This Is Why Your Brain Loves That John Lewis Christmas Ad

Consumer neuroscience specialist and CEO of Neuro-Insight Heather Andrew explains why emotional stories make the most effective holiday ads.

This Is Why Your Brain Loves That John Lewis Christmas Ad
[Photo: Flickr user Orange County Archives, courtesy Orange County Archives]

Some may make us laugh, others make us cry, but making a Christmas TV ad stand out from the crowd at this time of year is all about intensity of emotional experience, according to consumer neuro-research firm Neuro-Insight.


Applying neuroscience to explore measures such as emotional intensity and memory encoding is now widely recognised as a key way of assessing advertising effectiveness.

This is because such measures show a better correlation with decision-making and purchasing intent than more traditional measures such as ad recall, according to Neuro-Insight CEO Heather Andrew.

Heather Andrew

“Emotional intensity is one of the measures we look for when researching an ad, as there is a strong link between emotional intensity and what our brains encode to memory,” says Andrew.


Narrative structure is another important consideration, a prime example being John Lewis’s just-launched Christmas 2015 commercial “Man on the Moon.”

“This ad focuses on one story line rather than (a) more traditional montage of Christmas scenes,” says Andrew. “This provides a strong path for the brain to follow, and is likely to trigger high levels of memory encoding, as our brains usually find it easier to follow a single narrative than a sequence of vignettes.”

Further weight is lent to the argument that successful Christmas campaigns are all about emotional intensity by a recent study from research firm MindMover, commissioned by agency RadiumOne. Despite inventing Santa Claus’s distinctive festive look, Coca-Cola comes second to John Lewis in the agency’s survey to find the brand British consumers most closely associate with Christmas.


How Neuro-Insight Ranks 2015 Christmas Ads So Far

“Man On The Moon” created by adam&eveDDB for John Lewis

This ad is likely to trigger a strong emotional response as viewers identify with the developing relationship between the small girl and the old man, says Andrew.

“The slow pace and progressive reveal of the storyline creates anticipation that is likely to drive memory encoding–particularly throughout the beginning of the ad,” she believes.

Narrative focus and use of music (Aurora’s version of the Oasis song “Half the World Away”) linked literally to the visuals are likely to reinforce this. As is the repeated use of close-ups, since our brains are tuned to respond strongly to faces and facial expressions.


Overall, the brain’s response to this ad is likely to be “a bit mixed, and it’s probably not all positive,” Andrew believes. However, she points out, the ad will undoubtedly gain from the connection with previous John Lewis ads and the brand’s strong Christmas ad “equity.”

“If ‘Man on the Moon’ was a stand-alone ad, we would normally warn there was a danger that branding would be missed,” says Andrew. “The ad relies for branding on a single moment at the end which isn’t strongly related to the preceding narrative. However, John Lewis Christmas ads aren’t ‘normal ads.’”

Hits: Single narrative focus; smart use of emotion
Misses: Light on Christmas cues; light on branding


‘#BecauseitsChristmas’ – created by VCCP for Asda

“The words on screen reinforce what’s being said in an obvious way, so it’s likely the brain will ‘get’ the written messages without having to work particularly hard at making sense of the visuals,” says Andrew.

But this might be a mixed blessing.

“Language is a left-brain response, and so, with the focus on written messages, consumers may respond more strongly to the left-brain, more rational elements of the ad–possibly at the expense of some of the emotional imagery, which is more associated with right-brain activity,” she adds.


“This ad is likely to have poor brand linkage, as the only branding is right at the end of the ad and could well be missed,” says Andrew.

A possible problem is something called conceptual closure. “What occurs when the brain senses a series of events has come to an end and takes a short ‘time out’ to process what it’s just seen,” says Andrew.

In short, the ‘Because it’s Christmas’ line could well act as a resolution to the narrative, triggering conceptual closure ahead of the Asda brand sign-off.


Hits: Clarity
Misses: Brand association (light)

‘What Makes Your Christmas?’ – created by adam&eveDDB for Waitrose

“This is a more conventional Christmas TV ad route by using familiar Christmas cues that will help the brain tap into associative memories, and is likely to result in a strong and positive emotional response,” Andrew says. “While the lyrics of the music used (Jeanne Burns’s ‘Everybody Eats When They Come to My House’) match the visuals in quite a few places, the link between the two isn’t always overt and obvious, which presents a slight puzzle for the brain, and probably encourages it to work at making sense of what’s going on.

“This is likely to help keep the brain engaged and involved in the ad. The recurring characters are also likely to drive the brain’s continued involvement.”


Hits: Good use of Christmas cues and nostalgia; music
Misses: Weak branding (possibly)

“The Lidl School of Christmas” – created by TBWA, London for Lidl

“The ad gets branding in at the start and reinforces it with a similar scene at the end,” says Andrew. “Repetition is one of the things our brains look out for and is likely to subconsciously signal something is important, so there’s a good chance of branding in this ad being well-encoded into memory.”

The emotional component is less strong than the other three ads, however. “And, as already discussed, there is a strong link between emotional intensity and memory encoding,” says Andrew. “However, this is probably appropriate to the Lidl brand, which is about delivering exceptional value rather than creating an emotional experience.”


Hits: Strong branding; engaging content
Misses: Light on emotion


About the author

Meg Carter is a UK-based freelance journalist who has written widely on all aspects of branding, media, marketing & creativity for a wide range of outlets including The Independent, Financial Times and Guardian newspapers, New Media Age and Wired.