Did the John Lewis Christmas ad connect emotionally?

When measuring emotions, straight from the brain: John Lewis Christmas ad 2020

Since John Lewis & Partners launched their first Christmas advert, it has set a new stage for Christmas commercials. The mini feature film adverts, with their distinctive and effective emotional storytelling, have won numerous prizes, including several IPA Effectiveness Awards. Now that other brands have copied the emotional storytelling formula it becomes more challenging to meet the UK’s high expectations on the commercial that unofficially kicks-off the Christmas shopping season. That’s why their agencies (adam&eveDDB & Manning Gottlieb OMD) start working on the new ad a year in advance.

Connecting on an emotional level with your customers is a difficult task. It takes top-notch professionals, excellent knowledge of- and connection to your target audience and many, many rounds of testing and (re)editing.

With the latest developments in neuroscience and technology, ads like the John Lewis ones might actually become even better. Neuromarketing took flight in recent years and now that Brain Computer Interfacing and emotional detection with i.e. EEG is combined with other technologies like eye-tracking, we can actually measure what people’s emotions are in relation to their viewing behavior.

Emotion detection: neuro-measurement of John Lewis Christmas ad

Braingineers, a front-runner in neuromarketing research, conducted a Neuro Video Test of the John Lewis Christmas ad to measure its emotional impact on viewers. In the past five years Braingineers has developed a unique methodology and emotion detection algorithms to measure attention, positive- and negative emotions.

A group of participants was invited to its Neuro-Lab to watch the ad, while having measured their brain-activity and viewing behavior. Each year, Braingineers tests one website or commercial. This year they wondered: is John Lewis still making an emotional impact with their 2020 Christmas ad?

Neuro Video Test

To get insights into emotional experience, EEG is used to measure viewers’ brain activity while they are watching a commercial or browsing a website or app. Simultaneously, eye-tracking and mouse- or touch tracking is applied and the session is recorded.

Opposed to traditional (usability) research, where an interviewer asks questions throughout a test, neuro-research is conducted individually and in silence to create a natural, real-life setting. Emotion detection algorithms capture emotional peaks during the test and after having finished it, moments with significant emotion peaks are shown to- and explained by the participant. This results in subconscious measurements with conscious feedback.

The challenge is to create strong combinations of high attention and moments of joy, where frustrations should be minimized or otherwise in Video Testing be part of an ‘a-ha moment’ benefitting the attention and therefore understanding of the message.

The overview of the emotional experience of the John Lewis Christmas ad of 2020 can be found here (a free demo account can be created within less than 2 minutes).

John lewis recording

*Opening scene with emotional experience down below of the John Lewis Christmas ad 2020

The results

The positive:

  • The different scenes have several similar elements that appear throughout the video: i.e. the pigeon, the plane and, of course, the heart shown in several ways. This connects the different shots from the video on an emotional level, making it interesting to watch. Especially towards the end, the viewer understands the connectedness of the different shots resulting in uplifts of attention. 
  • The psychological principle of gaze cueing has been used very effectively: the way in which we pay particular attention to the gaze and line of sight of others, when looking at a face. This comes from an evolutionary perspective: by looking at others, we can determine whether there is potential danger ahead. This mechanism is still very active within our brains and can be used to guide eye-focus towards essential parts in a video. For example in the scene where the snowman flies downwards, we see the eye-focus of the viewers go towards the street where another setting is about to appear. Also when the pigeon watches and points at the hedgehog, the gaze of the viewer is directed towards the right of the screen, already before the hedgehog appears. This results in an uplift in attention and lowers frustration.
  • The logos of Waitrose in John Lewis are well incorporated. They are well-noticed, as shown by the eye tracking, and they are not perceived as disturbing. Also, they don’t strike as too sales-like, which is important to connect to the brand.
  • Specifically the scenes with the two neighbors* have a strong positive impact on the viewer’s emotional experience, resulting in high levels of joy and attention. During the neurofeedback, viewers indicated this scene to be one of the most impactful scenes of the ad.
John Lewis recording 2

*Neighbors scene

The less positive

  • Already at the start, there’s something that sets the viewers off: the pigeon, in particular the oddly-shaped form of its beak. Negative emotions peak (and joy is at one of its lowest points of the total video). Eye-tracking is backing this up and viewers indicated afterwards that they thought that the pigeon might be ill and they didn’t like the sight of it. For a first introduction, it isn’t the ideal start and association with the John Lewis brand.
  • The scene where the girl having a haircut creates a peak in frustration. It reaches a high (one of the highest negative emotions of the entire video) at the scene where the same girl changes into a ‘real person’, holding the box with the Christmas heart. It is the first moment where the animated setting changes into a ‘real-life’ one with humans. It also appears that viewers have a difficult time understanding what happens in this scene; there are too many elements to focus on. The result is that not everyone registers that the heart is placed on top of the Christmas tree.
  • The Christmas spirit is well represented and experienced as pleasant (participants understand the message of giving love), however, the other message behind the video, the call for donating money does not get across to everyone. The airplane is flown in the screen whilst the ‘Together we can make a big difference’ sentence is shown: eye-focus is fragmented and information processing (attention) is rising because of the airplane flying into the opposite direction of the way a sentence is being read*. The combination of reading it in combination with moving elements draws away brain-capacity for processing the message.
  • Luckily, the call of action ‘Help us give a little love to families in need with’ creates an uplift in attention. The only downside appeared that viewers indicated afterwards that they didn’t know HOW to donate since no additional information was provided.
john lewis recording 3

*Final scene with the plane


Did the John Lewis Christmas ad create emotional impact? It sure did! We do believe however that it could have been even more impactful if they would have known and reworked the earlier mentioned less impactful moments. With relatively small adjustments the scenes could have been improved to have a bigger emotional impact. We are looking forward to the ad of 2021!

Finally, to cover the last point of the less positive items and turn it into something positive: you can donate here to Home-Start and FareShare.

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The Netherlands

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