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In The Spirit: The Best Holiday Advertising of 2016

Brands advertising during the holidays typically go one of a few ways: sappy, funny, or some combination of both. Here are some great examples from 2016.

Reading Time:20 mins December 13, 2016

This time of year, brands can go in many different directions with their holiday advertising. Iconic holiday-themed campaigns litter the history of the genre, so there’s a lot to live up to. With that added pressure comes a lot of opportunity for exposure.

Much like during the Super Bowl, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are a time when consumers will actually pay attention to the ads they see on television. It’s a simple positive reinforcement loop; since these are the ads that have been entertaining and worthwhile in the past, we unconsciously start to pay more attention to them. And with more eyes on them, more marketing resources go into their creation, and so on and so forth…

But what to do with those extra resources?

One thing for certain is that making the most of the opportunity requires a sensitive understanding of your brand’s audience and the nature of the surrounding noise in your industry. Brands can survive being too sappy – or even too crass – but above all else, their holiday marketing needs to rise above the noise and be memorable.

Here are some examples from this year (so far) that have the best chance of staying in our minds and hearts for years to come. Are we missing any that you loved? Let us know!

Tiffany & Co. – Holiday 2016: Make The World Sparkle

After an election cycle in which economic disparity and grassroots populism ruled the day, it might be surprising to see Tiffany’s flaunt the high-end extravagance of their latest collection. One might think the jewelry company would want to position themselves as accessible to the everyman and woman, not just a select, wealthy few.

But decades of branding can transcend the fickle timing of election seasons. Tiffany’s is counting on their long history of being synonymous with luxury to work with shoppers for the upcoming holiday season. This unwavering consistency can pay off, establishing its brand and its products as a luxury to aspire to, not be embarrassed by.

intu – Holiday Marionettes

Advertisers have a tendency to be conservative with their holiday commercials. Not politically conservative, per se, and certainly not spending-wise, but thematically. It’s a time when consumers are thinking about wholesome ideals: family, tradition, kindness. Brands tap into this by creating ads that reinforce those customs. A perfect example would be John Lewis (more on them in a bit), whose comforting ads are actually anticipated and talked about each year throughout the U.K.

Anytime a trend like this gains popularity, there’s inherent value in going refreshingly against the grain. Such is the thinking of intu, a retail mall chain in the United Kingdom. Here, they opt for holiday zaniness in the form of brightly colored bird puppets doing some lighthearted holiday shopping. The ad also breaks the fourth wall by including the operators of the marionettes – graceful looking men and women all clad in white – in the ad itself. They become part of the performance and add a human element that resonates.

The ad works because it lends uniquely light contrast to the heavy sappiness of most holiday advertisements. Plus, it’s nice to look at.

eBay – The Gift For The One Who’s Been On Her Best Behavior

eBay occupies an interesting place in shopping culture these days. Once a shining star of the late 90s dot com boom, the auction site is less popular today than it once was. Nevertheless, it keeps significant market share by showcasing unique products and souvenirs that buyers can’t find elsewhere.

With this year’s ad, they showcase this product diversity by highlighting the perfect gift for different people at different stages of their lives. For one woman early in the ad, the perfect gift is an opulent engagement ring. For the little girl shown immediately after her, it’s the exact doll she’d been asking for and thinking about for months. Though vastly different in cost, they share the same intrinsic value to each person.

It’s a fairly unoriginal approach, but one that delivers value across a wide range of demographics. Plus, there is a genuine connection between the message and the company. Purchases made on eBay can come from more personally invested impulses, like game-used collectibles from a child’s favorite athlete or an autographed first edition of someone’s favorite book.

Kohl’s – Holiday Dinner

It’s no secret that the wholesome goodness of holiday family gatherings can be underpinned by something not so good: stress. Hosting family members for days at a time, putting together extravagant feasts, keeping everyone happy – it can wear on the best of us.

In this spot for Kohl’s, two elves observe a mom having a bit of trouble handling all the holiday planning. Ever helpers, the elves decide to hop from their backyard perch, sneak in through the kitchen window, and lend a (tiny) hand. In the ad’s predictable but effective twist, it’s not the elves that end up helping her most, but her teenage son, who surprises her by offering to help.

The commercial ends in a moment of calm, with mother and son splitting the tasks of holiday preparation. It’s a touching ending made somewhat comedic by the presence of the still-bemused elves looking on in the background.

Best Buy – Don Rickles Roasting Chestnuts

Don Rickles is a legendary comedian who’s been entertaining audiences for over sixty years. His prickly but self-deprecating temperament made him popular on programs like The Tonight Show and the classic celebrity roasts. In this spot for Best Buy, he serves as a living punchline to a narrator’s joke about “roasting chestnuts,” which he goes on to do in front of a family who laughs hysterically at his jokes.

Rickles is a safe play for commercials in 2016, holiday-themed or otherwise. His brash style, which was edgy in its day, has evolved over time into something more avuncular. Nevertheless, the spot is well-crafted and smartly straddles the line between sincerity and absurdity.

John Lewis – #BusterTheBoxer

John Lewis has established its annual holiday advertisements as veritable cultural events. People (particularly in the U.K.) look out for the ads every year, which always resonate without coming off as overly sappy or emotionally manipulative.

In this year’s installment, two parents lovingly set up the trampoline they’ve purchased as a gift for their young daughter. Throughout the ensuing night, though, all manner of forest animals come crawling out of the woodwork to discover its bouncing, uncanny fun. When the sun finally rises and she comes bounding down the stairs to jump on her new toy, she it outrun by Buster, the family dog, who beats her to the punch.

As you can probably tell, the ad gets more out of its visual style and pacing than it does out of narrative strength. But it is effective in its way, and reminds us how sharing our gifts can be just as fun as receiving them.

Heineken – Traditions #morebehindthestar

Benicio Del Toro has been starring in Heineken commercials for over a year now, starting with self deprecating spots in which he was chronically mistaken for a different actor, Antonio Banderas. This new holiday ad similarly highlights his bone-dry sense of humor. In it, he boasts to the camera about how his world-class acting ability enables him to convincingly appear thrilled when he opens subpar gifts from family members.

The eventual tie-in with the brand is based on the idea that spending time with family is more important than any gift you might receive from them. Here’s Vice President Ralph Rijks on why the ad captures Heineken’s ethos: “Heineken has been family-owned since 1873 so celebrating faimly traditions, especially around the holiday, is core to our culture. With this commercial, our family invites yours to take a momenet, have a laugh, and enjoy Heineken with your loved ones this season.” Considering Heineken’s size, the connection is tenuous at best.

And yet, the ad works because of its star, whose mix of disdain and sincerity deliver a humorous take on the holiday season (and the things we do, say, and imbibe in order to survive it).

Spanish Christmas Lottery – December 21st

Sometimes, it’s not the prize that matters so much as the simple fact of having won it. So discovers the matriarch of a Spanish family in this commercial for the Spanish Christmas lottery. Loteria de Navidad is extremely popular in Spain, doling out rewards of over 2.24 billion euros ($2.43 billion) in 2015.

In this ad, the grandmother mistakenly believes that she has won el gordo, or the big prize, and runs from loved one to loved one to share in the elation. Gradually, they all decide to go along with the falsehood, unable to bring themselves to give her the bad news. Eventually, it becomes clear that the money, in this case, was secondary to her having had a moment of true joy, shared with her family.

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