Ad War: Christmas Car Commercials

By Kimberly Stewart

Car commercials – a staple of the holiday season. Recently, we released a list of 10-holiday commercials and ranked them based on brand impact. This list included three car commercials from massive brands – BMW, Hyundai, and Nissan.


At Neuro-Insight, we look to the subconscious to see how effectively brands (like BMW, Hyundai, and Nissan) are able to communicate their message. Our patented technology, Steady State Topography (SST), allows us to measure second-by-second brain responses that breach the conscious and get to the root of human emotion and decision-making.


Our technology allows us to understand exactly what consumers are encoding into long-term memory. Memory matters because what we subconsciously decide to store in memory today becomes the base for our decision-making in the future (it is a predictive measure). As we explore what consumers are encoding into memory, we also look to the brain to tell us why a particular event or message is being stored – for this we leverage key diagnostic metrics including approach / withdrawal, emotional intensity, and engagement.


We decided to use our neuro-analyses to compare detail and global memory encoding for each ad. Detail memory encoding measures the consumers’ processing of detail elements in the ad (key messaging, brand logo, call to action, etc.). High scores indicate consumers are actively storing information which correlates with a high likelihood of future action. ​Global memory encoding measures the consumers’ processing of brand thematic elements in the ad (narrative structure, visual style, music, etc.). A brand’s goal should be to create an engaging, memorable narrative (high global memory bias) with clean branding / messaging moments (peaks in detail memory encoding).


So, how did these car commercials stack up with one another?





Coming in at number 4 on our list, BMW made a funny ad about an accidental gift exchange. A ribbon falls on the son’s shiny, new BMW and his father thinks it’s a gift for him… oops!


Throughout the ad, we see plenty of moments where viewers remember the narrative. From the time the family gets out of their car in the grandparent’s driveway to the time the grandpa drives his “new” car, global memory is high.


Unfortunately, BMW’s branding doesn’t pack the same punch. There are no peaks in detail memory encoding that overlap branding / messaging. Perhaps, BMW could show its logo as the grandfather exclaims, “I can’t wait to see what you got your mother!” That way, the creative could have both a compelling narrative and high brand breakthrough.





Coming in at number 2 on our list, Hyundai took another common, yet more grounded, approach to their holiday ad this year — a limited-time-only promotional deal. In this ad, we can see that the audience is responding positively to the story narrative. The audience follows a family on their journey to an unspecified location. Global memory encoding stays relatively high; there’s enough going on during this journey, such as multiple cars entering the roadway, a sled being pulled by dogs (dog mushers), and the shots from multiple angles, to keep the audience intrigued.


“Hurry in to get our best deals of the season” causes a spike in both global and detail memory. The audience likes and will remember that there’s a deal at play. And, because detail memory encoding peaks again at second 24 (during end branding), the audience will remember that the deals are provided by Hyundai.




And coming in at number 8 on our list, Nissan takes an interesting approach to their holiday ad this year – a romcom!


In the beginning, we can see that the audience is invested in the classic “boy chases girl about to get on an airplane” narrative. There is a major spike in global memory encoding as the stranger exclaims, “she’s leaving for Paris!!”


However, things take a turn when the voiceover states that it isn’t a rom-com at all. Instead, it’s a Nissan commercial. The only notable peaks in detail memory encoding after that happen when Todd gets to the passes the airport sign and when he says, “This is a love emergency.” Cheezy, Todd.


While the idea of a hallmark-like movie was an interesting thought, all end branding was missed meaning there was no successful link between the brand. The story set up a love emergency, but what we’re seeing through our analysis is a branding emergency.