What are the ingredients of a great Christmas ad? The Bravery Index investigates

In adland, the run up to Christmas is a period of intense competition and big budget showdowns as the top brands battle it out to win their audiences’ hearts.

Each year, the competition intensifies with pressure on John Lewis to beat the previous year’s offering, and pressure on everyone else to knock them off the top spot. But analysing the adverts’ objectively is tricky, with statistical measures influenced by media spend and respondents often influenced by each other.

The Bravery Index presents a solution – a combination of galvanic skin response (GSR), facial coding and eye tracking that allows the agency that developed it, Brave, to analyse and compare the emotional response to different adverts.

This Christmas, Brave invited 24 test subjects into its lab over three days to watch six of the ‘biggest’ ads. Here, the agency's senior planner Sophie Russell takes us through the surprising results, from the lowest scoring to the highest.

No.6 Boots

Boots’ offering sees it celebrate the half million women who work on Christmas day. The narrative follows a classic ‘sad to happy’ structure, something that was clearly reflected in the facial coding results.

The initial somber portion of the advert, where we are introduced to the nurses and paramedics who have to work during Christmas, is reflected in declining levels of joy. Then, as the narrative flips to their makeover, dramatised by Kylie’s cover of Everybody’s Free, levels of joy see a slow rise until the conclusion of the advert.

So why does the advert receive the lowest Bravery Index score? Although we did see levels of joy matching the narrative, the intensity of these emotions was low. ‘Neutral’ was the dominant response at 50%, and it scored the lowest on likeability in a post-testing questionnaire. Tellingly, the advert also received the lowest YouTube views by some margin, at 1.4m.

5. Waitrose

This year’s Waitrose advert follows a Robin on its treacherous journey home, accompanied by a tailored musical composition. Unlike Boots, where the narrative switch, from sad to happy, happens early on, we have to wait until the final moments to be reassured that the Robin made it home in one piece - ready to eat a Waitrose mince pie. Subsequently we see a long period of declining joy throughout the advert, until this final happy moment.

The music is used to provide structure to the speech-free narrative, with tempo and volume adapting to emotive moments such as the robin nearly getting trampled by a fisherman or when he flies over a barren, bitterly cold landscape – both of which see spikes in sadness and anger and drops in joy.

However, like Boots, it fails to deliver the intensity of emotion that some of its competitors do. And again, like Boots, this is matched by a relatively low number of YouTube views – suggesting that this lower emotional response corresponded to lower talkability.

4. Sainsbury’s

This year’s Sainsbury’s advert racked up an impressive 13m YouTube views, second only to John Lewis. So why only number four in our list?

It appears the advert has all the right elements to drive talkability and shareability – James Corden singing, British humour, unique illustrative style – but this didn’t directly translate to a strong emotional response during viewing.

We did see one very big peak in joy during the comic moment of the granny counting her change followed by the manager twerking, but then boredom apparently sets in. The rest of the advert only saw small occasional peaks in joy – including where the character is playing PlayStation with the grannie and when we see his clone for the first time. Perhaps next year Sainsbury’s will reconsider its choice of a three and a half minute long advert.

3. John Lewis

No Christmas ad list would be complete without John Lewis, but despite its runaway YouTube success at 21m views it came in third in our list (albeit just one point below the winners).

John Lewis dramatically changed its strategy this year, moving away from the classic tearjerker into a more fun space. And it was rewarded in the research with levels of joy rising almost constantly from start to finish. Multiple elements delivered spikes in joy - the first view of Buster, when dad finishes building the trampoline, when the foxes are mid-air as ‘someday I’ll fly away’ plays, and when Buster beats the daughter to the trampoline.

Not everyone loved the advert throughout however. Interestingly, men saw 21% lower levels of joy than women, and there were small spikes in disgust and anger as the wild animals jumped on the trampoline.

=1. M&S

M&S has beaten rival John Lewis to joint top spot in the Bravery Index this year. The advert which has received praise online sees Mrs Claus delivering a gift of sparkly red shoes to a young girl at the request of her brother. As well as top scores for emotional response, it also received the highest score for likeability in our post-study questionnaire.

Like any good story, the narrative takes the viewer on a journey of emotions. Joy peaked at heartwarming moments such Mr and Mrs Clause’s kiss goodbye, and her savvy choice of the door instead of her husband’s choice of chimney. Conversely sadness peaked when we saw the siblings fighting.

The last few moments saw a big peak in joy as Mrs Claus invites the audience to share her secret, looking knowingly to camera and saying: ‘well it wouldn’t be fun if you knew all my secrets’.

=1. Heathrow

Joint winner Heathrow may have been dwarfed by Sainsbury’s and John Lewis in terms of YouTube views but, with a relatively tiny media spend, 4m views is still pretty impressive.

The surprise hit told the story of two old bears coming home for Christmas via Heathrow. Levels of joy rose from the very first sighting of the bears, boosted by moments such as the mistletoe kiss and when the bears finally manage to get their bags off the conveyor belt. Declines in joy are only seen during slower moments in the narrative and when grandpa bear manages to make the pile of biscuits collapse.

Emotions end on a high as the bears are reunited with the grandchildren in the last few moments. The emotional story also drove likeability, with the advert coming a close second after M&S.

Conclusions

• This year not one, but two, ads knocked John Lewis off its emotional pedestal – although consumer expectation and fame led to it achieving the highest number of YouTube views yet again.

• This year humour won out against the classic tearjerker – perhaps an antidote to a turbulent year. The only classic tearjerker, Waitrose, languishes one from bottom, while the more popular ads combined positive and negative emotions to deliver a more complex and ultimately positive narrative.

• Music was used as a key tool across all ads to land emotional response, whether dramatising the flip from sad to happy, providing structure, or creating talkability as was the case for Sainsbury’s.

Sophie Russell

Sophie Russell is a senior planner at Brave.

All by Sophie