November 17th, 2020

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like (a COVID-19) Christmas in Ads


Ace Metrix

Advertisers are trying to spread holiday cheer despite the less than joyous atmosphere. Traditionally, this time of year is all about spending time with loved ones, including those outside one’s household. Brands typically tap into “togetherness” messaging for holiday campaigns. But, this year it could feel unrelatable as people are isolated from friends and family (thanks to the pandemic). 

In light of an unusual holiday season, some advertisers are embracing the “new norm” in hopes of connecting with viewers: 

32% of Holiday Ads Have Tapped Into COVID-19 Themes

As of November 13th, we had tested 125 holiday ads, 32% of which incorporated a COVID-19 theme. Common tributes to the “new normal” included: featuring masks; portraying virtual celebrations; emphasizing safe shopping options (curbside pickup, contactless payment); and reflecting on a year of letdowns and more time spent at home. 

Overall, referencing the pandemic in some capacity did not create a significant advantage for ads. Those that did have a COVID-19 theme performed slightly better than those that did not, driven by stronger scores on Likeability, Change and Relevance. However, on average both groups of ads scored equivalently on Attention, Information and Desire components.  

Etsy has one of the most COVID-19-conscience (not to mention inclusive) holiday ad campaigns. In “Nana,” Etsy chronicled how thoughtful, handmade gifts can (sort of) make up for a Christmas spent apart from family. “Shiori” is about a young girl’s struggle to feel included because of her unique name. She wears a mask as she shops around and sits through a virtual class where her teacher mispronounces her name — both trademarks of the pandemic era. Lastly, “Bow Ties, Blankets, and Mugs” is mostly unassociated with COVID-19 except for the one-star 2020 mug.

“Nana” was Etsy’s strongest performer as it was among the top 5 highest scoring holiday ads (based on its gap-to-category-norm). Its success was largely driven by Likeability (+25% above norm) and Relevance (+29%) as viewers found the narrative of the lonely grandparents the most Heartfelt of all the ads in Etsy’s campaign.  

Masks Don’t Help or Hurt Holiday Ad Effectiveness

Just under 10% of holiday ads have incorporated face masks. Retail brands dominated this trend where masks were frequently used in scenes with in-store shopping (which was also the case among non-retailers). 

Similar to our July findings, mask inclusion in holiday ads was a trivial aspect in terms of impacting effectiveness among a majority of viewers (when it was not the sole focus). For most of the 13 mask-friendly holiday ads, less than 10 viewers (out of 500+) mentioned face coverings in their verbatim comments. This means the inclusion of masks did not evoke strong enough feelings for most viewers to even comment on the matter in their open-ended verbatims.

Of the 13 ads that featured masks, there were 117 out of 5,439 comments (2%) that called attention to the face coverings. A majority of viewers felt positively towards their inclusion in ads and/or reported “No Change” in purchase intent indicating masks didn’t help or hurt effectiveness:

These sentiments were largely driven by political party affiliation. Of those that mentioned “masks,” 76% of Republicans felt negatively towards their inclusion while 88% of Democrats felt positively (& the other 12% were neutral about it). Meanwhile, Independents were split – likely influenced by which side of the political spectrum they lean:

Among positive comments, viewers believed masks in ads made brands look more compassionate and respectful:

“The visuals are good, and I like that they had the employees wearing masks to encourage healthy practices in regards to the COVID.” Female 21-35

“LOVED it!! Definitely got my attention, too. Love that they are both wearing masks, so that tells me they are in touch with the safeties and our current covid situation, as well as that they care about us. Also appreciated the diversity — & showing him in this competition ties nicely with the message.” Female 36-49

At the same time, viewers that felt negatively found masks added a dystopian feel to the holidays or made it hard to connect without visible facial expressions:

“I didn’t like it. Advertisements with everyone talking slowly and sympathetically are getting old. Seeing everyone in masks all the time is depressing. Christmas should be upbeat and cheerful. This was not either of those things.” Female 50+

“Mixed feelings. I like the urge to support small businesses, but I don’t want to see people wearing masks. Facial expressions are important in advertising.” Male 50+

Again, both the negative and positive comments represent a minority. Most viewers did not even comment on the matter, and instead were drawn to other creative elements.  

Virtual vs. In-Person Celebrations

In 2020, family and friends will have to take their celebrations virtual as states increase COVID-19 restrictions in response to rising cases. Only a few brands are channeling these changes in their ads with 7% featuring “Zoom” festivities of some sort. Just as many (7%) are approaching the holiday season with a pre-COVID-19 outlook, which includes portraying large gatherings with characters from presumably different households. Target’s “Great Time” is the only one to do both:

An overwhelming majority of viewers across ads were not sensitive to showing large gatherings (no social distancing/masks) and didn’t mention it in their verbatim comments. On average, less than 1% called it out, with those few viewers feeling negatively towards it or suggesting it could be controversial:

“I liked the ad when it was showing families together at the holidays, but I was not happy that it showed a party where no one was social distancing or wearing a mask. This is irresponsible.” Female 50+

“Would be better post covid, but not great during a time of social distancing.” Female 21-35

“The domestic scenes were charming. The message of inclusiveness was progressive and bold. The ad emphasized the special, unique, customizable things that can be bought on Etsy. In these times, it was a bit controversial showing a large gathering without masks or social distancing.” Male 36-49

When it comes to the remaining 86% of ads without virtual celebrations or large gatherings, if characters were featured it was either individuals or small families of the same household. 

Some Holiday Ads Are More Animated Than Others

Not only has COVID-19 impacted ad content, but it’s also changing how brands produce it. Animation emerged as a common strategy for brands to produce new content when film production was shut down during lockdowns. Four months after filming was given the green light, animation is still a go-to approach for some brands: 14% of holiday ads used animated visuals to some extent (CGI, stop motion, etc). The highest scoring holiday ad so far (based on its gap-to-category norm), Dick’s Sporting Goods “Night at the Distribution Center,” embraced CGI to bring its concept to life:

A festive soundtrack combined with anthropomorphic sports equipment drove exceptionally high scores on Attention (21% above norm) and Likeability (+22%). In verbatim comments, viewers found the concept and execution remarkably creative, resulting in an Ingenious score greater than 94% of all ads. With life-like products at the heart of the narrative, Dick’s Sporting Goods successfully enticed viewers — 58% of whom reported positive purchase intent (+10% vs. category norm).

Dick's Sporting Goods "Night at the Distribution Center" Emotional Profile

COVID-19’s Lasting Impact on the Holidays

This is hopefully the only holiday season affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s leaving its mark in the ad world with 32% of this season’s ads leaning into the “new normal.” On average, these efforts from advertisers were rewarded with slightly stronger Relevance, Change and Likeability scores. However, ads that approached this holiday season with a pre-COVID-19 mindset can still connect with consumers who long for things to get back to normal.


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