A 2020 survey by YouGov found the UK’s favourite Christmas film of all time was Elf.

Some polls say different – It’s a Wonderful Life, Love Actually and Die Hard each have a claim to the top spot – but whichever source you take, the 2003 fish-out-of-water (or Santa’s-helper-out-of-the-North-Pole) movie is consistently among the highest ranks.

You might say Asda’s use of the film in its latest Christmas ad campaign is a safe bet. “It’s been a tough couple of years so we sort of thought, is there anyone more joyful than Buddy the elf?” explains Havas London creative director Rob Greaves.

There’s not. He’s the perfect star. But a high-risk one.

Not because Buddy or the actor that plays him, Will Ferrell, are likely to do a Kanye West and trash the brand. But simply because the film is so adored. Messing with and messing up a beloved classic would be sacrilege to many. Doing wrong by Buddy would have lost Asda a lot of friends.

Little wonder, then, that Asda brand comms senior director Stephi Brett-Lee describes feeling “half-excited and half-terrified because it’s so iconic and so legendary”.

The concept of the ad was also high-risk. Buddy is cut from scenes in the movie and into an Asda store, interacting with staff members, pushing trolleys and more. Inserting someone into a scene is no biggie these days. Forrest Gump met President Nixon in the 1994 film.

“What we’re doing is in fact the opposite,” says Havas London’s Sam Daly. “We’re taking someone out of a film and putting them into footage we’re shooting.”

Studio Framestore skilfully rotoscoped Buddy out of the original film, and creatives fitted “an entire new world around him that was faithful down to the last eyeline, shadow and cast interaction” Asda explained.

As Framestore creative director Kamen Markov says: “It’s a very hard challenge. It’s rarely done. And on that scale I’m not sure it’s ever been done.”

More layers of VFX wizardry came through the creation of a CGI store scanned from a real one, and “intricate match grading”.

If it didn’t look quite right, the whole thing would have fallen flat. Even the slightest ‘that’s special effects’ feeling from viewers can ruin a film – just ask The Mummy Returns or Cats.

But Asda pulled it off. A behind the scenes video shows how.


“For me this was a unique challenge, working with an A list Hollywood actor, without him being there in person, and crafting other actors around his iconic performance,” says ad director Danny Kleinman. “It was important not only to make the action seamless but also convincingly transport him to a Christmas Asda store, creating a Hollywood feel to Asda’s Christmas celebrations.”

Thankfully, Buddy lovers – and the nation – are on board.

System1, which scores thousands of adverts based on audience reactions, found Asda’s effort to have a “hugely positive audience response”. Its score is in line with two of the biggest-scoring ads on its database: John Lewis’ ‘Excitable Edgar’ from 2019 and Coke’s annual ‘Holidays are coming’ campaign.

“Their technically brilliant ad splicing footage hits the millennial nostalgia sweet spot,” says Jon Evans, chief customer officer at System1.

That positivity is echoed by Lynne Deason, head of creative excellence at Kantar UK. “We all need something to make us smile right now,” she says. Asda is “making the people of Britain do just that this year: smile, smile and smile some more!”.

Even excellent Christmas ad veteran John Lewis & Partners tweeted its appreciation: “Alright… this one’s quite good.”

It’s a tricky year to strike the right tone with Christmas ads. Opulence and indulgence wouldn’t sit right with an audience in the midst of a cost of living crisis. A survey by Microsoft found only 18% of Brits strongly agreed they’re looking forward to Christmas ads, down from 23% last year.

But Asda and others have navigated the situation just right.

“The brilliant creatives in adland got it right and this could end up being the best year ever for Christmas ads in terms of emotional effectiveness,” Evans says. “Right now the likes of Kevin the Carrot, Farmer Christmas and Buddy the Elf are bringing a spot of much-needed cheer, but in the long term strong performances now will be good for brands and businesses when the economic gloom lifts.

“There’s been an emphasis on family, nostalgia and special moments which gets the mood just right – even if it’s just for one day, at Christmas people want to feel a bit of joy.”

Buddy said it best: “I just like to smile. Smiling’s my favourite.”