Memories of Christmas Past

‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’.

Even here in Hong Kong where I’m now living, there’s a very special, tangible feeling at Xmas time unlike no other.

This year, I’ve been observing from afar Xmas advertising from brands in the US and UK.  I have to say, generally I think it’s getting better and better each year, and for me, the outstanding highlights have been Lego, Tesco and John Lewis.


Nothing controversial about those choices, I think most people would agree they’re outstanding pieces of work.  But I’ve been thinking about what makes them great and I think they all have one thing in common.

That’s that they all understand that Xmas is really about memories of Xmas’ past, and these ads all brilliantly tap into the existing memory structures, associations and stories we already have about Xmas.

We make sense of the world around us only through our memories and stories from our past.  It’s how we know who we are when we wake up in the morning and how we know what brand to choose from in what would otherwise be an utterly confusing supermarket (actually my first few experiences of Hong Kong supermarkets were a bit like this, like having brand amnesia from not knowing anything about the products on shelf!).

As Daniel Kahneman has written, we have two selves.  The remembering, storytelling self and the experiencing self.  The remembering self maintains the story of our lives, while the experiencing self who lives, feels and knows the present.

But what he also suggests is that the remembering self is the one that holds sway over us. The remembering, storytelling self actually makes future decisions for us, not the experiencing self.  We even think of our future as anticipated memories.

So what these ads have in common, whether it’s a father building dreams together with his son made of Lego bricks, or reminiscing of Xmas’ past with the family through the generations or a throwback to animated Disney classics, they  all appeal to the memories and stories that define who we are and what we understand Xmas to be all about.  We all have stories similar to these, and when we see them played out in front of us, we’re reinforcing those happy memories and encoding new ones with these brands forming new associations with them.

So when it comes to decision making about where to shop or what to buy, when our remembering self cranks up into decision-making mode, it will call upon the strongest; most salient memories forged in out brains and the brands most intrinsically, creatively and emotionally associated with them.

Just as a footnote, Xmas brilliantly demonstrates Kahneman’s theory of the two selves. There’s something very special about Xmas, in that our memories of experience are often much fonder than the experiences themselves! It’s these memories we wish to treasure and the things we do at this time of year are often to form new anticipated memories.  That for me is what makes the new Apple spot so great.  Xmas is all about these memories, and they just really get it.