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Does McDonald’s take the carrot this Christmas?

December 2021

This is a self-funded case study using our Ad Testing solution.

Ever since launching its ‘Reindeer Ready’ holiday platform in 2017, McDonald’s has had a goal of spreading joy during the festive season. Highlighting the traditions celebrated by many families, the brand has largely forgone the Big Mac and French Fries — instead building its annual tear-jerkers around the simple act of leaving a packet of carrot sticks out for Santa’s reindeers.

‘Imaginary Iggy’ was the latest instalment in this series, telling the story of the relationship between a young girl and her imaginary friend, which wavers as she ages, but ultimately reaches a touching conclusion when her memory is triggered again years later.

Mark Ritson has spoken ad nauseam about brands, such as Coca-Cola with its ‘Real Magic’ Christmas spot, increasingly prioritizing triggering an emotional response above all else — including the need to frame memories in a distinct and ownable way.

How would McDonald’s fare? We put it to the test using our 3 C’s framework:

  • Captivate: Does it stand out and grab attention?
  • Connect: Does it instantly recall the brand?
  • Compel: Does it motivate behavioral change?


The ad proved highly likeable, with the story — culminating in the young girl rekindling her friendship with the imaginary monster from her childhood — tugging at viewers’ heartstrings. The emotional conclusion and appeal to childhood nostalgia set a very positive, albeit also very passive, tone. Combining a sweet and sentimental story with a classic rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time after Time’ connected emotionally and kept viewers’ engaged.

McDonald's UK Christmas Ad Testing - Captivate



Historically, the ‘Reindeer Ready’ platform has been successful at presenting McDonald’s as enabling the story’s eventual uplifting resolve. 2017’s instalment utilized the restaurant and drive-thru to great effect in framing the story around McDonald’s “Reindeer Treats”. While branding for 2020’s animated piece wasn’t as explicit, the meal from McDonald’s still acted as the facilitator behind the child’s change in fortunes.

2021 attempted to follow a similar structure in using the in-store experience as the place where the young girl’s memory was triggered, and she rediscovered her inner-child. However, this wasn’t clear to viewers.

That the little boy was holding a carrot stick was missed by most, meaning viewers didn’t connect the dots together with the story’s framing around the young girl giving the monster a Reindeer Treat. The ad’s emotional climax happened later when the now teenage girl was anxiously trying to find her furry friend — meaning McDonald’s wasn’t seen to be an integral part of the ad’s eventual resolve.

McDonald's UK Christmas Ad Testing - Connect



Similarly to what we saw for Amazon’s 2021 Christmas spot — a lot of brands make the mistake of giving the brand an unclear or tenuous role in the narrative, or not featuring it during the emotional climax. As was the case here for McDonald’s, this means that while an ad might instill warmth, the chances of these feelings being attributed back to the brand are diminished. As a result, ‘Imaginary Iggy’ didn’t do or say a lot which predisposed people toward McDonald’s in a meaningful way, or differentiate it from other fast food providers.

McDonald's UK Christmas Advertising Testing - Captivate


What are the learnings for marketers?

When Mark Ritson went about describing Coca-Cola’s sentimental Christmas campaign this year, he landed on a particularly pertinent point — “The only problem is that this is not a Coke ad.” This point also holds true for McDonald’s.

McDonald’s’ storytelling prowess is undeniable; year-on-year, the brand has consistently tapped into festive joy. However, like we’ve seen time-and-time again, brands are all-too-willing to sideline themselves in favor of eliciting an emotional payoff.  While attempts to integrate McDonald’s into 2021’s heartfelt narrative were evident, where they missed the mark was not recognizing that most advertising is processed in a fast, automatic, and intuitive (“system 1”) way.

Through this lens, it becomes apparent that too much structurally relies on the significance of the carrots being recognized and understood, particularly the scene involving the young boy in McDonald’s. With this largely missed, the ad’s ability to translate rich emotions into strong commercial outcomes is diminished.

McDonald's UK Christmas Ad Testing - Cubery Rating

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