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Battle of the Christmas Ads 2018

Friday 21st December

The battle for the best Christmas ad has been waged every year since John Lewis revolutionised the medium with big-budget short films often featuring a sentimental storyline and a stripped-down cover of a classic song.

In the intervening years, competing retail and supermarket brands have hopped on board this trend and offered their own take choosing to pile budgets into their own festive ad campaigns. So, which of the big brands are in the running this year? And how do they match up to the originators of the newfound Xmas ad tradition?

Whilst John Lewis went for a tug on the heartstrings by tracing the career of pop legend, Elton John, back to a childhood Christmas gift, both Sainsburys and Marks & Spencers strived for a more light-hearted approach. Sainsburys staged a school performance with many comical twists and turns, whilst M&S opted for a bright collage of festive parties featuring celebrities such as Holly Willoughby and David Gandy.

So which brand served the best ad? Whilst there’s been a lot of back and forth in the form of thought pieces and comments on social media over which came out top, we decided to answer this question using our in-house biometric tools.

Biometrics allows us to gauge how people truly respond to the ads rather than it be filtered through how they choose to present their view on social media. Our tools measure sweat levels, micro-expressions and eye gaze which, when tied together, paints a true picture of the emotions evoked from a video or image.

Here’s what we found when we tested the three ads on participants who were watching them for the first time.


John Lewis

The response to John Lewis’s Elton John reversed career supercut evoked Joy as the leading emotion with 5% which was the lowest percentage among the three ads. Elsewhere, other indexed emotions included Sadness (0.9%), Contempt (0.7%) and Surprise (0.1%).

Key moments:

-Joy peaked as the piano was revealed as a present to the young Elton which also triggered some contempt

-Sadness most notably peaked at the beginning bars of “Your Song” played by a present day Elton suggesting its reach for the heartstrings paid off with the choice of music

-Surprise popped up as flashbacks reached the pub and school performance scene (a)




Sainsburys’ ad came out top in terms of Joy with an 11% share followed by Sadness (1%). There were some other very low peaks for Surprise (0.04%) and Contempt (0.03%).

Key moments:

-Joy grew throughout the ad as the school performance rocketed from its nervous beginnings to its bombastic ending. It peaked as the audience applauded at the end of the performance (b)

-Sadness was the most present emotion at the beginning of the ad as the star (literally) took to the stage to deliver a shaky performance

-Surprise spiked most notably as the boy in the plug costume ran up to the socket



Marks & Spencer

Marks & Spencer’s ad came second to Sainsburys in terms of Joy (7%), this was followed by peaks of Sadness (0.9%) and Surprise (0.2%).

Key moments:

-Joy peaked in two parts: during the scene showing three people singing along to “All By Myself” from Bridget Jones’ Diary and during the bus stop scene at the end where a man dressed as a fairy compliments Holly Willoughby on her M&S coat

-Surprise appeared during some of the smooth transitional shots and at the final bus stop scene

-Sadness spiked as the model David Gandy took on some washing up duties (c)




The key emotions drawn from each ad this year was joy and sadness. Sainsburys led the way with an 11% share of joy whilst M&S trailed behind with 7% and John Lewis lost out with 5%.

In terms of intent, it seems that Sainsburys won out in the end – the ad aimed to create smiles and laughter and provoked an overwhelming share of joy in doing that. Given that M&S focussed on the Xmas party season, it encouraged a fair but hardly significant volume of joy. Emotions were somewhat muted all round for the John Lewis ad which didn’t dominate in any category in particular. The ads’ attempt to stir sadness by way of nostalgia didn’t prove to be as effective as it was initially striving for – there wasn’t a strong share of sadness present (0.9%), indexing just below Sainsburys (1%) and matching M&S (0.9%) who both imagined more light-hearted, lively concepts.

Article Written by

Sean Kerwick

Content Editor, Total Media

Sean is a content editor working across copywriting, design and strategy on the Organic team.

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