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Which ads are on Santa’s naughty list?

November 2021

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

Just like the holiday season itself, Christmas is a chance for advertisers to let their hair down and flex their creative muscles. However, the watchout (which we touched on in a recent blog post) is that brands can end up creating overly sentimental stories that converge into a ‘sea of sameness’.

While we love breaking down the ads that successfully rose to the top and revealing the key ingredients behind their success, it can be equally valuable looking at the ones which didn’t make it. Two UK retailers have the dubious honor of placing at the bottom of our 2021 Christmas leaderboard (thus far).

Very, an online retailer, was an early entrant, making light of how Christmas seems to arrive increasingly earlier each year. By launching their campaign prior to Halloween (and making this a point of humor within the ad), the brand aimed to capitalize on the many people looking to start their festive shopping early due to global shipping delays.

Selfridges, an up-market department store, is the other brand we’re reviewing, creating a surreal, retro, meant-to-be-futuristic montage — which unfortunately ranked right down the bottom of our 2021 Christmas wish list. 

To find out why these executions didn’t land with consumers, we applied our three C’s framework:

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


Very utilized a quirky, but familiar, festive routine of ironic carols and a family who is just a little too into Christmas — in this case giving out mince pies at Halloween. While it didn’t stand out as being particularly unique overall, half of viewers still found it more pleasant than boring thanks to the light humor.

Selfridges’ more eccentric approach forwent a narrative, relying instead on an entirely unorthodox style to grab people’s attention. Unfortunately, the abstract presentation and quirky characters didn’t emotionally resonate, prompting significantly more irritation than enjoyment. This isn’t to say advertising requires a narrative to be likeable, but Very’s safer and less out-there approach meant at worst people tuned out, rather than turned off.

Christmas Ad Testing 2021 - Very and Selfridges - Captivate


Very deploys consistent devices across most of its communications, helping aid brand attribution. These include the message/tagline incorporating the brand name, along with a healthy dose of pink throughout. However, the challenge is that, along with it being the first year in which the ironic Christmas carol theme has been deployed, the significance of many of the lyrics went over people’s heads. This not only led to confusion, but also meant people’s attention was fixated on the wrong things — and not what it was trying to say about Very. 

Selfridges took this to a whole nother level, with scantly little about the ad linking back to the retailer in a meaningful way. Furthermore, almost nobody considered the in-your-face stylings to be representative of how they think and feel about the brand.

Santa's Ad Testing naughty list - Very and Selfridges - Connect


Unlike many other Christmas ads, neither Very or Selfridges took a particularly sentimental approach — instead prioritizing creative themes which would help set them apart.

Selfridges highlighted several products in their irreverent presentation, but they were all largely incidental to the story — with viewers’ attention instead fixated on the quirky characters and trying to piece together the odd events transpiring. This left the majority unclear about exactly what it was trying to say about the brand.

Very also struggled to impart much information, with people unclear about who the retailer was, what they offered, or their advantages versus competitors. Still, the warm tone did prompt more positive feelings toward the brand – albeit on an entirely different level to the likes of ALDI’s Kevin the Carrot.

Santa's Ad Testing naughty list - Very and Selfridges - Compel

What’s the learning for marketers?

Hitting the “green zone”, which represents the top 30th percentile of our database, isn’t something many advertisers are able to achieve with regularity. And nor should they expect to — it’s unrealistic, and can dampen marketers’ enthusiasm by setting unattainable goals. Regularly creating above-average work, and sometimes pushing the bar a little higher, creates a recipe for sustainable marketing success.

But at the other end of the spectrum, it also means brands need to be careful about creating content which serves little to no commercial purpose. Or, worse still, risks harming the brand.

While Selfridges certainly aren’t going to see a mass exodus of customers because of the campaign, the ad does risk creating a mismatch of associations in people’s minds, and potentially even ‘cheapening’ the brand. While shock tactics certainly have a role to play in commanding viewers’ attention, often this is a short-term play and doesn’t lay the foundations for sustainable long-term success. We’ve spoken at length about advertising’s role — particularly at Christmas — not simply being a matter of making people feel ‘happy’; however, that it ends on a positive, uplifting note is a mandatory prerequisite for success.

Santa's Ad Testing naughty list - Very and Selfridges - Performance Summary

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