaginations of millennials who are growing up in the digital age. The Christmas advert has become a revelation, pioneered primarily by John Lewis. Most people, especially the younger generations, now even view this commercial as the official kick-off for Christmas.


To highlight this, searches for ‘John Lewis’, one of the biggest retail stores in the country, increase enormously over Christmas in anticipation of the advert and to search for it online.

Google Trends 1Source: Google Trends


The following graph also illustrates how the search term ‘christmas advert’ has risen on Google since 2004. Rather obviously, the spikes in interest appear every November when the ads are first released to much fanfare and social sharing. Interestingly, this trend has no inclination in slowing down with 2018 set to be the highest year on record in terms of search interest.


Sainsbury’s have even partnered up with Hollywood director Michael Gracey, for their 2018 attempt, underlining the importance and value of getting the ad right.

 Google Trends 2

Source: Google Trends


Furthermore, this seems to be a custom primarily adopted in the UK, responsible for containing the top 4 regions in the world who have the highest proportion of search queries related to ‘christmas adverts’, followed by New Zealand, UAE and South Africa. 


So why are Christmas adverts such a big deal and do they work? John Lewis discovered this holy grail of an answer in 2007 and haven’t looked back since; Emotional marketing.


This should really come as no surprise to marketers and others in the industry - studies show that people rely on emotions, rather than information, to make brand decisions, whether that be happiness, anger, surprise or sadness. Logic justifies the decision, but emotions always come first. They are commonplace in ads throughout the year but are ramped up tenfold during the countdown to Christmas in order to pray on the sentiment of their consumers during the busiest sales period of the year because when they work, they have us grabbing for our tissues and our wallets.


Which brings up the question of whether this emotional marketing can be construed as manipulative.


Iceland has been all over the news for their banned advert deemed too ‘political’ for TV featuring a little girl and an orangutan. The 90-second clip tugs at the heartstrings with its childlike narration and simple animation style making the candid approach to the palm oil crisis causing deforestation all the more impactful.


Clearly aimed at appealing to all ages, and getting younger children to ask questions to their parents, some cynics have suggested this was all a ploy from Iceland to intentionally get the commercial banned. They knew the uproar that would unfold on Twitter over this notable issue would bring eyes to the ad no matter what, leaving the Supermarket counting the millions they just saved in media spend.


Even John Lewis can’t go without criticism. Elton John plays centre stage this year, but is it just a coincidence that his biopic movie comes to the big screen early next year and his tour dates were announced the same day as the ad dropping? Endearing Christmas advert or was there another agenda? We’ll let you make your own mind up.


While emotional marketing should be encouraged in promoting a product, it must feel genuine and honest in order to work. Marketers need to truly understand both the audience and the brand’s identity in order to really create that connection.