I'm dreaming of a right-brained Christmas

Which of this year's festive campaigns have made a success of engaging both sides of the brain?

There’s a heated conversation in adland as to whether creativity is in crisis. Although it’s been simmering for some time, it was brought to the boil earlier this year by Peter Field and the IPA’s report at Cannes, and by a second IPA publication, Lemon, based on my own research and on cutting-edge neuroscience.

It proposes a new way of looking at advertising – through the lens of people’s left and right brains, and how they pay attention to the world. The old idea that the two sides of the brain were "in charge" of different activities has been debunked – but the two hemispheres do notice and respond to different things. 

The data suggests that the features in advertising that are prioritised by the right hemisphere – such as living characters and implicit communication – generally make for more effective work than ads that are heavy on features that are prioritised by the left hemisphere, such as abstracted body parts and the heavy use of words overlaid on video.

Lemon paints a picture of a world where the left brain is dominant to the detriment of advertising effectiveness. But Christmas is a brief period in the UK advertising calendar where things are different. A season of togetherness and tradition is one that is well-suited to right-brained work and this year has been a particularly good one for ads that appeal to the right brain. 

I’ve taken a look at some of this year’s Christmas ads through the lens of the right and left hemisphere to understand the approach each brand is taking.

Sainsbury's 'Nicholas the Sweep'

The right brain is more nostalgic, and work that has a distinctive time and place or that is set in the past – even an imagined past like the Dickensian fantasy of Sainsburys’ ad – is more likely to get its attention. In this ad, an opening establishing shot fixes us in a time and place, before we encounter a host of characters acting with personality and agency (like Nick’s wicked boss). The ad uses dialogue, facial expressions, reaction shots and even a dream reveal; there are also plenty of comical touches along the way, making this a feast for the right brain.

M&S Food 'This Is M&S Christmas food'

M&S switched gear a couple of years ago away from blockbuster Christmas fare and towards ads that focused more strongly on its products. What’s notable about its food ad this year is that while there’s no story to speak of, stars Paddy McGuinness and Emma Willis imbue the spot with right-brained appeal.

The key is the sense of "betweenness" – communication between characters in the ad, both verbal and implicit, not just the ad speaking direct to the viewer. Its success is in no small part down to its sense of spontaneity and the celebrities’ easy chemistry.

Aldi 'Christmas spectacular'

If there’s been a flaw in Christmas ads this decade, it has been brands’ love of single-use ideas – lovable characters who star one Christmas and then vanish for good. Effective advertising uses a repeated idea that beds in with an audience over time and becomes a familiar tradition in its own right. All the better if, as with Aldi’s carrot hero, they’re the kind of living characters that grab the right brain’s attention. These "fluent device" characters can get stronger the more vivid their world becomes.

In this Aldi ad, Kevin has acquired a family and a new nemesis, but this year’s ad also draws on wider cultural references. The right brain knows its time and place in the world and likes to be reminded of it. Nods to Peaky Blinders, The Greatest Showman and Charles Dickens are the cultural references that attract and maintain our attention here – note, too, the play on words in the phrases "Great work Tiny Tom!" and "Come on Tom, catch up!".

Debenhams 'Christmas campaign 2019'

Like Marks & Spencer, Debenhams is another retailer that has renounced the glitzy campaigns of yore for something more product-oriented. I include it here because its ad is one of the year’s most left-brained Christmas spots. Rapid editing, rhythmic movement and soundtrack, abstract body parts, zero sense of place, a production line emerging from the right visual plane (the left brain’s preferred field of view) and people with no character, agency or sense of betweenness. The result is an ad that feels "generic" (it even uses the term in the many words that obtrude on the ad), that does little to attract or maintain our attention; it has little to offer the right brain.

John Lewis & Partners and Waitrose & Partners 'Excitable Edgar'

Finally, John Lewis, Waitrose and their overeager dragon. From my comments on the other ads, it won’t surprise you to learn that Edgar has a great deal of right-brained depth. There’s rich implicit communication between Edgar and his human friend – expressions, looks and gestures – and a distinct sense of time and place. There’s a single story that unfolds over time, which offers up many character reaction shots. This is much more likely to attract the right brain’s attention and be remembered than the abstracted style favoured by the left hemisphere. The house style means there’s no room for dialogue or wordplay, but that’s made up for with a sense of betweenness and a strong, melodic soundtrack.

The ad is a good – simple story, well-told. Good direction will bring out the right-brained features of an ad, but it always helps if, at its heart, your ad has a strong, human idea.

Orlando Wood is chief innovation officer at System1

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