Who made the best Christmas TV advert this year? Biometrics has the answer...

Garret Cunningham

There are a few traditions we have all become accustomed to in the lead up to Christmas, from Black Friday to the Coca-Cola truck, but the one that generates the most debate now are the Christmas TV ads.

Every year consumers eagerly await as some of the UK’s top retailers go head to head in the fight to release the most engaging and emotive ad to win their hearts and wallets.

Initially dominated by John Lewis with a string of Christmas ads pulling at the UK public’s heartstrings, their ability to recreate that feeling year after year is under question as competitors step up their efforts.

At Endless Gain, we focus on understanding consumers’ emotions when they engage with our customers’ websites. By understanding their emotions, we can then optimise them, reducing negativity and helping our clients be sure the experience users have when visiting their website is positive.

With the ability to measure an individual’s emotional response to stimuli, such as websites, images and videos we thought it would be fun to turn this to the Christmas TV ads and stretch our analytical muscles to see what we can uncover.

Having listened to the debate year after year, and witnessed industry commentators declare winners based on their own opinion and which social media influencers shouted the loudest, we decided to put a few of the ads through our biometrics lab to truly understand, which retailers were able to drive a true emotional response within their audience.

We wanted to measure, which ad created the greatest emotional response from the UK public when they watched it, whether that reaction was positive or negative, and how that influenced their brand recall and preference.

To complete the study, we chose 6 well-recognised retailers, who all had released Christmas ads within the 5 days before the study: Asda, Aldi, Argos, John Lewis, Marks and Spencer and Very.co.uk.

Unfortunately, our timing meant that we missed Debenhams entry to the foray as it was released 24 hours after our study concluded.

The Methods

To study the emotional response, we relied on the Biometric analysis tools we have within our lab to measure the physiological responses of the audience watching the ads:

  1. Galvanic Skin Response (GSR): We used this to measure changes in skin conductance. Increased Skin Conductance is an indication of arousal. This reaction is the same whether the stimulus is positive or negative.
  2. Electro Encephalogram (EEG): This was used to measure prefrontal asymmetry. We record and compare the difference in activity between the two frontal lobes of the brain. This indicates the approach (positive) or avoidance (negative) feelings of the participants.
  3. Facial Recognition: The facial expression analysis was carried out through AFFECTIVA in iMotions. Using identifiable points on the audience’s face we can measure their emotional reaction. From Joy to Surprise, Anger, Disgust and Fear.
  4. Eye Tracking: Using market-leading Tobii Eye Tracking equipment, we monitored what areas within each ad drew the audience’s attention and focus. Pupil dilation was also collected as an additional measure for arousal.
  5. Combining all of these together enables us to analyse the effect each ad had on our audience as a whole, but also moment by moment, to know exactly what was happening on screen and what it was our audiences were looking at, that triggered the emotional reaction, and how significant it was.
  6. Unprompted Brand Recall: We followed up the session with a user survey asking each participant to list all the retailers they recalled seeing ads for unprompted.
  7. Prompted Affinity Scoring: As a final measure, we also asked each participant to rate each of the ads in order of preference 1 for their favourite to 6 for their least favourite.

The Findings

So, what did we learn from analysing the biophysiological responses of over 100 ads being watched by the general public?

Our analysis indicates Aldi had the most engaging ad. For 30% of the ad’s length, the audience registered a significant change in their emotions.

M&S had the second-highest level of emotional arousal at 22%, with Asda lagging behind the others with less than 15%.

However, when we split this by positive emotional engagement versus negative, Aldi again stood out but this time for leaving viewers with negative emotions for the greatest proportion of time.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. Each ad appeared to interject happiness and positivity with turmoil and danger; so just because a user demonstrated fear or sadness, it may well have been intentional, and so cannot be looked at as a negative factor for the ad itself.

M&S lead the way on positive emotions.

The audience spent close to 12% of the duration of the ad experiencing positive emotions.

M&S’s Paddington ad was also the only ad to make users feel good for a longer period than they felt bad. Interestingly at no point did viewers feel Paddington was in danger, instead the audience accompanied him on a journey of doing good and turning a bad person into good.

The biggest surprise (or maybe not) of all the emotions was that John Lewis and Moz failed to ignite the hearts of our audience. The John Lewis ad sat mid-table for the level of emotional impact, with as many positive as negative emotions being generated.

So which ads were the most memorable and which did users reference as their favourite?

Ads were shown in a random order to the audience to avoid any influence of recency.

Aldi, Asda, John Lewis and M&S all proved highly memorable, however, Argos and Very failed to make an impression on almost half of the audience.

We thought it would be interesting to investigate the presence of each retailer’s logo within the ad and how much attention they gained.

How does this relate to how the viewers rated the videos?

Argos and M&S displayed their logos for the longest of all the retailers and were seen by 100% of the audience, yet Aldi and Asda both generated a greater level of brand recall. This appears to indicate that just because the logo is shown, and is seen, it does not mean it will be remembered.

When M&S displayed their logo, they also showed Paddington’s which attracted the user’s attention, potentially diluting the impact on the user affecting the brand recall.

Argos, in contrast to the other advertisers, finished their ad with their logo and a much more direct response lead message of ‘Shop Now’, as well as being the only advertiser to feature a human on the closing screen at the same time as the logo. This may have had an impact on the visual hierarchy of the screen with multiple objects distracting the audience’s focus; the red Argos logo, Purple Call To Action, Human Face, and a yellow toy.

Key Moments

Aldi achieved peak Joy with their Pea based punchline.

The delivery of Kevin the Carrot’s punchline generated the highest level of Joy for the duration of the Aldi ad.

Paddington was the big draw for M&S. However, once he left the screen so did the audience’s attraction.

Pupil dilation dropped signalling a drop in the emotional engagement of our audience.

Very delivered consistent emotional engagement for the audience throughout.

Arousal levels did not reach 0 at any point.

Moz appeared to be the star for John Lewis.

Each time Moz appeared on screen, pupils dilated which can be interpreted as an increase in emotion, and decreased when he was off screen.

The Verdict

The analysis of the audience’s emotional reactions indicates M&S won the competition for the most positively engaging ad this Christmas.

Not only did we see this in the level of emotional engagement seen in the audience, but more of the audience also rated it as their favourite of the five ads.

The data indicated Aldi was the second most engaging ad, but a predominantly negative reaction was only recovered by a clever punchline.

Soft and fury idents emerged as the way to the nations hearts this year. And Paddington showed that a familiar character can create better emotional engagement than trying to introduce the audience to a new one, as John Lewis did.

Worth Noting

One of the key reasons we utilise biometric data to understand the emotional responses of users, is that the data we collect is based on involuntary responses.

We remove the bias of the audience wanting to please us and tell us what we want to hear, or just making it up on the spot.

This is also one of the reasons we have not dwelled too much on which ads the users rated as their favourite, but it was still interesting to collect this information, especially to uncover that audience members who didn’t include an ad in their unprompted recall, still rated it as their favourite.

It’s a good thing we know how they really felt about it as opposed to what they say about it…