For 2021, retailers and others are diving headfirst into the holidays with big, celebratory ads embracing the festivities of the season despite global supply chain issues that have threatened product shortages. In contrast to the more subdued messages and productions of COVID-stricken 2020, it seems brands have gone all out with their storytelling this year, which range from fantasy-filled scenarios to intimate tales depicting holiday gatherings in full force—and nary a mask in sight. Here, a look at the outpouring of festive marketing messages this season.
See all the big holiday ads of 2021
Back in 2016 grocery chain Aldi introduced the lovable Kevin the Carrot in a spin on “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Since then he’s returned in numerous holiday adventures spanning romance, “Top Gun”-style action, E.T.-inspired nostalgia and more. In 2021 the retailer revisits another classic, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” in which Kevin meets a new edible friend, Ebanana Scrooge.
Amazon’s first pan-European Christmas commercial for Prime Video is the heartwarming tale of a grumpy zookeeper who bonds with an equally morose hyena, thanks to their mutual love of TV. Created by Spanish agency CYW, directed by Outsider’s Chris Balmond and set to a cover of Nat King Cole’s "Smile," it’s both amusing and poignant, all in the best possible Christmas ad tradition. (There's also a nice purpose element; as part of the campaign Prime Video will donate £100,000 to a U.K. charity that works with volunteers and their therapy pets.)
TBWA/Media Arts Lab
Father-and-son Hollywood talents Ivan and Jason Reitman this year teamed up as producer and director on “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” but they came together for the first time as directors on this tear-jerker, Apple’s latest in the “Shot on iPhone" campaign. The three-minute short created with TBWA/Media Arts Lab follows an adorable, empathetic girl named Olive who sets out to keep her snowman buddy Simon alive all year round. Her valiant efforts will lift your spirits—that is, perhaps, until the spot’s jarring finale.
People go to extremes with their festive behavior in this year's holiday ad from Argos, one U.K. retailer putting the disappointing 2020 Christmas behind it and embracing over-the-top fun again. From an office worker emblazoned in over-the-top Christmas decorations to a woman blow-torching her Christmas pudding, everything is big and brazen. In what seems like a blatant two fingers to the pandemic rules of last Christmas, in one scene a man turns up at his grandmother's house with the entire street. Created by The&Partnership and directed by Réalité via Canada, it ends with the words “Baubles to last year.”
Santa is not exactly a merry-maker in Best Buy's seasonal spot, which sees a slimmed-down version of St. Nick crashing a holiday bash—made all the noisier by the store's various products. The revelers, it turns out, aren't your everyday partygoers.
Dutch e-tailer Bol.com puts a brilliant spin on the stereotypical Christmas ad in a spot from Dept, set to a heartfelt cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.” It’s the tale of a boy who turns a soccer ball into a make-believe friend, but with a fantastic twist. In many ways, it’s the anti-John Lewis.
Agency: The Pharm
Walgreens-owned Boots has opted for big-name talent and a glitzy, uplifting theme in its U.K. Christmas ad “Bags of Joy,” as it aims for a more upmarket feel in its first holiday with WPP's The Pharm. “Doctor Who” star Jenna Coleman plays Joy, whose grandmother gives her a magical, seemingly bottomless, bag of gifts in a cinematic film directed by Tom Hooper, known for the likes of “Les Misérables.” In a pilot with Sky Media, the spot features shoppable QR codes driving viewers to Boots.com.
Chick-fil-A continues its series of charming animated stories around an optimistic little girl named Sam, who is joined this year by her friend CeCe in a tale centered on the beauty to be found in imperfection. It takes place in a magical place called “The Whoopsery” that teaches the girls how mix-ups and mess-ups can lead to something special.
Disney's holiday ad this year is an emotive tearjerker about a stepdad trying to fit in with his new family, a sequel to last year's viral hit about a Filipino “lola,” or grandmother. In the new film for the EMEA region, the granddaughter from the 2020 spot is now a mother with two children, Max and Ella, and new stepdad Mike has moved into their family home. The ad focuses on a storybook filled with Disney and Pixar characters, which was given to Max by his father. As Mike tries to bond with the two children (including with a near-disastrous gingerbread house episode) he’s eventually able to bring the stories to life. Once again, it's set to a heart-tugging soundtrack, this time an original called ‘‘Love Runs Deeper,’’ performed by Gregory Porter.
Domino's first-ever U.K. Christmas ad features a yodeling choir of carolers ordering festive pizzas; and in a bonus, the brand and agency VCCP will send an actual choir to the doorsteps of 100 lucky customers as long as they use the group ordering function on its app.
Jung von Matt/Donau
The Austrian bank turns its attention to the environment this year with its latest spot from agency Jung von Matt Donau and Passion Pictures. It centers on a father whose daughter serves as a kind of environmental conscience. She waves her teddy bear, which jingles a little bell, whenever he could behave in a more planet-friendly way. The final reveal sheds more light on what’s been going on (and why the child doesn’t appear to speak).
This year, Etsy’s positioning as the destination for unique, handmade gifts from its community of DIY sellers may give it a leg up on larger retailers with supply chain issues that could ultimately frustrate shoppers. The brand’s festive ads from 72andSunny highlight one-of-a-kind custom goods through touching stories of unexpected connections, such as one centered on the friendship between an elderly Asian woman and young Black man.
Agency: Energy BBDO
Coming out of the pandemic, many of the holiday ads this year embraced celebration with abandon, but this spot for Wrigley’s Extra from Energy BBDO serves as a reminder of the headaches that come with festive family gatherings, including annoying talkative relatives, passive-aggressive “presents” and more. But in such cases, a piece of Extra gum can play a special role.
On Thanksgiving day, Comcast-owned Xfinity and Illumination came together on this super sweet holiday tale, “Come Home,” a sideline story to the latter’s “Sing” franchise. It tells the tale of a mama pooch leaving work to go back to her family to watch (on Xfinity) their favorite Christmas special featuring characters from the popular film. A detour prevents her from getting home on time—but the snag leads to perhaps her pups’ best holiday president ever. The brands tapped "Sing" writer and director Garth Jennings to create the ad, which drops ahead of the "Sing 2" sequel's arrival in theaters on Dec. 2.
John Lewis kicked off the Christmas ad-fest earlier than usual for the brand with “Unexpected Guest,” a heartwarming tale of a teenage boy and an alien girl that’s all about experiencing Christmas like it’s your first time. The boy introduces the ethereal alien to some U.K. Christmas traditions, such as mince pies, holiday jumpers and a tree, before they bid a bittersweet farewell. Longstanding agency Adam&Eve/DDB worked with Smuggler’s Mark Molloy on the spot, which is set to a cover of ’80s hit “Together in Electric Dreams” by upcoming singer Lola Young. The ad features merchandise all from John Lewis’ own brand range.
Agency: Yard NYC
This year, Kohl’s continues its move toward emotional storytelling with a tale, created out of Yard NYC, centered on a family finally able to come together once again to celebrate the holidays. Though it’s a retail ad, product and brand seem to take a back seat to the family reveling in each other’s company on Christmas Day. “It’s not all about the gifts,” Kohl’s Chief Marketing Officer Greg Revelle told Ad Age. “We also want it to be about more than that and capture that spirit of reuniting and belonging.”
Agency: Lego Agency
Lego’s holiday affair is pure joy, continuing the brand’s “Rebuild the World” theme in a blockbuster tale featuring stormtroopers, killer bees, dragons and more. The film illustrates how creativity can help to change the world for the better, with themes touching everything from diversity to the environment to gender roles. The ad was created out of Lego’s in-house agency and directed by Stink-represented collective Traktor, which has helmed the brand’s spots since the campaign debuted in 2019.
Agency: Deutsch L.A.
Lowe’s goes whimsical for 2021 with this cute story about inflatable holiday lawn ornaments drifting into the air and then joining together in their own celebration, just as families long kept apart are finally able to reunite after the trials of last year. Lowe’s Executive VP and Chief Brand and Marketing Officer Marisa Thalberg called the ad, created out of Deutsch L.A., a “holiday love letter” to the brand’s customers, and it’s just one of a slate of ads themed around “Make More Holiday” that Lowe’s will be running over the course of the season.
Agency: BBDO New York
Macy’s teamed again with agency BBDO New York on the long-running “Believe” campaign, which this year introduces a cuddly new character, Tiptoe, a blue reindeer who’s squeamish about flying. But with the help of his friends, who never doubted his abilities, he ultimately soars. The story will continue on Thanksgiving, when Tiptoe will take to the skies as a balloon during the retailer’s famous parade.
Agency: Taylor Herring
Mars’ Celebrations brand riffs off classic Christmas movies such as "Love Actually" and "Bridget Jones' Diary” in a campaign that centers on the Bounty bar’s status as the most unloved candy in the miniatures assortment. Luckily, a Brussels sprout declares her love in this fun spot from agency Taylor Herring.
Marks & Spencer
Agency: In-house; Grey London
Marks & Spencer has brought its famous “Percy Pig” candies to life for its Christmas food campaign this year, with a CGI version of the character voiced by “Spider-Man” actor Tom Holland. The move comes after the bright pink treats, which first appeared in M&S stores in 1992, have gradually become iconic, with the Percy character recently becoming a TikTok star. “Percy’s First Christmas” takes a ‘‘Night at the Museum’’-type turn, as the magic of the Christmas fairy (voiced by comedian Dawn French) awakens Percy, and he explores an M&S food hall by night. M&S worked on the spot in-house with a creative team from Grey London and directors Dom & Nic at Outsider.
Agency: Leo Burnett
McDonald's U.K. ad is about a little girl and her imaginary monster friend, with whom she bonds over the Christmas ritual of leaving out McDonald’s bags of carrots as “reindeer treats” (a tradition the Golden Arches has celebrated the past four years in its campaigns via Leo Burnett). But then she grows up and forgets him...or does she?
French telecom company Orange sums up how a lot of us felt about 2021's long months of lockdown in its holiday ad this year. Directed by Francois Rousselet for Publicis Conseil, it’s the story of a snowman and his pet snow-cat who spend most of the year shut in a frozen home, getting more and more bored and frustrated as they try to keep themselves occupied on Zoom calls and board games waiting for the time that they can come out again.
Home fitness brand Peloton made its largest ad spend to date on its holiday spot, a retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale, “A Christmas Carol.” Here, however, Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. It’s his Peloton bike that helps him turn his life around. The ad is the brand’s first seasonal work out of John Lewis' go-to agency, Adam&Eve/DDB.
Perhaps the most depressing ad of the festive crop so far comes from German retailer Penny, which offers a tale of a mother's wish for her son to get back his lost youth after the COVID-19 lockdowns. The film from Serviceplan may have you weeping into your seasonal mulled wine, especially if you have teenage kids.
Posten (Norwegian Post)
Is this the “Brokeback Mountain” of Christmas ads? Norwegian Post continues its tradition of provocative advertising, but this year agency Pol dials down the humor and instead goes for something more poignant—a gay love story featuring Saint Nicholas himself. The spot, "When Harry Met Santa," was created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Norway’s legalization of same-sex relationships. It's the story of a man who encounters Santa every year, and their relationship gradually evolves into something beautiful.
A little girl helps an injured deer in this sweet ad from Irish retailer SuperValu, illustrating a message of "recovery" after a difficult year. The heartwarming tale, by TBWA/Dublin, tells the story of Aoife, who hurries outside to find an injured wild deer in her back garden. She helps it back on its feet and is determined to get it back to Santa for Christmas Eve—despite the best efforts of her parents to let her down gently and tell her that it isn't really Santa's reindeer. However, there's a magical ending in store, with a hint of Spielberg-esque magic.
While most retailers this year have taken a story-driven approach, Target’s seasonal ad depicts a series of scenes of diverse families merrymaking together not just for Christmas, but also Hanukkah, Diwali and the Lunar New Year. Created with agency Mother, the commercial continues the brand’s message of “What we value most, shouldn’t cost more.”
Agency: Wieden+Kennedy London
The discount retailer’s 2021 ad takes place at a school “Festive Comeback Concert” (something that definitely wouldn’t have been legal in 2020) as a teacher introduces a nervous boy, Laurie, sitting at an old-fashioned organ. Parents look at their phones dismissively as he stumbles through the first chords. But after he looks down at his early Christmas present, a pair of shiny new boots, he gains the confidence to launch into Aerosmith's “Walk This Way,” leaping onto the keyboard and even using his feet to play the instrument. The spot comes from longtime agency Wieden+Kennedy London and was directed by Raine Allen-Miller, who helmed last year's funny Tesco ad.
Agency: Wieden+Kennedy London
Sainsbury's festive ad puts a quirky twist on celebration to highlight how we need to “savor” Christmas this year. To the soundtrack of "At Last" by Etta James, it shows a family at a holiday party, but their actions are slowed down as if frozen in time, because, according to a voiceover from Stephen Fry, “It’s been a long time coming.”
Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam
Samsung Galaxy's holiday ad by Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam turns a popular modern love story theme on its head. Instead of a person falling in love with a computer, robot or digital assistant, a phone fallis in love with a young woman who spots it through the shop window. Cue the Backstreet Boys song "I Want It That Way" and an array of devices singing their love to the eventual buyer of the phone. The message? "You are the gift."
Agency: BBH London
Tesco's ad from BBH says that this holiday season, nothing—from travel restrictions to stock shortages—"is stopping us." It's set to the soundtrack of Queen's classic “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and includes a scene in which Santa shows off his vaccine passport, which attracted the wrath of anti-vaxxers and led to over 3,000 complaints so far to the U.K’s Advertising Standards Authority.
Agency: Grey London
The Christmas ad rush started very early in the U.K. this year, with the first spot coming out of the gate on Oct. 1 from online retailer Very. It playfully nodded at its own early arrival by featuring carolers arriving at a doorstep—when everyone else was trick-or-treating.
Agency: VMLY&R; Bold Budapest
Vodafone's poignant holiday ad for Hungary centers on a lonely widower who can’t stop talking to everyone he meets. The spot by VMLY&R and Bold Budapest comes as the company is offering free internet access to seniors to connect them over the holiday period.
Vodafone Ireland puts the spotlight on how it’s bringing more connectivity to rural communities in this romantic tale that also has a meaningful product message. Created by Grey London, it’s the story of a young farmer who pines for his old neighbor, a young woman who has moved abroad and only comes back at Christmas. The low-key romance, tinged with regrets and missed opportunities, gave us “Normal People” vibes.
Virgin Media O2
Virgin Media O2 addresses “digital poverty” with a film featuring its robot mascot, Bubl, who spreads joy in the form of mobile data to those who don’t have internet. The brand is giving away 10 GB of O2 data to the cause for every mobile plan purchased over the holiday period.
Agency: The Pharm
Walgreens pushes convenience in its humorous campaign reminding consumers where they can go in case of last-minute emergencies, such as when you forget your sister’s coming over for the holidays and you didn’t get her a present.