It’s that special time of the year again. A time made for letting it snow, spreading joy to the world, and allowing visions of sugarplums to dance in our heads. For decades, brand mascots and spokescharacters have been joining us in making the holiday season merry and bright in commercials beloved by viewers of all ages.
We’re paying tribute to some of the season’s most enduring, inspiring, and heartwarming spots starring these icons. Get a cup of hot cocoa ready as our panel of experts take us on a stroll through a winter wonderland featuring a humble bumblebee’s encounter with Scrooge, polar bears pausing to enjoy a refreshing beverage, and a village learning what it means to open your heart to everyone.
1. Buster the Boxer | John Lewis
This furry friend leapt into our list and the hearts of viewers in the global 2016 Christmas advert for the UK’s John Lewis department stores. All Buster the Boxer wants is to jump to his heart’s content on a trampoline. Seemingly all of the other woodland creatures get their turn before he does, but on Christmas morning Buster races his human to hop on the trampoline before she does. As VAULTS “One Day I’ll Fly Away” plays in the background, the pup is blissed out — having truly flown away as he jumps for joy.
She notes that John Lewis did more than create a commercial full of warm fuzzies. The Buster the Boxer campaign is an immersive social campaign including 360-degree video using Oculus Rift technology and Snapchat filters.
“John Lewis invited customers to a meaningful relationship with the mascot and created an entire experience around it. That's not just brand marketing. That's love marketing.”
For years, the ads from John Lewis have been some of the most anticipated of the season. Greg Wagner, Professor at Denver University and former creative director for DMB&B and Leo Burnett, believes opting for a soft-sell approach instead of Black Friday doorbusters truly works for the brand.
2. Monty the Penguin | John Lewis
What about past John Lewis mascots? Gary Goldhammer, Director of Creative Strategy, U.S. at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, is a fan of Monty the Penguin from the 2014 advert. “It’s a great story, one to which we can all relate: we’ve all been that child whose toys were real and when we most needed it, was also our best friend. This ad is ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ come to life but with a great message about giving. It doesn’t even need to be a holiday ad, it would work without those images because the story is so universal and powerful.”
3. Bullseye | Target
Bullseye, easily recognized with a white coat and red ‘bullseye,’ has been a longtime Target icon. Dr. J. Charlene Davis, Professor of Marketing at Trinity University, is a fan of commercial spots where Bullseye gets in on the action. “In this 2016 clip, he’s helpful and energetic, paired with children as the shoppers, planners or doers. The emotional combination of kids and a dog is solid.”
4. The Crazy Target Lady | Target
On the flip side of the Target coin, we have the ‘Crazy Target Lady’ and no, that’s not a reference to Kristen Wiig’s Target saleswoman skit on Saturday Night Live. Copywriter Hugh Gurin names the 2010 Target training montage as his favorite holiday mascot commercial. Starring comedian Maria Bamford, the spot is a nod to the training montage in Rocky as a shopper frantically preps for the biggest competition of them all: Black Friday.
“She embodies the true, full-contact spirit of the season. It still makes me want to laugh, cry, shop and curl into a fetal position all at the same time.” Gurin says.
5. California Raisins | The California Raisin Industry
In the 1980s, the California Raisins crooned their way to the hearts of millions and even had four LP albums including Christmas with the California Raisins. But they also had their own holiday special, which you might have heard about through the grapevine.
Jon Yasgur, Creative Director at The Brooklyn Brothers, would like to thank the big man himself — Santa Claus — for YouTube preserving the California Raisins Christmas Special. “That’s the ultimate dream for advertising — to become a true part of pop culture, far beyond the campaign. And their rendition of ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ actually holds up. Reunion tour, anyone?”
6. Frankenstein | Apple
Tis the season for… Frankenstein? Elliott Smith, Executive Creative Director at Klick Health, loves traditional mascots as much as everyone else, but deeply appreciates Apple’s unexpected approach in choosing Frankenstein for the 2016 ‘Frankie’s Holiday’ spot. "The story of an exiled soul taking a risk, opening his heart, and creating a connection (both figuratively, and literally with the lightbulb metaphor) is what this season is all about."
Angela DelBrocco, Social Media Strategist + Account Executive at MurphyEpson, appreciates how Apple tastefully and strategically tapped into nostalgia with a Grinch and Cindy Lou Who-esque storyline. “The winning formula here is taking something evergreen and combining it with the modern, relevant and heartwarming theme of inclusiveness. It great to see a brand dedicated to reminding us there are others who might need extra comfort and acceptance around this time of year, and in this specific year, too.”
7. Mayhem | Allstate
Mayhem is everywhere, especially during the holiday season. Tim Jensen, Senior Strategist at Overit, is a big fan of Allstate’s take on the 12 Days of Christmas starring Mayhem. Let’s go caroling with the new version — altogether now!
12 trees a-rolling!
11 puppies eating!
10 pipes a-bursting!
9 ladies jogging!
8 flags a-flying!
7 dishes falling!
6 Deans a-texting!
5 snowy roads!
4 icy roads!
3 frozen deer!
And a shaky, shaky, shaky, shaky tree!
8. The Pillsbury Doughboy | Pillsbury
Image source: General Mills
In 2014’s “The Gift” commercial spot from Pillsbury, a family gathered around a table to express how much they appreciated someone who had been part of the family for as long as they could remember. That particular family member was none other than the Pillsbury Doughboy, provider of crescent rolls and giggles and part of holiday traditions for over 50 years. And there’s no better way to say thank you than by giving Poppin’ Fresh a present — his first pair of jeans!
Not counting his infamous neckerchief or hat, Greta Hanson, Marketing Communications Manager for Pillsbury, was thrilled to see the Doughboy receive a wardrobe must-have. “This spot shows one family’s love and appreciation for the Doughboy, as they give him a gift of his own! In the Doughboy’s case it’s the thought that counts — as he holds up his first-ever piece of clothing that doesn’t seem likely to fit!
9. Buzz Bee | Honey Nut Cheerios
It’s A Christmas Carol retold for cereal lovers. In this 1989 spot, Ebenezer Scrooge is determined to “Bah! Humbug!” away any and every Christmas offering including Honey Nut Cheerios. Only Buzz Bee, in a Bob Cratchit-esque role, melts Scrooge’s frosty personality with a bowl filled with the tasty breakfast treat.
Susanne Prucha, Director of Marketing for Cheerios, loves how this classic holiday spot illuminates how Buzz’s cheerful personality has been warming households for generations. “His positivity is able to put a smile on even the most notorious curmudgeon. Not even Scrooge could say no to the ‘honey of an ‘O.’”
10. Clydesdales | Budweiser
Galloping into our hearts, and commercials, since 1987, few mascots showcase the arrival of the holiday season quite like the Budweiser Clydesdales at Anheuser-Busch.
Christina Oswald, Digital Marketing Analyst at Moncur, recounts that even as a child she knew what a Clydesdale stood for. Kind of. “I remember just assuming every Clydesdale was a Budweiser horse, excitedly pointing them out at parades shouting ‘Budweiser!’ while my parents were mortified that their kid was shouting about beer. This was all well before I knew what Budweiser even was.”
11. M&M’S Red and Yellow | M&M’S
It’s your esteemed writer’s turn to add in a commercial I’ve always enjoyed during the holiday season which is none other than 1994’s “Christmas Faint” M&M’S spot.
Twas the night before Christmas and Red and Yellow are tiptoeing their way into the living room to drop off a bowl of M&M’s as a midnight snack for Santa. Yellow asks Red if Santa will like the M&M’S while Red keeps his cool with an aloof dismissal that Santa might not even be real. But Red is in for a shock when he finds out Santa does exist — and Santa is surprised that the M&M’S mascots exist too! Both Red and Santa faint leaving Yellow timidly holding the bowl. The spot runs a little under 15 seconds, making it social media friendly well beyond its years, and is just the right amount of playful to add to the magic of both Santa Claus and the holiday season. Come to think of it, I could go for a bowl of red and green M&M’S right about now…
12. Polar Bears | Coca-Cola
The team at Active Web Group always anticipates the arrival of these adorable icons. “They remind us that sharing is caring, teamwork is key, and it’s never too cold to enjoy a refreshing Coca-Cola beverage!”
Nothing illustrates that sentiment better than 2012’s “Catch” which features the huge polar bears slipping and sliding on ice to *catch* an ice-cold bottle of Coca-Cola. Obvious branding aside, what Dr. J. Charlene Davis loves about these mascots is that they aren’t trying to sell you a product. “There is no sales message, just reinforcing statements about peace, joy, celebration. The image of polar bear as a lumbering happy soul who is willing to wake up from a long nap to enjoy an ice cold soft drink is endearing.”
13. Santa Claus | Coca-Cola
“Something magic in the night, can’t you see it shining bright?”
Coca-Cola’s most iconic rendering to be associated with the brand may very well be that of Jolly Saint Nick. Steve Babcock, Chief Creative Officer at VaynerMedia, reveals that the depiction of the Santa we all know and love — a big, jolly man with a white beard, boots, and a red suit — is all made possible thanks to Finnish-American artist Haddon Sundblom.
Hired by Coca-Cola to paint Santa for a 1931 “Thirst Knows No Season” campaign, Sundblom created the vision of Santa Claus that we all know and love today. Due to the ad’s popularity Sundblom continued to paint Santa from 1931 to 1964.
“That one print ad has since turned into the universally accepted depiction of Santa Claus.” Babcock says, “I've always loved this story because it shows the real potential that advertising has to influence culture."
And to that we say happy holidays to all, and to all a good night!