John Lewis’s Christmas ad apparently not sad enough to rank among its best

’Unexpected Guest’ deviated too far from the winning John Lewis formula, according to emotional response data from System1.

The John Lewis Christmas ad is an annual event in the UK, and for almost a decade now audiences have looked forward to its top-level production as a bookend to their years. There has been much debate, however, around how 2021 effort ‘Unexplained Visitor’ lives up to previous spots. As The Drum finds out, a study suggests it wasn’t quite sad enough.

The bar has been set almost impossibly high by Adam&EveDDB’s productions. The weight of expectation is immense, but the subjective quality of each ad can fluctuate as long as people keep treating the campaign like essential viewing. Rivals would kill for that emotional availability alone. But with that comes intense scrutiny – sometimes from those rivals. No ad gets picked apart quite as much. With that said, let’s pick it apart.

Research from System1, a database rating about 95% of UK ads, looks at long-term brand growth (Star Rating) and short-term sales growth (Spike Rating). The Star Rating captures the emotional response to an ad – viewers are asked what they felt, and how strongly, at certain points of the ad. This charts the moments that land and how they did it. The algorithm then also rates the composition of an ad to work out if it is structurally sound: with a poor soundtrack, emotional moments won’t land, for example, or a story without friction might not have the release of emotion in the conclusion. These elements are fairly quantifiable.

’Unexpected Guest’ scored a 3.1 Star Rating (it’s ranked between 1 and 5.9). This is ’good’ but not great, sitting in the middle of the pack of 2021 Christmas ads. Like 71.4% of Christmas ads analyzed so far this year, it took an ‘exceptional’ Spike Rating, meaning it’ll probably succeed in driving (some of) the needed sales. But will we remember it next year?

There was ‘strong’ branding in the ad, but John Lewis doesn’t need to overstuff its ads with product or branding – it is appointment viewing, the public knows the formula and could pick it out on TV with little effort.

But here’s the interesting bit. Face-tracing the emotions of a national representative segment of Brits showed that most people were happy with the spot, although it flattened out in the final two-thirds – perhaps due to the lack of friction or adversity in the script [see graph below]. Being generally happy with an ad doesn’t quite provide the journey the retailer may well need to take us on.

It’s the lowest scoring ad since 2016’s Man on the Moon, famously parodied by Aldi. That’s the ad that forced a creative soul search from the agency.

The highest scorer was 2019’s ’Excitable Edgar’, which delivered a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the narrative [see graph below]. It’s that intense array of emotions that make you feel like you’ve experienced something bigger. It’s a lot to fit into a 30-second spot.

The next two best performers are ’Monty the Penguin’ [my favorite] and the ’Boy and the Piano’ [my second favorite].

System1’s chief marketing officer Jon Evans says that John Lewis once again “went back to basics,” showing an “unusual friendship and capturing its essence through thoughtful gifting”.

He says: “It plays like a miniature version of ET, with teenage boy Nathan finding alien visitor Skye in the woods and teaching her about Christmas. The ad breaks new ground for John Lewis with a hint of extraterrestrial romance, and as usual brings us an acoustic cover of a pop classic."

Evans has already seen Boots and M&S outperform John Lewis this year in his database, but that’s no great sin. Boots went all in on the emotion of gifting, almost acknowledging that last year was lost to us, and M&S dug out its most beloved asset, Percy Pig.

“The story – like Skye’s ship – didn’t land properly,“ Evans continues. “John Lewis ads work best when the storytelling is strong. Each ad has an emotional journey – the second-by-second shifts in emotion viewers feel as they watch.”

Essentially, he feels it deviated from the John Lewis formula in “creating then resolving sadness”. Perhaps Adam&EveDDB decided to dial down the sadness this year due to external global factors. That’s understandable.

Evans says: “The story is literally flat. It’s not boring – the intensity of emotion is quite high – but it’s not at all dynamic.”

Compare and contrast ’Unexpected Visitor’ with ’Excitable Edgar’ below.

You can watch all the previous John Lewis ads here.

System1 has also ranked the five highest-performing ads in October here. Quaker Oats took the top spot.