In an emotionally torrid 2021, consumers lapped up ads with humour, heart and hopeful messages. With the help of System1 and YouGov data, we’ve selected this year’s best campaigns from 50 categories.
System1 puts 95% of all ads that air in Britain in front of a panel of 150 consumers within 24 hours of airing to measure their emotional impact and brand recognition. The agency then gives every ad an overall rating, the results of which have helped shape the list below.
Are you the victim of a potentially life-changing workplace injury? No worries. So long as you have a pack of Walkers crisps and a phone to hand.
After slipping from a rooftop and smashing through a glass roof light, an aerial fitter played by comic actor Asim Chaudhry finds himself wedged. But he sees the funny side after a mouthful of salt and vinegar crisps – taking selfies, texting friends and jiving to ‘Dancing for the Judges’ on his phone.
It’s a humorous sequence to illustrate a deft twist on the idiom ‘when life gives you lemons’. Or in the case of Walkers, “when life gives you potatoes, make crisps”.
Walkers now finds itself in a tight spot of its own. After many weeks of stock shortages, the brand released ads for ‘humble pie’ crisps’ – “the flavour we never wanted to taste”.
Ambient Ready Meals
‘Young people are so lazy these days.’ Nope. They’re studying for exams, playing sports, doing dance classes, the lot. The teen girl in John West’s ad this year is especially determined, from the first bus in the morning to football practice long after dark.
Enter John West’s easy-to-prepare, ambient on-the-go pasta salads. ‘Eat strong, go strong’ reads the tagline, marking a bold overhaul for the canned fish supplier as it seeks to reposition itself as a health and nutrition brand.
Ale & Stout
A lot of things can arguably look like a pint of Guinness. But when you’re yearning to go back to the pub, everything does: a white cat on a composter, snow on a bin, seagulls on a chimney, a bollard. A montage of stout pint-a-likes set to a cover of Elvis’ hit ‘You Were Always On My Mind’ closes with the real thing being placed on a bar.
Aired to mark the reopening of bars in May this year, the spot ends with a group of friends enjoying a pub get-together, at long last.
There’s not much natural about pumping fragrance into your living room.
But Airwick’s ad is blossoming with flowers and fluttering butterflies, set to the ASMR sounds of babbling brooks, birdsong and deep breathing. The words ‘relaxed’, ‘balanced’ and ‘happy’ come into focus on screen and fade away.
It serves as a flash meditation video, linking the brand to a sense of calm rather than a product to counter smelly dogs and bin stinks.
Voltarol’s grandad ain’t no cardigans and Werther’s Originals kind of pops. He used to race motorbikes. And after a quick rub of the joint pain relief, he’s down in the garage scrubbing up his old bike.
His grandaughter thinks he’s super cool when he turns up on his glistening motor and plonks her in the sidecar. “It’s not just movement, it’s riding with the best” goes the tagline.
A clever approach: it’s not about the product itself, but what it enables you to do.
The cinematography in Lurpak’s ‘Where there are cooks’ campaign turns a potentially plain ad into a work of art.
With clever use of light, everyday scenes like a flatmate making pancakes for his hungover friend, or a wife making soup for her sick husband become Caravaggio-like moving paintings. Choirs in the background and phrases like “a cook can heal the sick, feed the masses” somehow turn a simple butter ad into a near-religious experience.
“It’s a biscuit…or cake?” The question that’s as old as time is on this occasion tackled by a bemused shop owner.
It’s an existential question that prompts him to consider that if a cake can be a biscuit, maybe he can be something else too – in this case, ‘king of the roller-palace’.
The store transforms into said palace, covered in disco lights and neon. The message: “if a cake can be a biscuit, you can be anything. Be what you want to be.”
This year, Coca-Cola launched its first new “global brand platform” in five years: Real Magic. The creative approach is about “creating a movement to choose a more human way of doing things” said Coca-Cola Company CMO Manolo Arroyo.
The first creative to use the line was an ad that showed gamers downing their virtual weapons after a slurp of Coke.
The use of well-known gamers gave it kudos among its target demographic, while hidden codes in ads unlocked prizes.
Kellogg’s knows it has a hit on its hands with this ad, set to the soundtrack of evergreen hit ‘Ça plane pour moi’ by Plastic Bertrand. So it has continued the campaign, debuted in 2020, through into 2021.
The backing tune provides an enormous amount of energy to the series of ads, which depict an office dalliance over a bowl of cornflakes and festivalgoers basking in a brief spot of sunshine with their cereal.
“We Do Breakfast” says the tagline. And great ads too.
Rather surprisingly, it’s a concept not used by a brand before: an online delivery arrives with the driver insincerely sorry that a substitution has been made. In this case: it’s Heinz’s beans. The customer exclaims “but beans means…tasty tea times…”
Still in her dressing gown, she powers to the corner shop, running through one neighbour’s kitchen and crashing through another’s garden fence, while extolling the benefits of the “lean, supreme, plant-based protein cuisine”.
It’s an action-packed and hilarious take on a banal but increasingly familiar occasion, given a fifth of households consistently order groceries online each month, according to Kantar.
With the help of a baby in store, the woman chimes out the brand’s new endline: Beanz Meanz More.
Dance music plays as a small red ball bounces over crackers, cucumber slices and baguettes, transforming them into vessels for oodles of cheese and fresh veg. The healthy-looking snacks bounce with an overload of ingredients as the ball becomes the exclamation point on an ‘mmmm’ before finally landing to dot the i on a pack of Boursin.
It’s more catwalk show than fromage advert, positioning the brand as a trendy and seemingly healthy option. It’s très chic, and not at all cheesy.
With pub closures never more than a new variant away, many booze brands have foregone ads full of fun and socialising to focus on what’s in the glass.
Thatchers, for example, has its ad featuring bubbling cider and practically nothing else. It sloshes and swirls around a glass to a thumping cinematic soundtrack and finally cuts out to the sound of a heavenly choir. The final drop leaps from the glass in slow motion in the shape of an apple. A safe bet, but it worked.
Tear-jerkers about separation from family are just so last year. But Branston’s non-Covid related play on the advertising cliché nevertheless yanks on the heartstrings to great effect.
A daughter is making her way in the big city. Over a montage of new job nerves and making new friends, a voicemail from her mum and dad plays, reminding her that “they’re lucky to have you”.
They’ve sent an “only silly” something – a jar of Branston’s. Pass the tissues.
A series of miserable-looking women depicted in black and white metamorphose into sparkling sirens in glorious technicolor with just a dab of Charlotte Tilbury’s Happikiss Hydrating Lipstick Balms. One is so pleased with her transformation that she soulfully sings the line “happiness in a tube”.
Backgrounds, borders and fonts with a 1950s-style, retro bent add more sparkle to proceedings – never has the phrase “hyaluronic acid” looked so glamorous.
A new mum grimaces as she breastfeeds her baby at the bus stop. She tells her friend that one nipple is bad and the other… well, pinching her Malteser into dust and stamping it into the ground makes things pretty clear.
As she reaches for another, her friend withdraws the pack. “Not after that display!” How dare she destroy the delicious chocolate-coated malted milk treat? But it’s all in good fun.
It is one of two TV ads the confectionery brand developed in partnership with Comic Relief – which this year coincided with International Women’s Day – to humorously depict the everyday struggles of breastfeeding.
The brand is “supporting mums’ mental health” the ad says, with a donation to the charity. But as much good has been done simply by normalising a topic still taboo on TV.
Italian hunk Riccardo Acerbi took on the role of Captain Birds Eye in 2018, and was back on the high seas “eating cold for breakfast” in ads this year.
He strokes his beard, looks wistfully to the ocean – the usual swarthy sailor stuff. But it’s the fish, not the captain, that captivates. A voiceover explains how freshness is “locked in from sea to plate”. The voice is of a man at a dinner party where the guests are all holding fish fillet pieces aloft on forks. Will he be Acerbi’s replacement?
Last year, brands leveraged the pandemic-prompted sense of all being ‘in it together’ to associate themselves with the wave of community mindedness.
Unilever’s skincare brand makes use of its position in phrase du jour ‘Simple acts of kindness’ in its 2021 campaign. Scenes portray a woman walking her injured neighbour’s dog and giving free haircuts to jobseekers. The brand also worked with kindness.org to allow consumers to pledge an act of kindness on a community board.
Maybe it’s just the Lynx effect, but a few sprays of the stuff gives the protagonist of this ad a completely new and slightly psychedelic perspective on life.
Flowers with faces sing to him, a fire extinguisher becomes a watermelon, he enters a dog’s brain, then becomes a hot dog.
As ever with Lynx ads, using the product means you end up with a beautiful woman. But this ad isn’t all about that. A sunny outlook, it says, is just as important.
Actimel takes on a public health messaging tone in this campaign, which says “keeping our communities resilient starts with you”. Human-sized bottles are shown delivering post and working late in an office. “Give our communities your best shot,” the voiceover says rousingly (the shot being a mouthful of yoghurt drink).
Although not mentioned here, the brand set a target this year to donate a million Actimel bottles to our charity partners FareShare and FoodCloud.
“I’ve had meat and two veg every day of my life,” says the farmer-looking fellow and instant star in Quorn’s hilarious 2021 ad campaign.
He is the first of a number of characters – a muscle man, cavewoman, and talking venus fly trap – that seem like they’d be the last people on earth to be convinced to swap out a portion of their beloved meat for a plant-based alternative.
But people – and Audrey II – can surprise you. Today, says the chap in a thick Yorkshire accent, “I’m having Quorn and two veg instead”. “Beefcakes don’t eat beef” growls the strongman.
The UK is one of the largest plant-based markets in the world, second in size only to the US, says Rabobank. But many Brits are still unconvinced. If meat-and-two-veg man can’t sway them, no one can.
In 2019, Chicago Town underwent a major overhaul including a logo and packaging revamp and new slogan: ‘Pizza? Yeah, we go to town on it.’
It backed the new look with a £5m marketing campaign, which was topped up this year with a further £2.5m injection of cash. The latest effort saw bus stop wraps and billboards across major cities featuring catchy copywriting like ‘In crust, we trust’.
But it was the brand’s continued use of the Frank Sinatra ode to Chicago, My Kind Of Town, in TV ads that sealed its place in the zeitgeist this year. Whatever royalties it’s paying to Ol’ Blue Eyes’ estate, the tune is such a gift to the brand that it’s worth every penny.
The brand saw sales surge this year by the second-highest amount of all pizza category players, according to Kantar.
Ice cream: handheld
Magnum’s campaign is set in a steampunk factory where tubs are created by huge machines with robotic arms, rivets and dials. A thrusting saxophone provides a lusty soundtrack.
But it’s the final scene, in which a tub is squeezed so the chocolate top layer is satisfyingly crunched, that scoops it.
The brand also partnered with Miley Cyrus this year to present a virtual concert. By allowing viewers to take part in a lip sync challenge, it scored many shares on social media.
Is there anything not to love about this Fairy campaign? It features a crazy cute computer-generated baby surfing on a sponge scourer across dirty dishes to the tune of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. It’s so bubbly and blissful that the baby even cracks a Buddha pose as it glides across last night’s grimy baking trays.
It’s a brief moment of pure fun and suds. And about as far removed from the almighty chore of having to do the dishes as it’s possible to get.
Taylors of Harrogate
Taylors’ coffee for lattes, simply called Latte, gets one drinker pondering: “What if everything was this simple?” A postman calls, gets proposed to and accepts. “Where will we live?” he asks as they walk down a beach post-wedding. “There” she responds as a beautiful mansion materialises.
By the end, our heroine’s wish to be a stingray comes to fin-flapping fruition. It’s fast-paced and bonkers, and ends with the woman sipping her coffee and snapping back to reality.
This year McCain partnered with Family Fund to help provide 150,000 grants and services to families raising disabled or seriously ill children. Many of those families star in this campaign, which is all warmth and never strays into wearisome worthiness.
It’s all about “the little moments” like time with siblings, hugs, going for walks. And eating McCain chips, of course. It’s a lovely bit of CSR in keeping with McCain’s ‘We Are Family’ slogan.
Ice cream tubs
Ben & Jerry’s
Young consumers expect brands to take a stance on social issues, according to Kantar – some 46% of millennials and 42% of Gen Z.
Ben & Jerry’s does just that with campaigning around issues like refugees. Controversially, this summer, the brand announced it would stop selling its ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
Cue Twitter trolls in all caps screaming the brand should ‘stick to selling ice cream’. But there’s little danger of that.
Opening with the bizarre scene of seven washing machines seemingly fly-tipped on a mountain top, this campaign is all about the #washcoldchallenge.
A crew of mountain bikers get caked in mud and sweat, before crossing the finish line for a celebratory clothes cleaning party. The message? That Ariel pods work on tough stains even on the cold setting, meaning “we can save energy”.
It’s the tagline that makes the most impact: “Pod colder, reduce CO2”.
Handwashing is made a sensual experience linked to pleasant occasions like gardening, a summer barbecue, and cooking, rather than just a virus-killing safety precaution in Carex’s campaign this year.
The focus is only on hands and the context simply alluded to in the background. There’s a nod to the pandemic, with a medical worker shown smothering their digits in suds – but the tranquil soundtrack ensures it remains a blissful affair. No panic here.
Several brands have used the workplace dance video format in their marketing this year – most notably M&S, whose Romford store’s TikTok channel has proven a hit.
Such videos are highly effective at showing the company as a group of fun-loving people rather than a faceless grey corporation. Heck’s effort is delightfully amateur in execution and, since it is pure dance until the final moments, has a minimalism that captures viewer attention.
It’s tough to delight ad viewers with weighty and often abstract sustainability stuff. For its campaign this year, the beer brand is showcasing its environmental work with WWF, which has involved donating money to seagrass growing projects.
A couple crack apart two Carlsberg ‘snap pack’ cans – which do away with plastic multipack ties –while a voiceover explains how seagrass “can absorb CO2 faster than a rainforest”.
An extremely cute, doe-eyed, computer generated seal is here to ensure we ‘aww’ at the screen rather than ‘ahh’ at environmental disaster.
In the ad’s follow-up, the supermarket checkout beep of a Carlsberg purchase is directly linked to removing plastic from the sea.
Buy beer and save the planet? We can all drink to that.
In 2019 Gillette got a lot of flak for its ‘The best men can be’ campaign, which shone a light on toxic masculinity and negative behaviour among men.
Fearful of again falling foul of the anti-woke brigade and their boycott calls, the brand has softened the message a lot since, it seems. In its ProGlide ads, the brand opts to portray maleness in a positive light. A man is having a close shave before scenes of him being a loving father.
“Put your best face forward,” goes the tagline.
Trends are working against Pampers this year. The national birthrate has fallen, parents are buying less after stockpiling at the start of the pandemic, and tots are learning to use the loo earlier in life. The brand is also suffering from the ascent of own-label nappies.
But it’s responding, with NPD like the Active Fit Pants shown off in this campaign. Online comparison spots from Dr Duke demonstrating Pampers’ “superior dryness” further ensure it remains category leader.
Few songs communicate the depths of human fondness for a loved one like Otis Redding’s ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’. This makes it a sublime choice of soundtrack to this Purina campaign, which portrays people passionate about their pets.
The ad recognises how our dogs and cats are our constant companions and confidants, but without words, how can we show them our full appreciation? With the right food. “Let’s make your bond stronger” reads the tagline.
Being stuck at home has turned us all into experimental home chefs. Scratch cooking boomed during lockdowns last year with nine out of 10 respondents to a YouGov survey saying they want to cook at home as much or more in the future.
Tilda taps that desire to test out skills in the kitchen with this ad, showing the protagonist unable to stop thinking about new dishes like “halloumi wrap, a bibimbap”, each “elevated” with Tilda steamed rice. A fun trend tapper.
Hot pie sales have shot up 8.2% this year, says Kantar. No surprise then that Pukka had a “phenomenal year”, according to its head of marketing & innovation, Rachel Cranston.
The brand has worked hard to lock down its share of growth, launching four new ads in November to promote the arrival of its handheld range on supermarket shelves.
But it was Pukka’s Just For Two range campaign that really landed with the public. Poetic in both words (“in the chippy, wearing slippers, when you’re waiting for your tea”) and images, the ad showed just how versatile the products were. They’re good for “makeshift dates” and “meat-free days” and families unable to agree.
According to Kantar, the Just for Two range alone has generated almost £5m of sales for the brand over the past year.
How does an erectile dysfunction treatment brand best advertise its wares? With subtle innuendo and a sensitive approach? Not Numan.
Taking cues from Naked Gun and Austin Powers, the campaign shows an amateur video of a rocket lifting off, spiralling out of control and quickly crashing back to earth.
“If your rocket isn’t performing during lift off, visit numan.com,” says the voiceover. Unlike the ad, the product is at least “discreetly delivered”.
Influencers have had such an impact on beauty marketing that the category’s ads are now made to look like Instagram and TikTok posts.
Garnier’s push for its shampoo bars features a series of selfie-style videos from an array of shiny haired models, each gushing over the product. “I am absolutely obsessed,” says one.
It was accompanied by an actual social media campaign, which tapped the power of Drew Barrymore and online beauty heavyweights.
The country splashed out an extra £133m on sparkling wine in 2021 – with consumption up by nearly 15% – as shoppers finally returned to celebrating in person.
Freixenet had laid down the groundwork earlier in the year with a party-filled ad to put its fizz front of mind “for when we can celebrate together again”.
It worked. The brand secured a 28% increase in volume sales by the year’s end. Corks will be popping in the marketing department.
Spirits & liquor
Baileys enjoys a boom every Christmas thanks to marketing efforts that have encouraged consumers to sup cocktails from chocolate reindeers and incorporate it into pudding recipes. But could Baileys become a firm favourite at Halloween too?
Three witches – or should that be yas queens? – are here to convince you it should. Tapping the charms of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK stars Tia Kofi, Veronica Green and London drag siren Asia Thorne, Baileys begins its steady move into every month.
Radox taps the micro-trend of northern colloquialisms in fmcg advertising this year – see Quorn’s meat & two veg man and the ‘My brew’ campaign from Yorkshire Tea – with the star rising from beneath the bubbles to exclaim “Flippin’ heck, I’m a new woman”.
It provides a comic twist on what starts out like every other bath product ad, the soothing voiceover describing a lagoon “surrounded by lava rock” that’s “brimming with minerals”. The visuals follow the same sensual spa tropes until a toy octopus indicates a return to the everyday.
Capitalising on the growing importance of self-care to consumers, Radox underwent a major brand refresh earlier in the year to focus on “rituals that revive”. This £6m campaign represents its biggest investment in TV in years.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Haribo has been dubbing kids’ voices on to grown-up actors in adult situations since 2014 and every year, it has resulted in breakthrough ads that spark smiles and sales.
And just when you think 2020’s policemen in their car ad can’t be beaten, a cleverly timed sequel manages to do just that. Timed to air in the build-up to the much-hyped bout between Tyson Fury and Anthony Johnson, this time the setting is the tense pre-clash boxer weigh-in (often a childish occasion anyway).
The two fighters are trash talking, but it’s dubbed by seven and five year old brothers from Warrington who are boasting that the “fizziness” of the Tangfastics will “explode you out the way”. The adjudicator ends by shrugging: “I just like sweeties.”
The Australian wine brand has come up with some very different creative concepts in its time. For a 2017 Super Bowl ad it went maximum kangaroo-at-a-barbecue Australiana. It’s since encouraged consumers to “add a splash of yellow” to various situations which, as some quickly pointed out, could take on urinary connotations.
In ads this year it repeats “hello” in a sickly sweet, musical-style effort, which tiptoes between charming and irritating.
Squashes & cordials
Kids love superheroes, but with only one DC movie this year and a paltry three from Marvel, it’s a good job there’s a new caped crusader in town. It takes the form of a masked Capri-Sun pouch whizzing around, faceplanting the screen, and enthusing over the brand’s new product – a squash version.
It’s bright, silly and hammers home the message that the cordial is packed full of multivitamins. The ad was part of a £3m above the line campaign for the launch by Coca-Cola. Kapow.
Strongly associate yourself with a date in the calendar and enjoy a sales boost evermore. It’s a strategy that’s paid off for Coca-Cola at Christmas in the West (and for KFC at Christmas in Japan, somewhat bizarrely).
Over the past few years, Nutella has been having a crack at becoming synonymous with Shrove Tuesday – a day marked with pancakes by two-thirds of Brits, according to YouGov. Persistence is now starting to pay off for the ‘Pancakes love Nutella’ campaign.
Sports & energy drinks
Spread betting on sporting stars seems to be the strategy at Red Bull, which has backed athletes for some years. Some compete in niche sports like free-running, giving the brand access to a small but active and appreciative audience. Others perform on the global stage, playing football or racing in F1.
It’s Red Bull’s ad featuring newly crowned F1 world champion, Max Verstappen (and his team mate Sergio Perez) that has given the energy drink the biggest boost this year.
Yoghurts & potted desserts
Athlete Dina Asher-Smith fulfils the fantasy of thousands of kids across the nation. No, not by running at an Olympic Games, but by formulating her very own Müller Corner. She’s always loved them, this feel-good spot explains, and her signature yoghurt is dedicated to her mum and dad. Sweet.
A completely different tone for a second spot, where couture-clad Asher-Smith dances and writhes around in balls of different sizes. It’s glossy, but never pretentious thanks to her constant smile (and hallmark splodge of yog’ on the nose).
Regardless of how Britain’s athletes perform in competition – and regardless of whether those competitions even take place amid Covid – Müller’s long-running support for track and field sees it benefit from an ongoing goodwill among the community. Branding gold.
“I smile” is the answer “when they say I can’t be a stay-at-home dad”, says a father dressing his young boy. The same response comes “when people ask me what my boyfriend thinks” to a female boxer in the ring. It’s a step away from the shallowness usually associated with toothpaste ads and holds a powerful message to boot.
Another Colgate campaign this year had adults explain why they smiled (mainly forced situations) versus children (at practically everything).
Among the many medals won by long-distance runner Mo Farah, he is surely most proud of his Britain’s Best Smile award secured a few years ago. Farah has become synonymous with his beaming grin.
It’s about time a toothbrush brand tapped his talents. He has appeared in campaigns for Oral-B’s iO brush and in interviews about the importance of brushing. It comes as research from Oral-B showed the pandemic has prompted a surge in dental problems across the UK.
A young girl’s cuddly toy tea party addresses “the elephant in the room”. She’s changing to PG Tips because the bags are biodegradable “whilst some still use plastic”. At the end the ad asks if viewers too have “made the switch”.
It’s always brave to call out competitors, but it’s done cleverly and through the voice of a young girl. Given PG was the first major tea brand to ditch plastic completely, why not? Pleasingly, former brand champ Monkey makes a cameo role.
It’s rare these days to have an ad that simply describes the product. But Fox did just so with this whispered voiceover, which notes its “delicious crumbly shortcake” and “rich indulgent chocolate” that “covers every single part of the biscuit”.
Most viewers won’t notice the classical version of the 80s hit The Look of Love playing in the background but it’s impossible to ignore the desire in the eyes of the woman as she wolfs down another biscuit. That is, indeed, the look of love.