From Apple to Pornhub, the top holiday ad makers on what it takes to ‘go viral’

What drives us to share holiday videos? Some of the industry’s best explain the methods behind the whimsy.


I’m generally not a fan of commercials. I usually try to avoid them at all costs (which is why I owned on of the first DVRs to hit the market). But like clockwork my tune changes every holiday season. For six or so weeks starting in November I turn on the television hoping to see good holiday ads first, and good shows second. That’s a reasonable expectation too, as so many of the holiday ads now play almost like mini movies, complete with compelling story arcs, resonating scores, and plenty of laughs or tears.


When I find an ad I love I can’t wait to share it on social media, which has to be music to advertisers ears considering how much they spend on advertising in November and December alone. In 2014, US advertisers spent $2 billion airing ads during the holiday season, according to Kantar Media research. Across the pond in the UK, holiday TV ad spending is set to hit £300 million (about $456 million) this year, the best spend since 1998. And that’s not even counting the cost it took to produce the ads, the likes of which ones such as John Lewis’ “Man On The Moon” cost over £1 million ($1.5 million) to make and another £6 million ($9 million) to market.

Needless to say, at these cost levels, advertisers want to get their commercials in as front as many people as possible. They’re looking for spots that not only inform and entertain, but that have those unique qualities that make them shareable–that can make them go viral. But how do you create a viral holiday ad? I spoke to some of the biggest creatives in advertising, who’ve produced some of the most viral holiday ads–from Apple’s to Pornhub’s–of recent years to find out. Here’s what they had to say.

Spot: “The Co-worker Collection – Death Metal Guy”
Brand: Office Depot OfficeMax
Creative: Tom Murphy, Co-Chief Creative Officer, McCann New York

“Firstly, it’s never a good idea to start off by saying, ‘how can we create something that goes viral?’ It’s too daunting, and ultimately most truly viral hits have some combination of insight, magic, and luck that can’t be planned for. However, it’s never a bad idea to say, ‘what do people like to share?’ And one thing people always want to share, at the holidays or any other time of year, is stuff that makes you say ‘wow, that is so true.’ Even better if you depict or articulate things which are true, but which haven’t yet been identified by public media at large. These are the things that become currency in social media.

Secondly, there is no more crowded time of the year for advertising messages than the holidays. Particularly advertising messages of the warm and fuzzy variety. And while it is absolutely possible to have viral success with heart-warming work (something John Lewis has done beautifully, time and time again), taking a different tonal approach helps you cut through.

So with the Co-Worker Collection, we liked that it recognized a truth by giving voice to this weird intimacy we all share with our co-workers. Anyone who has ever worked in close proximity to others can recognize themselves in the idea. And because the holidays are the time of year when a lot of advertisers go super sincere, we consciously chose a tone that ran counter to that.”


Spot: “The Most Touching Gift”
Brand: Pornhub
Creative: Alex Katz, Co-founder and Chief Creative Gentleman, Officer&Gentleman

“When thinking about making a holiday spot, purely with the objective of it going viral, you need to think about how to switch up the usual formula. Every holiday season we see a ton of great work, some that end up being the best ads of the year, but when you take them all in at the same time (as we do), they all just end up blurring together. You are anticipating that tear jerking moment at the end of the spot, because you’ve come to expect it. In our case, we decided to make an ad that would blend in with the rest and just when you thought you knew what was going to happen, we threw you a curveball (in the form of a Pornhub Premium gift card). I think that giving people something refreshing in that respect is why the ad has gone viral.

Of course the client also has a lot to do with it. When you think about Christmas ads you think about brands like Sainsbury’s or John Lewis, but most likely not Pornhub. But why not? They are a company like any other with a widely used product ( receives over 45 million visitors a day). And like any other brand like they want to take advantage of the holiday season to promote what we thought would be a fun gift (and one that may end up being used more often than the Snuggie you got last year). So naturally, when people hear ‘Pornhub’ and ‘Christmas ad,’ they are intrigued. One of the things that worked for us was taking the expectation about the brand and turning it on its head. Giving people a story that could give them a laugh and a smile, but that was SFW enough to share with you parents. Even if it’s just to give them a subtle hint about what you want this Christmas.”

Spots: “Misunderstood,” “The Song,” and “Someday at Christmas”
Brand: Apple
Creative: Duncan Milner, Chief Creative Officer, TBWAMedia Arts Lab

“We’ve been fortunate enough to have had a lot of success with our last three Apple holiday spots. They’ve been shared, talked about, and impacted culture in a way we can only hope for. There’s no real formula for this type of spot other than a ton of hard work by a lot of smart people. But, from my experience, if you can deliver a story that’s truthful and relatable people will connect with it and then want to share it.

Whether the spot is humorous or emotional it needs to based on a truth. A brand truth, a product truth, a cultural truth or a human truth. And it needs to be relatable. We all need to be able to authentically connect to it on some level.

In our 2013 spot, ‘Misunderstood,’ we created a story that’s built around human truths we can all relate to. We start with holiday memories, but address bigger themes too. A family’s struggle to connect with a teen and the way technology is changing how we engage with each other. These are powerful, topical subjects. To lean into these truths even further, we cast a real family. And just like the parents in the spot, the audience feels these tensions and misunderstands the motivations of the teen. They think the worst. But we choose to believe that technology can bring us closer together. That it can help some of us communicate and express ourselves creatively in ways we might not normally be able to. So when we were able to take that stereotypical aloof teenager and turn him into the person, that in the end, celebrates the family traditions and brings the family even closer together, I think that from grandparents to parents to even the teens themselves, that’s a Christmas wish nearly everyone would like to see come true. In the end, we could all see our family holiday in those moments.


In 2014, our holiday spot was called ‘The Song.’ We worked off the truth of the idea that for so many technology has turned giving into an act of convenience. But we also wanted to show that it really provides the power to bring out our thoughtfulness, ingenuity and creativity when we give to someone else.

In this film, we follow a young girl home for ‘the holidays’ who finds an old vinyl recording of her grandmother singing when she was a young woman. The girl decides to turn the recording into a duet between the two of them, as a gift. The moment technology ties together two generations with something so meaningful was immediately relatable and evoked a personal emotion in people worldwide. ‘The Song’ was also adapted in China as ‘The Old Record.’ It was amazing to see the same story so beloved across different cultures.

For the latest holiday spot, ‘Someday at Christmas’ with Stevie Wonder and Andra Day, we approached it differently. The cultural truth was that holiday songs signal a time of hope and joy, and are a hugely important tradition this time of year. We wanted to give people ‘a gift of music’ and given the state of current events, it felt right to find a song that was very hopeful. It was vital that we link it to a brand truth, which is that Apple has always championed creativity for all people, and has made their products accessible for everyone. I think people are able to relate to the feeling expressed by Stevie and Andra in the song, but also to the idea of family and friends coming together to celebrate the holiday.”

Spot: “#GiveCoachOrElse”
Brand: Coach
Creative: Felix Richter, Creative Director, Droga5

“The goals in creating a holiday ad are not far off from creating any brand commercial. It should be surprising, provocative, funny, or emotional storytelling. And while it can be challenging to get around relatively generic approaches that come with a gifting opportunity, there’s always an opportunity to find new and interesting territory.

One way in is to create a cultural tension; to drive conversation by finding something in culture to rub up against. That’s what we did in the case of the Coach holiday film, ‘#GiveCoachOrElse’. We wanted to create something more raw – more unpolished – than people have come to expect from the luxury fashion category, and demonstrate a more modern side to the Coach brand.


Inverting people’s expectations is another route. To take a point of familiarity amongst the audience, and flip it into something truly unexpected. In the case of Coach, we took all of the ingredients of a classic Christmas tale (the crackling fire, and a jolly Santa) and inverted them by bringing a dose of action, creating a surprising turn that makes the ad worthy of sharing.”

Spot: “Christmas Break”
Brand: Kit Kat
Creative: Russell Ramsey, Executive Creative Director, J. Walter Thompson London

“These days, holiday ads have become events in themselves. Every year they seem to become bigger and bigger productions. It’s become an arms race of exotic locations and animations. Someone even went to the moon this year. The films are also getting longer, so they can cram even more emotion in there. Some of them are two or three minutes long. Epic or emotional stories that move people or entertain them. I’m sure they’ve become more expensive to make and they’re also become a lot more indulgent. Advertisers feel that they can stop the hard sell they adopt during most of the year and simply make a film that reflects the personality of the brand. [It] makes people feel warm towards them without necessarily communicating an actual benefit.

Unfortunately holiday season can be a minefield of clichés: trees, snow, family get togethers, turkeys and decorations. Avoiding them but making the film holiday enough is the big challenge. This can however provide the opportunity for a brand to do the complete opposite in order to surprise. We did this with our ad for Kit Kat. No big production. In fact, no production at all. It came across as a refreshing change and maybe reflected what everyone was thinking. It touched on a truth that everyone wanted to share. For films to be shared on a mass scale they need to do one of two things: make the viewer feel something in their heart or make them laugh. So short or long, big or small the key is to entertain.

This really is a time when the films are competing with a wealth of other entertaining content so there has to be something unusual or interesting about them, whatever that may be. But without doubt you need something that makes people want to send it on and say: ‘Hey, have you seen this?’”

Spot: “Mistletoe”
Brand: Gap
Creative: Stuart Jennings, Creative Director, Wieden + Kennedy

“Who knows what makes something go ‘viral.’ This may sound obvious but if I were giving advice, I would just say, ‘Be entertaining.’ That could mean being funny, interesting, provocative, or nostalgic, but if the ad doesn’t make some type of emotional connection with the viewer then they’re probably not going to share it.


Our Gap spot ‘Mistletoe’ had a few things going for it that helped its odds of getting shared. It was set at a holiday party, which made it relevant for the season. It was a relatable moment for anyone who’s been to an awkward neighborhood holiday gathering, which hopefully made it entertaining. And it also didn’t hurt that it was directed by Sofia Coppola. We were very lucky that all of those things came together and helped make ‘Mistletoe’ a memorable part of pop culture, at least for a second or two.”

Spots: “Perfect Aussie Christmas” and “Now this is Christmas”
Brand: ALDI Australia
Creatives: Cam Blackley, Executive Creative Director; Alex Derwin, Creative Director, BMF Advertising

“Our approach for Holiday advertising doesn’t really differ greatly from our philosophy for writing any campaign. A bit of entertainment coupled with some dramatized honesty. Plus, we kind of harp on about the need for a storyline that leaves you feeling good at the end. After all, it’s been a long year; consumers are tired, the clock is ticking and they just want a little smile.

It’s much better is to write something with a real human insight and, at Christmas, most likely something that separates itself from the sweetness and sentimentality of the season – if we’d tried to write a John Lewis ad on our budget it would have been swallowed whole by the juggernaut of schmaltz.

We believe we manage to generate good will and keep Aldi’s tone without the corny stuff. Instead we embrace the imperfection of the Christmas season; all without killing the joy. Last years ‘Perfect Aussie Christmas’ campaign was based on the idea that not everyone would appreciate our strange, southern hemisphere traditions; c’est la vie. This year ‘Perfect Aussie Christmas’ acknowledged just how stressful the lead up to the day is with oven fires, panic buying, petulant children; then gave a little hug and a wink at the end.

And that’s probably the other trick – not to write ads for advertising people. We know that in England the Christmas ad break has been likened to the Super Bowl half time break in the States. That’s a lot of pressure. In Australia there is a lot less pressure to impress the industry with your Christmas ad, which makes being populist and appealing to real people a lot easier.


Look, this time of the year is never going to get less hectic for any of us. Show a bit of empathy and try to get a smile in there…even if the Christmas lights short circuit in the end. That’s as close as a formula as we can give.”

About the author

Michael Grothaus is a novelist, journalist, and former screenwriter. His debut novel EPIPHANY JONES is out now from Orenda Books. You can read more about him at