Creative lessons from 'Buster the boxer'
For advertisers, November has become a battleground for brand fame and enticing customers before the Christmas rush gets into full swing.
For John Lewis, a brand that has come to represent the start of the festivities in ad-land, the value goes beyond just being associated with the warmth of Christmas; Head of Marketing, Rachel Swift, revealed their annual campaign delivers their most profitable ROI, and creates an emotional connection with their customers that delivers over and above their short-term marketing activity.
However, this year John Lewis changed tack and produced a different take on their previous offerings. Amid varying social media feedback around the spot, which aired finally aired on 11 November, the industry is already asking: what can be learned from "Buster the Boxer"?
Heather Andrew, UK CEO of Neuro-Insight, using over 10 years of neuroscience research expertise, looked at the ad from the brain's perspective to identify four key creative factors likely to play a role in the ultimate effectiveness of the ad.
Her evaluation considers metrics such as emotional intensity and memory encoding which can drive the effectiveness of a piece of advertising - the extent to which it influences decision-making and purchasing intent.
So did Buster hit the mark?
1. Animals come out on top when driving a positive emotional response
Despite the old showbiz saying 'you should never work with children and animals', John Lewis has made them the central feature of 2016's festive offering.
Neuro-Insight's own research with TV advertising body Thinkbox supports the decision, having found that including animals in particular can deliver a boost to viewers’ emotional responses in the final branding moments.
This is only half of the picture, however, because an emotional ad isn't always an effective ad...
2. Narrative and intrigue are fundamental to memory response
To be effective, advertisers also need to make sure that their messages are taken on board by our memories. There are several ways to leverage memory response, but John Lewis picks one of the strongest drivers of memory - intrigue - and uses it to great effect.
Our brains love a story, particularly including puzzles with question and answer patterns. John Lewis played on this perfectly with a series of teaser ads on social media featuring the nodding Buster, leading up to the grand reveal of the full length ad 4 days later.
In the ad itself, we see Buster nodding away again, and as the trampoline is constructed we're fed more clues about how this story might conclude. This gradual reveal is what keeps us engaged, with the final pay-off being Buster himself getting his own bounce on the trampoline.
3. Happy vs sad - how does it compare to last year?
The comedy of that closing scene is a break away from John Lewis' traditionally more melancholy offerings, most famously the 'Man in the Moon' from 2015.
Whatever viewers might subjectively think about this, being happy or sad doesn't necessarily make the ads better or worse from an effectiveness standpoint.
The more profound difference between 'Man on the moon' and 'Buster the Boxer' is the physical interaction between characters.
The little girl and the man from last year's ad shared relatively little direct interaction and were obviously physically very far away.
Compare that with this year's family, dog and local wildlife all interacting in close proximity. Our brains respond far better to the immediacy of those scenes, which therefore make for a more memorable and compelling piece of advertising.
4. CGI - flirting with the uncanny valley
Buster and friends wouldn't be with us if not for some serious CGI wizardry. For John Lewis, who are rumoured to have spent millions on this campaign, the investment seems to have paid off with well-rendered animals frolicking away on the trampoline.
However, for advertisers that might try a similar trick, be wary of the 'uncanny valley': a moment in which audiences might spot an imperfection in the animation that jars with the lifelike portrayal an ad is trying to create.
It's a similar feeling to badly photo shopped images, or in robots that are 'too close' to human. This moment can be quite disconcerting and disturbing, and can really turn viewers off the ad resulting in a wasted investment or, at worst, a damaged brand.
Whilst the deviation away from John Lewis' tried and tested sentimental Christmas ads might have left some viewers confused, we can see that the company was able to maintain the emotional connection it has cultivated in previous years through the use of endearing interaction between the animals and little girl, as well as using intrigue to drive engagement with viewers.
From the brain's perspective, it's these 'creative sprinkles' that make all the difference when it comes to ad effectiveness and, ultimately, to the bottom line result that CMO Rachel Swift is hoping for.
Heather Andrew is CEO of Neuro-Insight