December 11, 2023
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8 mins

The anatomy of an iconic holiday ad

Historical lessons from advertorial, print, and media that unravel the creative drivers of festive advertising success.
Media

I’m a sucker for the festive season. The smell of pine needles, gingerbread people, and mulled wine just do it for me. The crisper the air, the better, and don’t get me started on skating down icy sidewalks with a blanket scarf.

There is, however, one thing that gets me in a Grinch-like frenzy…and that’s timing (or lack of it). Festivities cannot start before Day X in my calendar. That includes Mariah Carey on the radio, snowglobes in supermarket aisles, and even the “holidays are coming” ads. All of these are overkill if it’s before December 1. But, “why am I like this?” you’d be right to ask. Long story short, my aunt has been joking about putting her tree up since early August…1993."

But, if we put all that aside, oh the joys of festive advertising.

Let’s forget the more-than-questionable dates that advertisers broadcast their wintry campaigns and spread bundles of festive cheer. They’ve clearly earned a shimmering, bauble-red pass for helping to shape many of our modern-day festive celebrations. We just want to know how they did it.

So, here we go ho ho.

The advent of TV advertising

Commercials go all the way back to the genesis of television, with the earliest advertising campaigns starting in the mid-20th century. The first-ever ad is somewhat underwhelming; it’s from 1941, 10-seconds long, black and white, static with a watch image, and narrated with just five words.

It’s safe to say we’ve come a long way.

The first festive ads appeared quite a while later in the early 1960s. Quick disclaimer: This 1961 ad would not be suitable for present-day television (or any other platform for that matter). It’s a 30-second clip where the narrator asks “Now, what would Mother really like for Christmas?”

And you guessed it: a vacuum cleaner. But thankfully, this outdated footage bears almost no resemblance to the now wide-spread festive imagery (with the exception of a spruce tree), focusing solely on the product, the product capabilities and finally…the product pricing. Nothing too exciting. But at least we have the first big staples of festive advertising: a present, a tree and seasonality. We’re just far from storytelling, connection, engagement, recall, and emotion.

Bah humbug. Let’s fast-forward to where it gets a little more exciting.

A new benchmark: The Coca-Cola Company

The Coca-Cola Company, with its reputation for trailblazing and benchmark-setting, was one of the first brands to swoop in and leverage seasonal trends as part of its marketing and advertising strategy. And since the beverage-selling giant still has a large part of the population humming “holidays are coming,” the team must be doing something right. But where did all their seasonal advertising magic begin?

Spoiler: It started with a well-known festive figure and print advertising in popular magazines.

Left: 1931 advertisement by The Coca-Cola Company. Right: Attention heat map of the same image, generated using SmartAssets. The blue highlights the areas on the ad that attract attention.

This is The Coca-Cola Company’s iconic ad from 1931, depicting the most modern and well-known version of Santa Claus.

Just think: Without this popularized version of Old Saint Nicholas, we could be looking at a very different, tall, grim-looking man or a gloomy elf in blue satin robes. And The Coca Cola Company really did make an effort to incarnate its brand identity in its festive knight; dressed head-to-toe in a nuance similar to Coca-Cola red with an immaculate white beard, and cheerily sporting a refreshing glass of Coke. The artwork was created by Michigan-born illustrator, Haddon Sundblom, who drew inspiration from pre-existing images and poetry, infused with cheer, imagination and—most evidently—Coca Cola.

It has to be said again: Hat’s off.

The brand association is a testament to the power that advertising has to make long-lasting impressions. And the Father of festive celebrations has just about been converted into a seasonal brand mascot.

The anatomy of the ad

I ran this ad through Stagwell Marketing Cloud’s creative analytics tool, SmartAssets, which breaks both static and video assets down at creative component-level and measures the different drivers of creative effectiveness. Ultimately, I was looking to gauge the types of insights the platform could offer for a completely different zeitgeist. Here are just some of the flags that came back:

  1. Platform relevance: The most obvious piece of feedback was that this was not suitable for any of the current advertising platforms. Yet, since this was a printed ad from the early 1930s, this wasn’t a big shocker. To illustrate, the asset scored low in resolution, size, format and hashtags. All of which are easily updatable in the SmartAssets platform.
  2. Attention score: Brand prominence rated highly despite the brand logo being on a billboard in the background and the omitted letter in the tagline (a full health check requires brand guidelines and tagline variations to be configured). The editorial title gains significant prominence and viewer attention is also drawn to a friendly face.
  3. Colorway and optimization: The color-palette breakdown screams “Season’s Greetings!” with a festive mix of greens, reds, browns and whites which are typical at this time of the year. The platform uses historical data to recommend in-platform asset optimizations that resonate best with your audience, including what the best performing color palette is,compared with the one used.  

I asked Eric Walzthöny, SmartAssets’ co-founder & CTO, for his insights. “I find this ad particularly interesting since the focus isn’t on the product itself. The emphasis pivots around the brand logo, which is in the background but still very salient,” he observes.

“Since the brand has infused the character of Santa Claus with its own identity—and the ad features him raising the product in the air—we view him as a product cheerleader and brand advocate. The illustration really captures the joy of the moment instead of putting the product as the center. And this is similar to what we see in current ads; it’s all about telling a story and making emotional connections.”

Walzthöny continues, “SmartAssets has built a unique creative scoring system which allows brands to learn from historical campaign performance data. The platform makes data-driven recommendations that brands can then use to optimize omnichannel content for their consumer demographics. This takes all important component data, from attention and emotion to ad fatigue and platform best practices, to improve engagement and provide long-term impacts that drive better ROMI (return on marketing investment).”

Jingle all the way to 1995

Now, this is my favorite part. I’m talking about 40-foot-long trucks with more than 30,000 lightbulbs. This is the ad that really got the world excited. And let’s face it: When children all across the globe are singing your jingle, you know you’ve made an unforgettable commercial. And memorability is a key—albeit difficult to achieve—creative scoring mechanism. But, if you are able to combine unique melodies with a catchy tagline and an impressive visual, then you’re already halfway to success.

Because the thing is, many of us just don’t feel like it’s the holiday season until we’ve seen the annual Coca-Cola ad. There’s this feeling of nostalgia and excitement when you watch it, and it’s this connection, at least in my view, that advertisers should be aiming to create with seasonal ads. It’s a countdown; and anticipation is what countdowns were made for.

Because the thing is, many of us just don’t feel like it’s the holiday season until we’ve seen the annual Coca-Cola ad.

Also, let’s not forget that this series was converted into a full-blown OOH campaign, where Coca-Cola trucks roamed the roads of the US on a 2001 debut tour (a recurring global stunt that was exported to countries such the UK in 2010, and Australia in 2017). Bringing this whole campaign off-screen and into real life settings makes it into something tangible, and an event to look forward to each year. Festive magic, yet not in every brand’s budget.

The Coca Cola Company has clearly worked hard to create positive brand association, coupling its flagship product with seasonal joy. The repeat exposure to the same melody and similar visuals year after year adds to the ‘memorability factor.’ And the fact that a string of similar commercials are still being aired twenty-eight years after its inception must mean that the ads are driving brand value, right?

But if we’re talking purely about the main tropes that we’ve come to expect from this succession of ads, I’d narrow it down to: storytelling, festive trucks, blinding lights, recall, jolly Santas, festive trees, brand connections, emotion dynamos, and well-crafted dim lighting. These are just some of the recurring themes from the last twenty-eight years. And last, but certainly not least: the music. This could arguably be one of the most well-known festive tracks of all time, surpassed only by jingle bells.

Threading the lights around the tree  

Historic learnings from print advertorial and TV commercials are still relevant today, and teach us important lessons for contemporary omnichannel approaches. Despite the advertising landscape being more complicated than it was two decades ago, there are some commonalities that we know drive success: creativity, prominent branding, effective storytelling (check out this piece on how to build better brand stories), emotional connections, real-life engagement and recall.

There has been a huge shift in the advertising landscape and omnichannel has become notoriously more complex to navigate. The marketer’s 2023 media budget for social is now on par with TV advertising in the US: Social (19%), TV (19%), digital (14%), email (12%), direct mail/catalogs (9%), mobile (8%), radio (7%), OOH (7%) and other (1%).

And the great thing is that the growing number of ad platforms presents marketers with opportunities to engage with unique demographics. But it also means more content: more intelligent content, more data-driven content, and more consumer-optimized content. That is if you’re looking to get more from your ad spend. Because in parallel there is also an expectation for marketers to know their audience better than ever before.

If you aren’t optimizing opportunities to meet your audience on every platform, there almost certainly will be someone ramping up efforts and competing for your market share. It’s a convoluted space. And it’s not just the big brands (with prime-time budgets), there’s also an influx of smaller brands taking advantage of the level playing field that advertising platforms have opened to players of all sizes.

Daniel Purnell

Daniel Purnell is the Marketing Manager for Stagwell Marketing Cloud.

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