‘Tis the season of Christmas ads for the big UK retailers. We took a look at the data to see which companies are triumphing in the unofficial competition in 2018 so far.

It’s become a peculiarly British tradition to get extremely excited about Christmas ads around this time of year. Beginning in early to mid-November, this has become a serious competition between retailers since department store John Lewis began spending big on its Christmas advertising in the late noughties.

It’s become the Super Bowl advertising of British retail, with all of the big supermarkets and more besides competing with each other to tug on our heartstrings. Notable examples in recent years have included Monty the Penguin from John Lewis finding his perfect match, and Sainsburys’ First World War a few years ago.

Much like the Super Bowl advertisements on this side of the pond, these are less a commercial for what’s an offer, and more of a quasi-cinematic event, to show just how creative the brands (and the ad agencies they’re employing) can be.

So what’s leading the charge this year so far? We took a look at what’s driving engagement on web and social, as well as what have been the biggest hits on YouTube so far.  

Christmas ads on the web

The most discussed Christmas ad in terms of the earned media it drove is actually one that won’t even be hitting the screens this year, though of course that doesn’t mean people will not see it.

Iceland’s Christmas ad, which has been banned by regulators for being too political, featured the story of Rang Tan, whose home has been destroyed by humans in pursuit of palm oil, and is principally a pledge by the company not to use products that contain palm oil, and a call for others to do the same amid raised awareness of the issue.

The ad was banned by the Advertising Standards Agency on behalf of OFCOM, but the Streisand effect is not to be ignored, with the controversy around the banning whipping up a storm of conversation and outrage, with the effect that the ad ended up driving a huge amount of both engagement and views.

Of the top ten stories about Christmas ads on the web this year so far, half came from discussion around the Iceland ad’s banning, with the top article from LBC garnering more than one million engagements. The video also has 5.4 million views on YouTube to date.

If anything, this shows the power of controversy, and the Iceland ad has walked a fine line between doing enough to be banned, while still appealing to the emotions of the public. It’s not enough to be banned to go viral, you have to be banned for the right reasons.  

Beyond the Iceland ad, there was another surprise viral hit being talked about on the web, thanks to a £50 budget ad that was actually made back in 2014 by Phil Beastall.

While not really an advertisement for anything in particular per se, the short Christmas film plays on the power of love as a gift and the importance of having your loved ones around you on during the holiday season.

The ad quickly went viral across both Twitter and Facebook, with calls for him to be hired by the big retailers to do their ads for them next year. It’s the perfect example of using a planned event to reshare evergreen content, with a short Christmas film from four years ago repackaged as an example of a potential Christmas ad in a right place, right time viral sensation.

Beyond these two viral pieces it was John Lewis’s ad that stood out, as it often does, and that will be a theme for the rest of this piece.

The ad sees Elton John reminiscing about his journey through music and time, going back further and further in his life until the end of the advert, where we see childhood Elton receiving his first piano as a gift at Christmas time.

It’s been hugely successful so far, especially on YouTube where it has driven over 10 million views to date.
But what about on Facebook? What is driving engagements in terms of native content?  

Christmas ads on Facebook

Most of the most engaged posts about Christmas ads on Facebook came from the ads themselves being shared by the brands and viral publishers such as UNILAD.

The top post this time was from Iceland’s own Facebook Page, sharing its banned ad to drive almost one million engagements to date.

They have leaned in to the banning as part of their marketing strategy, emphasizing that you will only be able to view the video online, because it won’t be hitting TV screens due to the ban being in effect.

John Lewis’ ad did well on its own Facebook Page, as did German retailer Aldi, with its Kevin the Carrot Cliffhanger video driving 84,000 engagements.

One tactic for these retailers is to be shared by viral publishers such as UNILAD, which worked here for McDonald’s whose reindeer focused ad drove the second highest number of engagements thanks to its sharing by UNILAD’s Facebook Page.  

Christmas ads on YouTube

In terms of raw viewing numbers on YouTube for the big brands and retailers, John Lewis has been the clear winner so far from the traditional retailers, with over 10 million views of its Elton John Lewis campaign.

Beyond that, Argos did well with its Christmas Fool ad, and Sainsbury’s came out on top of the non-Iceland supermarkets with its school play themed commercial.

Waitrose, which is owned by the same company as John Lewis, performed fairly well with an extremely self-aware ad that talked about how much people always love the John Lewis Christmas ad, and how it has become an event to gather round the television in some households now.

So those are the Christmas ads that have driven engagement so far this year. If there are any takeaways, it’s that nostalgia will always work for these big, cinematic adverts, as John Lewis has proven here. Family is also a theme that was drawn out, especially in the budget ad, while Iceland toed the line to be just controversial enough to be talked about but not put off the public at large.

Want to see more Christmas trends? Download our winter holidays trends report.  

Benedict Nicholson

Benedict Nicholson is the Managing Editor at NewsWhip. An Englishman in New York, he is interested in the intersection of PR, brands, and journalism, and the trends and innovation around that.

Email Benedict via benedict.nicholson@newswhip.com.

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