2021 Holiday Ads: Hope and Realism

2021 Holiday Ads: Hope and Realism

Ready for some memorable holiday ads? In response to widely reported supply chain issues, some brands have teed up their holiday ads to come weeks ahead of traditional schedules. And as was the case last year, the campaigns are tasked with addressing the elephant that hasn’t left the room: Covid-19 and its lingering effects. If striking the right tone somewhere between hope and realism can be tricky, a few reliable themes — from connection to music, humor, and cheer — are helping brands thread that needle. Here are some examples:

Connection

We may live in divided times, but Etsy’s hopeful Give More Than a Gift campaign for 2021, which highlights unexpected connections, reminds us of our best selves. In one spot, a friendship springs up between two people from different walks of life. The tightly edited ad runs a mere 30 seconds, but it packs a wallop. The e-commerce company’s focus on unique, handmade items figures into the story, and the implicit message — that Etsy’s constellation of DIY sellers may help shoppers avoid the headache of larger retailers with supply chain issue delays — doesn’t hurt the brand, either.

Music and Surprise

The right music is key to a successful ad campaign, and brands have long been incorporating modern interpretations of classic hits in hopes of connecting with shoppers on a nostalgic level. In fact, according to Chelsea Gross, director analyst at research firm Gartner, nostalgia is particularly resonant this year as consumers potentially gather with loved ones after a year or more of pandemic-era separation.

For financial reasons, advertisers don’t always use the original song. It’s also worth noting that employing a cover can also add a unique spin, beyond the song’s original interpretation, to a nostalgic favorite. Consider the spot from Dutch e-tailer Bol.com, which is set to a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.” In the ad, a boy who originally asked for a doll turns the soccer ball he got instead into an imaginary friend. Cue all the expected cozy feelings — but Bol.com is mining a different theme here, and an unexpected twist at the end of the spot gives Lauper’s familiar song added resonance. (Spoiler alert: this kitten has claws!) By subverting expectations — of a familiar song, of a storyline that, at least initially, seems familiar — the brand grabs our attention.

For a brand like Amazon, deep pockets can mean the freedom to use a song in its original incarnation. This year, the e-commerce giant debuts “Hold On” from Adele’s new album 30; the song hits a home run on several levels, playing backdrop to a spot that doesn’t shy away from the lingering challenges people face from the pandemic. The storyline isn’t overtly festive: two women share a quiet connection over their love of birds. But the ad, which is aligned with the launch of Amazon’s Christmas gift shop, covers a lot of ground, addressing mental health, loneliness, and the power of connection in a subtle two-and-a-half minutes.

Humor

Like Amazon, Extra gum isn’t afraid to look at the curveballs life can throw, but it takes a different tack, using humor to lean into some inconvenient truths about the holidays. As Extra spins it, while it’s great to be gathering for the holidays in a way 2020 simply didn’t allow, some time-honored traditions — from passive-aggressive presents to long-winded relatives — remain as tricky as they ever were before the pandemic. The solution? “Chew it before you do it.” In other words, chewing a piece of Extra gum can give that extra moment of pause, and transform a potentially awkward moment into a time of grace and connection. And who can argue with that?

Cheer

Of course, holiday ads for time immemorial have succeeded by tugging on the heartstrings, and a few notable campaigns from 2021 take that approach and run with it. Consider the McDonald’s U.K. ad that introduces us to a little girl and her imaginary monster friend, who bond over the Christmas ritual of leaving out bags of McDonald’s carrots as treats for Santa’s reindeer. Time passes (a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” plays in the background – apparently 2021 is Cyndi Lauper’s year), and we think the girl has outgrown her joyful friend. But — spoiler alert! — you might need to pull your hanky out. Some friendships are meant for the long haul.

Finally, consider Apple’s spot, which was filmed with an iPhone 13 Pro by the father-and-son team of Ivan and Jason Reitman. The three-minute short follows the efforts of Olive, a little girl determined to keep her snowman buddy alive all year ‘round. An unexpected finale doesn’t quite cue up as expected, but the overall vibe — and a dedication to the ones we’ve waited all year to be with — goes for the feels in a big way, and succeeds.

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