The Enduring Genius of Hershey’s Kiss-mas

By: Louis J. Rebecchi

Tradition is a cornerstone of the Holiday season, and perhaps the most shared traditions of modern design are those that are televised annually. Charlie Brown, George Baily, Ralphie and his BB gun, Rudolf and Hermie, the Yule Log… these perennial pieces of media are broadcast into each of our homes throughout December, gathering us around the TV, setting a proper festive mood, and providing a texture of the season over which we string lights on a tree, tie ribbons to boxes, and plan our holiday gatherings. The list of favorite holiday movies, shows, and live events is as long as it is beloved. But there is one televised tradition that is less mentioned than the Buddy the Elves of the world, yet just as ubiquitous and integral to the season- the Hershey’s Kisses Christmas commercial!

Officially titled “Christmas Bells”, the commercial features nine holiday-colored Hershey’s Kisses arranged like a Christmas Tree against a simple white background. One by one the miniature foiled candies leap into the air and ring like a bell to play “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”. Ringing the final notes, one Kiss wipes its proverbial brow with a sigh, as a simple message appears at the bottom of the screen – “Happy Holidays from Hershey’s Kisses”.

Hershey’s first aired the holiday staple in 1989, and for the past 30-plus years it has largely remained unchanged. The original stop-motion commercial was replaced by a CGI version in 2012, updating it for high-definition wide-screen TVs, and there’s been some subtle variation to the “Happy Holidays” message throughout the years, but it’s form today is essentially just as it was when it first aired. In fact, when Hershey’s decided to mess with it in 2020, adding a live-action sequence, the public revolted and the company quickly reverted it to classic form.

So what’s so special about this commercial? What about its message has made it endure for so long? What IS its message?

For starters, it’s simplicity is nothing short of genius. Its minimalism creates a striking, instantly iconic image. There’s no voice-over, no distractions, no complications, nothing to follow but the sound of the bells, nothing to read but a short, elegant message that punctuates the ending. But a clean presentation alone is not enough to warm our hearts the way we want a Christmas commercial to. The short “brow-wipe” at the end humanizes the candy performers just enough for us to adore them. And finally, most importantly, “Christmas Bells” single-handedly aligns Hershey’s Kisses with the holiday and undoubtedly presents the chocolate as the perfect accompaniment. The red, green, and silver foil. The form of the candy replicates the form of a Christmas bell. Its diminutive size fit for stockings and candy dishes. It puts all the elements on the screen and allows the viewer to solve the obvious puzzle. Hershey’s Kisses = Christmas.

“Christmas Bells” pulls off the great magic trick of marketing. It takes an effective sales-driving message and disguises it as a gift. It has cemented Hershey Kisses as a holiday tradition, and through its airing year after year, continues to do so with suggestion and grace rather than a flagrant agenda and faux sentimentality. As marketers, we can only hope to one day create something so lasting, so effective, and so beloved as “Christmas Bells”. Well done Hershey’s Kisses, here’s to many more years of ringing chocolate.

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