I love the holidays. And, like some people look forward to Super Bowl commercials, I wait for holiday spots to come out.
The winter holidays are a unique time for marketers to do one of the things we do best – tell stories that connect with audiences in meaningful ways. Holiday ads use a mix of sentimentality, humor and a lot of relatability to engage shoppers and the kiddos who influence buying decisions.
This year we see ads that use throwback songs like “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds – a personal favorite from the classic John Hughes flick “Breakfast Club” – and Donna Summers’ disco classic “I Feel Love” to connect with parent-aged adults. In addition to some solid musical choices, we’re also delighted by appearances from classic figures including E.T., who returns to Earth after 37 years to visit Elliot at Christmas time, and Oscar The Grouch, who finally gets what he wants for Christmas: to be as miserable as he’s ever been. Tech companies Apple and Microsoft continue to show us that their products do more to connect us than distract us, and we have to give them some credit for their efforts.
Overall, 2019’s holiday roundup feels solid. Here are my favorite picks for the season.
This animated spot from Chicago-based supermarket chain IGA shows a friendship built on a love of food, tying nicely to IGA’s business model. Following a grade-school-aged boy and girl through this two-minute, dialogue-free animation, we are reminded that shared experiences and generosity build relationships. The ad has a unique place on this list since the only reference to the holidays is at the very end of the video, where the story relies on holiday spirit to make the payoff work. The ad finally closes with the line “Sharing is everything” on screen.
Target, “Thinking of You”
Everything about what happens in this ad screams, “Target!” You definitely know who’s talking to you — in a good way — when you watch this ad. The script is written to be inclusive of the wide range of needs that Target fulfills for its diverse customer base, showing us over and over again what a perfect holiday should look like. This ad is all about the sparkle and shine of the holidays, using a reboot of Donna Summers’ “I Feel Love” to ironically reference the holiday spirit and familial connections while creating a sound bed that perfectly supports the Instagrammable scenes in the ad. The art direction, which focused on bold, poppy colors, is undeniably of the moment and very pretty. Target took care to consider inclusivity in the spot, showing consumers from different age, race, gender and ability profiles. They also get a bonus for giving Bullseye, the brand’s mascot, a prime cameo. Target didn’t really make me feel sentimental, but they did make me feel like shopping.
Created for McDonald’s UK audiences, this spot focuses on the wonderment of childhood imagination to position the global fast-food chain as reliable and family-friendly, showing how the convenience and familiarity they provide can bring us together. The spot uses a “Wizard of Oz”–like approach to highlight the fine line between fantasy, shown in animated sequences, and reality, shown in live-action. The story relies on the youngest member of a family to show us the importance of spending time together, especially in the small, in-between moments. The spot highlights McDonald’s #ReindeerReady campaign, which has a microsite social media component to support it in the UK. McDonald’s patrons really can get reindeer treats in their neighborhood location: Restaurants have holiday-branded carrots on their menus for the season. 10/10 will be dressing my dog up as a reindeer before 2019 is over.
IKEA, “Silence the Critics”
IKEA takes a big risk this year and pulls it off, coming at us with a jab and a left hook – albeit a hilarious one – aimed at our insecurities about our homes, during a time of year when we feel extra pressure to have picture-perfect party decorations and table settings. Taking a fully absurdist approach to concept and execution, the retailer animates Christmas ornaments rapping disses aimed at their family about the state of their home. Supported by the headline “The Wonderful Everyday” (and hashtag #wonderfuleveryday), the message that our living spaces are supposed to be on-point all the time is heard loud and clear, but the campaign also speaks to IKEA’s position as a simple, affordable solution to making our homes comfortable. The song is original and has an updated production style, but the lyrics seem to work on another level for me, harkening back to the early days of hip-hop when lyrics were almost exclusively focused on self-aggrandizing or dissing someone else. This was a huge risk for IKEA that I think paid off, as the ad is surprising and funny. They get a special commendation for taking such a big risk.
John Lewis & Partners and Waitrose & Partners, “Excitable Edgar”
John Lewis & Partners, a high-end department store with locations in the UK, Ireland and Australia, and British supermarket chain Waitrose are responsible for this adorable and endearing spot. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you had the best of intentions but just couldn’t quite seem to get it right, this spot is for you. This wonderful underdog story checks all the boxes on the Uplifting Holiday Commercial Checklist. Thowback REO Speedwagon hit rerecorded to sound extra aspirational? Check. Cinematography showing a bright winter day? Done. Adorable little girl? Yep — she even has freckles. Endearing CGI dragon sidekick who accidentally lights the town Christmas tree on fire? LOL. Notably, the ad doesn’t focus on shopping or any products that either partner sells, a much different approach from those taken by United States–based Amazon and Target. This one got me in the feels a little.
Amazon, “Amazon Holiday 2019”
The biggest retailer in the world has a lot more to accomplish come holiday time than brand-building sentimentality, and this ad supporting a larger seasonal initiative does a nice job of it. This spot shows us singing boxes imbued with holiday spirit leading a chorus of “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love,” the blues classic by Solomon Burke, celebrated more recently by the Blues Brothers. The spot shows us diverse consumers and delivery people who are so enthusiastic about their orders, Amazon’s services and the holidays that they break into song and dance led by our faithful Amazon boxes. As the chorus repeats “I need you,” I have to wonder if the message is that we need the contents of the boxes or each other. Amazon’s upbeat holiday concept will be extended to a full range of platforms including online video, digital, radio, print, out of home, social and seasonal box tape.
Xfinity, “A Holiday Reunion”
After 37 years, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial comes back to visit Elliot and realizes that technology has changed Earth. This spot is full of nods to the 1980s, including cameos by Raggedy Ann and E.T.’s favorite earthly delight, Reese’s Pieces. The mix of nostalgia for the past with adorable scenes of E.T. exploring the technology that Xfinity services bring to life is heartfelt and has been well received by critics and audiences. It takes a figure like E.T. to shed some holiday light and add an element of humanity to a large corporation that’s commonly associated with customer support issues and increasing service costs. The ad was created with the full blessing of famed director Steven Spielberg, sparking rumors about an E.T. sequel or reboot, which at the time of writing has been neither confirmed nor denied.
Apple, “The Surprise”
I’ve been biased in favor of Apple since their 2013 classic ad, Misunderstood. As a company, Apple has changed the way we live, and year after year they use holiday stories focused on individual family dynamics to demonstrate how their products can help connect us with one another. Rather than focusing on perfect holiday outcomes, Apple looks at the realistic and messy side of the holidays. This year, days full of blunders and annoyances finally resolve on a family remembering their grandmother who has passed away. It’s also worth noting that the spot was filmed in a real house, not a sound stage. There are some similarities between “The Surprise” and “Misunderstood” in that the ads address perceived detachment among family members and how a focus on Apple devices can end with a heartfelt payoff.
Squarespace, “Make It Real”
What happens when Oscar the Grouch achieves fame, riches and critical acclaim? He’s as miserable as he’s ever been, which is the best gift a grouch can get. This spot makes great use of a “Sesame Street” favorite to tell a sweet story about how it’s the thought that counts, and maybe we all get what we want in the end. Squarespace doesn’t focus too much on their services or the holidays in this spot, but they include both at well-timed and critical points in the story to make the ad relevant to their brand. It’s fun to watch and helps viewers feel like a kid again, leaving an overall impression that Squarespace is so easy and effective that users can’t help but reach their dreams.
Microsoft, “Holiday Magic: Lucy & the Reindeer”
Another solid contributor to the holiday commercial space year after year, Microsoft makes a strong showing in 2019 with a funny spot that highlights how children are embracing technology. It can be noted that this spot launched during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, just in time for Black Friday. The underlying message of bridging language gaps and bringing us closer together hits the mark for my sentimental heart in this spot with a funny payoff.
Argos, “Book of Dreams”
This spot starts out big with the iconic opening drum beat from Simple Minds’ contribution to the classic “Breakfast Club” movie soundtrack, “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” The spot acknowledges that even adults like to play and pretend, and sharing the fun with the children in their lives makes it even better. I love this spot for doing a great job of reminding us how toys help us all dream big. It’s sentimental, sweet, engaging, energetic, and works for the brand and product all at once.
Lastly, we can’t have a post about holiday commercials without a brief mention of the Peloton ad that spun heads. I’m challenged to come up with another television commercial credited with a $942 million stock drop. Ryan Reynolds deserves a drink on us for his response ad promoting his Aviator Gin, featuring the actress from the Peloton commercial, which implies the gift of an expensive exercise bike might work wonders on the glutes, but wreaks havoc on a marriage.
We hope watching our round-up put you in the holiday mood, have an eggnog for us and until next year, happy holidays.