Celebrating excellence, creativity, inspiration, and leadership in business with an eye for compelling marketing and communications.

Looking for Marketing Excellence in 2009 Holiday TV Commercials – The Good. The Bad. The Ugly.

By Joanne Maly

December 10, 2009



Looking for Marketing Excellence in Holiday TV Commercials

The Good. The Bad. The Ugly.

We’ve heard it said a hundred times – holidays bring out the worst – and the best – in people. For this post, I would like to add an extension to that old adage: holidays bring out the worst  – and the best – in marketing efforts – namely, TV commercials.

A seemingly steady stream of holiday-themed-30-second (going-on-five-minutes) commercials visit us, uninvited, each winter holiday season. I have begun to now identify some of the main culprits this year as ‘the bad’ and ‘the ugly’. Of course, there are examples of ‘the good’ as well.

Simply said, we have a potpourri of ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’ commercials regularly interrupting our lives in our family rooms and living rooms this December. Laughingly too, some of the worst creative commercial offenders also have the largest ad budgets.

I have conducted my own non-scientific study of some of the 2009 season’s spots and have analyzed why – despite jingles, bangles, and red and green pizzazz – many of these commercials seem to conjure up memories of unpleasant reactions (similar to an attack of mosquito bites, biting into a lemon slice, or sipping a bitter glass of wine.)

My criteria for the good, the bad, and the ugly ratings was culled from years of knowledge shared by excellent graphic artists, research articles, personal observation and intuition, and of course, ‘some’ experience in the area.  When judging your own TV commercial experience, your criteria will be based on some of your own experience and training – but both of us will need to add in our own individual tastes when rating commercials.

A pattern evolved in my review of over forty 2009 holiday commercials for this post. I’ll share my ratings here but I wonder … which commercials are your good, your bad and your ugly? What criteria do you use to make your own selections?

The Good

- The good commercials may take an often-used theme (e.g., receiving an engagement ring during the holidays) but then approach the idea with emotion, creativity, and a sense that ‘this is a genuine moment.’

- The good spots make strong use of basic Marketing 101, Cinematography 101, Consumer Behavior 101, and Design 101 concepts.

- The good spots have incorporated age, gender, ethnic and cultural demographics subtly and effectively.

- The messaging and scripts in the good commercials are often simple. Simple phrases. Limited verbiage. Songs with clever, new lyrics (to traditional holiday tunes) are not sung too fast.

- The good spots are visceral, often emotional, and feeling-based.

- The good commercials incorporate scenes of lightly falling snow or gentle flurries, and feature soft and often-diffused colors and simple visuals.

- The music in the good commercials is not clip-artish but instead is original, non-abrasive and enveloping. If the spot includes bells or chimes, these are not the same bells or chimes that we have heard on three other holiday commercials in a two-hour window. The sleigh bells don’t resemble Mannheim Steamroller electronically-created music.

- The good commercials invoke a reaction that I would like to watch that spot again (a bit similar to wishing for a rerun of an old Hallmark holiday show like “The Gathering,” or the perennial favorites “Miracle on 34th Street”, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “White Christmas.”)

- The good commercials leave viewers saying to themselves I want to be there, go there, do that, wear that.

‘The List’ of ‘The Good’

The Disneyland 2009 Holiday Commercial

This year’s Disneyland holiday commercial offers us 30 seconds of visual eye-candy. Period. The spot’s creators didn’t fall for the temptation to say a lot. The text and the print-over copy simply states ‘joy to the small world.’ Even the treatment of the Disneyland.com address is creative – from the branded use of the word Disneyland to the sprinkling of Tinkerbell fairy dust over the word Disneyland. There is the most obvious call-to-action – visit Disneyland. The final result – the best of the good and we could watch the commercial again without feeling bombarded and annoyed.

L.L.Bean 2009 Holiday Commercial

The 2009 L.L.Bean holiday commercial captivates you immediately with its original chime sounds, the quiet feel of each video vignette, the slow-motion of the hikers, runners, sledders, and the gentle-falling flurries, and the young girl sweetly blowing a mist of powdery snow.

Even the unobtrusive voice of the commercial’s narrator doesn’t jar us out of our own personal experience while watching the 30-seconds of fine videography.

One objectionable fine-tuning criticism of this commercial though was that the very first text words used in the spot are… ‘every penny counts.’ I wish L.L.Bean had stayed with the simple magic of their spot and chosen to not interject a jarring economic message as their first visual message point. The commercial’s now-second text-over … ‘every memory counts’) would have been a strong text lead-in. That message could then be followed up with another text-over … ‘every moment counts’. The producers could have then perhaps included these simple text-over messages… ‘be family’ … ‘be a friend’. I believe the commercial’s effectiveness would have been stronger with these tweaks.

The call-to-action L.L.Bean discount slide at the end is simple, effective.

Zales Jewelers 2009 Holiday Commercial

We expect jewelry store commercials every winter holiday season and frequently the spots can feel expected and non-original. This year’s Zales holiday spot taps into the moments of raw emotion. The commercials provide soft backgrounds, simple shots, persons we relate to, and a purity of moments and memories we remember, or long for. The spots succeed too because they focus on the receiving of the ring, not the worry of buying. By focusing on the quiet intimacy of others’ holiday moments, Zales doesn’t need to say much – and they don’t – thus not detouring – or deterring – from the magic of the simplicity of the commercial. In fact, the bulk of the verbal comments in the spot are different variations of the word ‘yes’. A simple text-over slide with the solo diamond ring, followed by the strongly-simple placement of the Zales logo on a simple grey-white background, says all the commercial needs to say … and that is …  ‘Say… I love you like never before … with the Celebration diamond. Exclusively at Zales.”

The Rock School – Nutcracker – 2009 Holiday Commercial

Think December and you think of ‘The Nutcracker” and multitude performances of that treasured ballet. Philadelphia’s Rock School’s 2009 commercial for The Nutcracker is so well-produced and viewer-enticing that I’ve included it as one of the good holiday commercials this year. The piece is simple with soft fades and titillating moments of colorful performance visuals. The minimal use of script in the commercial is handled effectively with superimposed short phrases (fairy tale holiday; the new classic; Nutcracker 1776.) The last text-over slide provides viewers with all of the important – and simple – next-steps to ‘get this experience’ (i.e., the necessary buy-your-tickets-now information.)

The Bad

When reviewing commercials in-depth for this post, I saw many Target-looking, Gap-acting, Apple-imitating, Disney-cloning commercials… but, bottom line, ‘they were not.’

Electronic-ized sleigh bells were the ‘bells de jour’ this year and if you would do a similar exercise, you might find yourself laughing, as I did, when you realize how many companies are using the same sleigh bell sounds. Somewhere out there, a savvy sleigh bell entrepreneur/slash/semi-musician is making a fortune on sleigh bell royalties. (Note: why didn’t I think of that?)

For those holiday commercials that aren’t ‘really bad’ but just plain ‘not good’, there is thus the category: ‘the bad.’

‘The List’ of ‘The Bad’

Hallmark 2009 Holiday Commercial

Feelings-prominent holiday Hallmark commercials have become a branded product of themselves. The commercials possess a popularity not dissimilar to the pull of the Super Bowl in that many viewers watch that annual football game to be sure to catch all of the special-occasion commercials. There must be a high level of creative pressure on the Hallmark team to produce a home-run each winter holiday… much less each major holiday throughout the year.

I was disappointed with the Hallmark 2009 holiday commercial. The 17-second-long Hallmark delivery truck spot is clever, but feels as if it should receive one of those nice-teacher-nice-effort compliments and not a good ranking. This is unfortunate because it does appear that someone went to ‘a lot’ of trouble creating this commercial and making the spot ‘work.’ Perhaps therein lies the source of the problem. Are we viewers being asked (told) to understand that Hallmark provides ‘love, caring, joy, wonder, concern, thoughtfulness, wonder, etc.? Hallmark, how about picking your top three emotions and going with those? Otherwise, we have a case of packing so much into the package, that we’re not too sure at the end of the commercial what we feel – much less what we are supposed to do next.

Target 2009 Holiday Commercial

Target offers a series of similar-themed holiday commercials this year. In this particular Target holiday spot, the viewer is privy to an intimate Christmas morning moment with a wife unwrapping a flat-screen TV. We are thrust into a ‘tense’ family moment and are put into one of those awkward, uncomfortable minutes while the couple debates (in front of their eye-focused young children) Santa’s choice of spending this season. The commercial doesn’t offer good acting, good script, a good take-away feeling, a good memory, a good anything.

The final short music clip of ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ feels as if these music bars were thrown in for good measure.

An interesting note is that so many companies and advertisers are trying to imitate Target with their almost iconic red/white color theme; its traditional fun, product- Kaleidoscope-type ads. Yet, Target itself has deviated from its own success history.

Acura 2009 Holiday Commercial

This year’s Acura holiday commercial could have made the good list with its creativity alone, but some elements in the final spot cause enough conflicts that I’ve chosen to bump them to the bad category.

The commercial begins with an original friendly tune … but stops … and then picks up the melody again half-way through the spot. The final result is a feeling that we have a cut-and-paste music track as the commercial’s foundation.

The quick, fun video clips that provide the base (for the first half of the spot) each focus on a simple image, simple activity, and excellent photo concepts – but the camera focus in several points is skewed. We are also left wondering who is unwrapping present #1 and what is that present anyway?

Garmin 2009 Holiday Commercial

Some elements in the 2009 Garmin Holiday Commercial are excellent, but there are enough of the what-were-they-thinking? type bumps that, based on this post’s judging criteria, this potentially-home-run commercial moves to the bad grouping. Garmin tries to achieve something that in my mind is a sure-fail. They’ve taken an identifiable, fast-paced holiday tune and created their own lyrics with this result: the first-time, second-time, and even the third-time viewer is left working hard to hear what the vocalists are saying.

At the end of the commercial’s song, the lyrics say (in tune with the music) ‘fun local tips at finger tips’. That tagline is good enough that I would have liked to have seen that as a text-over on the screen – in addition to – or even instead of – the final script/text tagline ‘follow the leader.’

The Garmin commercial provides us with an example of the often-used, check-out-line-mimicking holiday bell sounds. And… who does the scary clown appeal to in this commercial? The look, feel, and treatment of this holiday clown almost conveys a Chucky-like karma and it doesn’t seem like a strong fit with the total package, especially in a spot that does have some strong creative elements. Kudos go to the Garmin creative team though for their effective reinforced take-away message  – go to garmin.com

The Gap 2009 Holiday Commercial – Tween Demographics

Gap commercials are traditionally identifiable, fun, memorable, and successful. This year’s Gap ‘Kids’ holiday commercial misses the mark on several key elements. The child dancer/singers’ lip-synching is not only off, it is distracting. There are numerous moments in the 30-second spot that the visual photography is out-of-focus. There is such a quantity of fast-paced-quickly-sung lyrics to follow that you have to watch the spot several times to catch everything and work hard to follow the script. The youths are in fact talking about a ‘moose’ (why, I don’t know) but it definitely ‘sounds’ like they are singing about their boots. Final result: such potential that missed the mark.

The Ugly

In addition to not offering all of the elements we might observe in a strong or a good holiday commercials, the ugly rating is reserved for those commercially that appear to be inexpensively-produced (if not cheaply); offensive; message-off-targeted; visually-poor; and musically-challenged.

Commercials in this category are actually not all that uncommon and fall into the category of I-would-not-want-to-watch-that-again. I liken these holiday commercials to the many holiday TV specials (e.g., a Lifetime Channel-type production similar to ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and I Wish I Hadn’t.’)

‘The List’ of ‘The Ugly’

Overstock.com 2009 Holiday Commercial

Overstock.com seems to have a large holiday advertising budget this year and unfortunately that means that their ugly-ranked commercial is airing frequently. The solo female vocalist’s voice is not lip-synched. Ditto… some of the other chorus singers’ synching. Not only is the mouth-synching off-kilter, but in the final selection of the commercial, the clapping rhythm for the chorus members is off as well. The music utilizes the above-described clip-art-type tech-type holiday bells. I need to ask: Is the white-fur-trimmed-coated-boot-wearing-out-of-date-hairstyle-red-lipsticked-only-walking-a-lot star the focus for Overstock.com … or is the focus the Overstock.com products, free shipping, unique service, great pricing? The first time I saw this spot, I was across the room and didn’t know this was an Overstock.com spot until the end, and had initially thought that perhaps this was a commercial for fake snow, red lipstick, fur coats, or perhaps face lifts.

This commercial again reinforces the issues that arise in a short commercial spot that use specifically-created new lyrics for a fast-paced traditional holiday jingle. The result so often is that we viewers (or listeners when the spot is also cross-pollinated on radio) miss the cute lyrics. I mentioned above that many companies try to duplicate the old Target-type ads with the almost all-white, sterile background scene set with highlighted ‘Target’ red products or apparel. This is one of those commercials.

Old Navy 2009 Holiday Commercial

According to this post’s criteria, this year’s Old Navy holiday Modelquin commercials are rated as one of this season’s ugly offerings. The commercials feature manikin ice skaters (super modelquins) skating to a cut-and-paste type electronic holiday jingle tune.

The spot begins with a fast (very fast) title text-over slide announcing the Old Navy Super Modelquins vignette. The commercial’s visuals and the production quality are marginal and accompany an even poorer script. Why is Old Navy using manikins? Why the addition of the female manikin’s British accent? Why the corny humor? After you watch this commercial, you are left with this question, is this really the best Old Navy can do as a large national company?

IHOP 2009 Holiday Commercial

I’ve been impressed by the remaking and rebranding of IHOP as a product itself over the last five years, but this year’s national IHOP holiday commercial takes the company back more than a hop and a jump. The showcased pancakes don’t look tasty; they do look out-of-focus and as if they have been sitting on the conveyor belt too long. The Nutcracker jokes about Halloween costumes are corny and meaningless – and take up 6-plus seconds of the total 17-second spot. The Holiday Hotcakes text-over appears so quickly (2-seconds) that it can be missed or at least not fully caught. The last 2-second quick text-over of the IHOP website and core information appears on the screen so quickly and in such small scope that it isn’t visible and thus, not effective.

The Gap 2009 Holiday Commercial – Adult Demographics

Gap has tried to be all things to all people in this year’s adult-targeted holiday commercial featuring a rap-friendly, somewhat-clever, trendy, politically-correct and politically-safe holiday theme. I believe their end result is a off-message, hard-to-understand, lyric-heavy, words-unclear, noise-infused, semi-creative commercial. This spot mentions Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas, Solstice … and taps into the green initiatives and liberation movements. Whew! That is a hefty agenda for a 33-second spot.

Which commercials are your good, bad and ugly? What criteria do you use to make your own selections?

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment box below.

If you liked this post, please share it on Twitter, Digg, Delicious, StumbleUpon, Reddit, LinkedIn, or Facebook. And, I’d be honored if you would like to follow me on Twitter @JoanneMaly or visit the Lincoln Maly Marketing page.

Feel free to join the Lincoln Maly Marketing Facebook page as well for regular updates on excellence, creativity, management, leadership, motivation, marketing, and corporate communications.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses to “Looking for Marketing Excellence in 2009 Holiday TV Commercials – The Good. The Bad. The Ugly.”

  1. Joanne Maly says:

    Thank you for your kind words. I don’t have an e-newsletter yet, but look for that in the new year. I took a look at your CharlotteWeddingPhotography.com website. You have done some excellent photographic work and you have a simple, welcoming, attractive website. Congratulations to you. Thanks again for visiting the ‘Simply Said’ blog. – Joanne Maly

  2. [...] This post was Twitted by JoanneMaly [...]

  3. Joanne Maly says:

    Tim, thanks for stopping by the ‘Simply Said’ blog. We’d be happy for you to visit our Facebook page and here is that URL:

    Take care.

Leave a Reply

Anti-Spam Protection by WP-SpamFree