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Consumer Behavior

The Surprising Psychology of Christmas Advertisements

How companies go beyond Santa Claus jingles.

Key points

  • Christmas advertisements don't just tap into seasonal joys, they tap into our brain's associations.
  • Brands that consistently use Christmas in their advertisements are tapping into a broader semantic network.
  • Companies take this above and beyond by using Christmas as a prototypical exemplar for a larger category.

In the long history of advertising, plenty of commercials have annoyed and even enraged their audiences. Only a select handful, however, have produced the kind of "cringe" reaction as Peloton's 2019 Christmas advertisement.

Few readers will need reminding, but the ad depicted a young woman coming home to find that her husband had bought her a Peloton exercise bike for Christmas. The rest of the ad covers her vlog-style documentation of her workout regimen over the next few weeks, pedaling along with a facial expression that can only be described as "exasperated ambivalence".

Predictably, the ad was met with mockery, derision, and countless parodies.

It's easy in hindsight to poke fun, but you can easily see the seed they're trying to plant for their consumer: the idea of a Peloton Bike as a must-have Christmas gift.

In the aim of the commercial, they're far from alone. For most companies, the winter holidays are a massive opportunity for seasonal sales.

But for certain companies who think bigger, Christmas is part of a larger strategy. It becomes an essential element for consumer psychology from an associative learning perspective, by tapping into the way humans discern patterns. How do companies leverage Christmas in this way? Let's dive into the psychology of Christmas advertisements.

How Companies Harness the Brain's Associations

Before we can see how Christmas comes into the equation, we need to examine what a brand is at the level of psychology. Put simply, a brand is a "concept" — a collection of associations that are organized in our brain's semantic network.

In this way, brands are just like everything else we've come to know. We understand the concept of a "tree" as a "woody, leafy plant that is typically pretty large," etc... Brands are the same way, with their own sets of associations. Coke is forever tied to "happiness," Apple to "minimalism," Under Armour to the "triumphant underdog," etc.

These associations are big business, and building them is no easy task. While there are no "hacks," there is a crucial strategy that takes advantage of how the brain naturally learns about all concepts in the world (including brands). It's called a prototype.

Think about learning a concept we all know: a dog. Chances are, you were never told the defining features of canines. Instead, our brains — being statistical sponges — just soaked in this information about the world. You've encountered 100s of different dogs in books, movies, and life, which has helped build out the concept in your mind.

Source: Hal Gatewood / Unsplash
Christmas associations rely on our brain's architecture
Source: Hal Gatewood / Unsplash

But here's the thing: The type of examples you get influences how quickly you develop the concept of "dog". Research finds that learning is best supported when you have outsized exposure to a prototype: a "good representative" for that concept. For dogs, for example, most people probably think of a dog like a golden lab instead of a hairless chihuahua. Of course, these are both, by definition, dogs, but the lab is more prototypical.

Throughout a lifetime, you'll probably get the concept of "dog" regardless. But you'll learn it much more quickly if you start with golden labs and then branch out to chihuahuas than the other way around.

So what does any of this have to do with companies and Christmas? Christmas advertisements are like golden labs: they're the prototype for the broader concept the company is working to associate. Because of this, they can become a crucial element of their overall strategy.

With this framework in mind, let's come back to Christmas.

The Strategy of Christmas Advertisements

For companies who play the long game, Christmas serves as a stellar prototype for building broader associations. Consider Coca-Cola.

The company has been driving connection through seasonal packaging, commercials, and advertisements galore since 1931! And while they didn't quite invent Santa Claus (as the popular myth would have you believe), their marketing team did create the cultural image we all have of him. This is why Santa is always decked out in Coke colors — a red robe with white trim. Think Christmas, and Coke is likely one of the first brands to come to mind. Marketing psychology at its most jolly.

Across the pond, the undisputed king of Christmas Ads is the British retail giant John Lewis. While they haven't had quite the Christmas history that Coke has, their recent holiday tradition has become a phenomenon. Every year since 2007, they air a heart-warming Christmas commercial.

Source: Roberto Nickson / Unsplash
Christmas is big business, and not just when it comes to seasonal shopping
Source: Roberto Nickson / Unsplash

From a cartoon friendship between a bear and a hare (2013), to an endearing alien encounter (2021), John Lewis somehow seems to outdo himself each year. It's become a Christmas tradition that produces almost as much anticipation as the presents themselves.

There's a bigger strategy at play for Coke, John Lewis, and other big players with a consistent Christmas presence. Eggnog companies aside, no one wants Christmas as their sole association. Recall that Christmas is the "golden lab": it serves as the prototype for a broader concept.

For John Lewis, their core brand concept goes beyond the holidays. Bolstered by its operation as an employee-owned co-op — the largest such business in the UK — it's tied more generally to wholesomeness, family, and tradition. And what better, more prototypical example is there for this than Christmas?

So while they get a healthy boost in sales during the holiday season and benefit significantly from that specific association, more general associations stay in the minds of shoppers year-round. This process is aided by other campaigns that focus on different aspects of "wholesomeness" (e.g., family life, everyday gift-giving), which broaden the concept beyond Christmas.

Christmas also serves as a prototype for happiness, which is why it has worked so well for Coke. Christmas is, after all, a merry time. And it's through the rest of its countless, happiness-oriented campaigns (e.g., Open Happiness) that it builds the associations out more generally.

Association Design Meets Business Strategy

The prototype strategy doesn't begin and end with Christmas. Consider the associations of beer.

Beer companies are constantly competing to be top of mind for that must-see game: Bud Light invests millions each year to be the official sponsor of The National Football League, while Miller hammers home that sports viewing is "Miller Time." Meanwhile, in Europe, you can't think about The Champions League without instantly thinking about Heineken. Wherever you look, beer companies — especially of the light beer variety — dominate our associations with sports. The association between beer and sports have become a crucial component of branding psychology.

But what if sports aren't on? Unlike the pumpkin spice latte, these mass-market beer companies are in the business of appealing to a much more comprehensive range of contexts. Just like Coke and John Lewis, here's where zooming out and seeing the broader associative network is critical. Here, sports serve as the prototype for the broader concept, in this case, camaraderie. Getting together with a bunch of friends for the big game, beer in hand, exemplifies this.

Source: Will Stewart / Unsplash
Beer companies have long capitalized on male camraderie
Source: Will Stewart / Unsplash

And of course, if you look at their full range of campaigns, these beer companies have demonstrated a much more general strategy centered around these attributes. Think "This Buds for You" (Budweiser), "Official Beer of Guy's Night out" (Coors), "The Night is Young" (Heineken), to name a few. When we take the bigger picture into account, these brands aren't competing to be the best beer for "sports," but the best beer for a deeper sense of camaraderie and belonging.

All in all, using a prototypical exemplar can provide a significant boost to brand associations. Sure, Coke still would have become the "happiness" brand over time if it had just run many different happiness-oriented campaigns. But utilizing a prototype gets to the essence of brand building, as it taps into the way the brain naturally builds associations.

Christmas ads are a cultural phenomenon. But when we look carefully, they aren't just about seasonal shopping, holiday guilt, and gift-giving. Many ads are part of a larger strategy and aren't merely about Christmas.

And thankfully, only very few are about giving your significant other an exercise bike.

This post also appears on the branding psychology blog, NeuroScienceOf.


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John Lewis Co. (2021) John Lewis Partnership: Our History

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Johnson, M. A., Turk-Browne, N. B., & Goldberg, A. E. (2016). Neural systems involved in processing novel linguistic constructions and their visual referents. Language, cognition and neuroscience, 31(1), 129-144.

Nosofsky, R.M., Pothos, E.M., Wills, A.J. (2011). The Generalized Context Model: An Exemplar Model of Classification. Formal Approaches to Categorization, 18–39.

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