With Christmas right around the corner, Santa has made his list and he’s checking it twice. And this year, many adults have been naughtier than nice.
This year, we’ve seen politicians getting nastier on Twitter than even the meanest of teenage mean girls. Daily headlines tell us about powerful and once-respected men being fired for behavior that would make even sixteen-year-old boys blush. And how many countless hours have American adults spent arguing (or just fuming) about politics, racial equality, patriotism, football, and a variety of other hot-button issues?
Don’t get me wrong. Grownups have had our high points. We’ve banded together during natural disasters and given record amounts of money to charitable causes. But in many ways, 2017 has been a year of adults behaving badly, which is why I’m loving the theme behind this year’s best holiday storytelling campaigns: the wisdom of children.
Sure, children are inexperienced. Their brains aren’t fully formed. Some of them even still believe in Santa. And thank goodness for that, because otherwise who would remind us about the simple things in life? They remind us of things adults know but sometimes forget—like the value of compassion, the joy in creativity, and the magic of storytelling.
I’ve been contributing to the Content Standard since 2014, and every year I write an article about holiday commercials—the emotional themes, the innovative strategies, the strong storytelling. It’s my favorite annual research project, and a great way to get into the holiday spirit, even if I do usually end up with a headache from all the sentimental crying.
This year, I watched hours of holiday brand storytelling, including all the great commercials that my colleague, Lauren McMenemy, featured in her recent article, “The Great British Christmas Ad: How UK Retailers Dive Head-First into Festive Brand Storytelling.” There were many great ads about family ties, romantic love, and acts of kindness. But the best of the best—the ones that made me cry and think—were the ones starring thoughtful and compassionate children.
Granted, children are always a good marketing strategy. They’re right up there with kittens and puppies in terms of cuteness, plus they do say the darnedest things. But they also say and do some really wise things. They parrot back to us the valuable lessons that adults have taught them, and they remind us to look at life through a simpler, kinder, and more magical lens. For that, I thank them and the brands smart enough to give them a voice this holiday season.
Before you go any further, a quick word of warning. If you’re a sentimental person who gets embarrassed about crying in public, you’ll want to watch several of these in private.
Adults understand the importance of compassion and empathy. We’re the ones who teach children these values. We tell them to be considerate of others, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and to reach out when people are in need or in pain. We intend to do these things as well, but sometimes we get so busy with our own lives, jobs, and families that we miss opportunities to show kindness to strangers.
The little boy in the Macy’s holiday ad isn’t too busy to notice the little girl who lives with her father in a lighthouse near his home—the little girl who doesn’t have any brothers and sisters to play with and whose mother has recently died. He sees her every time he plays on the beach with his family and wants to connect with the sad stranger. So, when his parents let him unwrap a gift on Christmas Eve (a baseball-themed lamp from Macy’s), he uses it to send the girl a message in Morse code, inviting her and her father to Christmas dinner with his family.
The look on the boy’s face when they show up at the door makes it clear that he got his Christmas wish—not for a new lamp, but for the opportunity to be a light in someone else’s life. His story reminds us of the meaning of Christmas (heck, the meaning of life), and that’s always a story worth telling.
Another story about the kindness of strangers, HP’s holiday commercial casts a young woman (not a kid) as the hero. But her creative gift for a little girl in the neighboring apartment building reminds us that while adults are responsible for making Christmas magical for children, that magic doesn’t always require a trip to the toy store. With a little creativity, we can gift memories that last a lifetime.
The story begins with the little girl drawing Christmas pictures in crayon. She looks out her window and notices the young woman, who is sitting in front of her window with a computer. They share a smile and a wave, and the little girl goes back to her artwork, but the young woman continues to look around. She glances in the window directly above the little girl and notices an old man painting wooden fairy puppets. In the apartment above him, she spots a little boy dropping birdseed from his balcony. That gives her an idea. She uses her HP computer to design three invitations — a card telling the little girl to go out on her balcony at 6 p.m., a poster for the old man asking him to put on a puppet show, and a package of white flakes for the boy asking him to “make it snow.”
At 6 p.m., the little girl walks onto the balcony. A few seconds later, two fairy puppets drop down to perform a dance for her, and then the “snowflakes” begin to fall. The sheer awe on the girl’s face is a great reminder that wonder and imagination are timeless gifts, not only for children but for the adults who inspire them.
Remember what I said about adults making Christmas magical for kids? As any parent knows, it works the other way, too. Seeing the holidays through their eyes brings back the Christmas spirit that tends to fade with age. Seeing ourselves through their eyes—now, that’s a gift year-round.
Ikea’s heartwarming “Bottled” ad features a single mom who works hard all year to provide for her son and to create loving, happy memories for him. We see her crying and stressing when he’s not around, as she struggles to pay the bills and manage a household all on her own. Meanwhile, when she’s not looking, he is “collecting” those experiences in empty bottles from Ikea and labeling them with the emotions he associates with each memory (and with his mother).
On Christmas morning, he leads her to the Christmas tree, under which he has placed all the bottles with labels such as “happy,” “kindness,” and “thoughtful.” When he hands her the bottle that says “love,” she cries tears of joy (and so did I).
The meaningful message is twofold: The most valuable gifts we give our children don’t cost a thing, and love isn’t seasonal. It’s a gift we give every day, and kids notice that, even when we don’t.
Adults spend a lot of time complaining about how much time children spend looking at screens, but where do you think they learned that behavior? Yes, kids like to play with smartphones, and they often tune out the sound of adult voices while they’re doing it. But they don’t like it when we do it. They want us to give our attention to them, not to our devices.
Lincoln reminds us of that in “Olivia’s Wish List,” the whimsical but meaningful story of a little girl who wants the adults around her to disconnect from their smartphones and connect with each other. As Olivia rides through the streets of town in the backseat of a Lincoln, she notices that all the grownups on the sidewalk are heads-down, tapping away on their phones. She looks discouraged and then she has an idea. She picks up the snow globe on the seat next to her, closes her eyes, and gives it a good shake. Suddenly, snow begins to fall and all the adults look up from their devices. When she shakes it again, toys parachute from the sky and reindeer appear on the sidewalk. She cranks the handle on the snow globe to make the music play, and suddenly all the adults begin dancing in the street.
Olivia’s wish reminds us to slow down and disconnect, so that we might connect with the people right in front of us, so that we can notice the joy and wonder in the world, and so that we can pay more attention to our children. And like all the other storytelling campaigns on this list, this lesson isn’t seasonal.
The second ad in Lincoln’s holiday brand storytelling campaign takes a different approach. Where Olivia’s wish is magical, Rylie’s is mundane, and perhaps even more powerful because of its realism.
The documentary-style story introduces us to Rylie, a little girl with a long list of wishes—that every household could have a pet unicorn, that her sister didn’t have to wear braces, that her mother could have a day off from work.
Her greatest wish, however, is for her family to “have an awesome bonding time that not every family gets to have”—i.e., for her family to build a movie theater in the backyard. Lincoln helps make that wish come true by providing all the supplies, and Rylie’s father and sister help her set everything up. When Mom comes home, they surprise her with the outdoor theater, and the family gets to have the “awesome bonding time” that Rylie wished for.
Rylie and Olivia both remind us that children want gifts from us, but they really want our time and attention more. They want to bond. They want family togetherness. They want the simple things in life. And really, don’t we all want that?
Kids understand more than we give them credit for. They understand that the holidays aren’t just about gifts, that experiences and connections are more valuable than stuff, and that how we treat others matters most of all.
Smart brand marketers get that, too—so they don’t just use cute kids to sell stuff. They use the wisdom of children to tell stories that make emotional connections with their audiences. And that kind of inspiration makes for a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!
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Featured image attribution: Mike Arney