John Lewis’ Christmas journey

by Tom Albrighton 9 November 2012 Christmas, Copywriting reviews, Storytelling, Tone of voice

As you’ll be aware if you’ve been anywhere near a computer today, UK chain store John Lewis has launched its latest Christmas ad. Entitled ‘The Journey’, it was created by Adam & Eve/DDB and features Gabrielle Aplin’s cover version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘The Power Of Love’. Watch below, if you haven’t already.

The power of wuv

Let’s start with that music. I’m sure Aplin’s motive was purely to interpret a song she loved, and the result, in itself, is perfectly pleasant. In the context of a commercial, though, this sort of thing always seems like selective cultural rehabilitation – retaining pop’s nostalgic power while quietly disposing of its edge.

In the case of Frankie specifically, it’s a shame that pop’s relatively few ‘out’ gay voices have to be bypassed by the nostalgia industry and processed into hetero-bourgeois acoustic rock, ready for consumption by Ed Sheeran fans. I guess Holly just wasn’t ‘sincere’ enough – and by ‘sincere’ I do of course mean ‘straight’.

I always felt like ‘The Power Of Love’ was the record that would save me in this life.
Holly Johnson

The plaintive balladry of Coldplay, particularly ‘The Scientist’, sure has a lot to answer for. Thanks to Chris Martin’s melodic alchemy, that plodding, all-quavers style has been installed in the national consciousness as a signifier for ‘melancholy, reflective, uplifting’, making it a cinch for admakers to plug into the same mood. Such a treatment doesn’t so much evoke our melancholy as demand it at gunpoint.

Unhappy Christmas

For John Lewis, it seems, ’tis the season to be mawkish. Why so sad, little brand?

Now, I’m not saying Christmas isn’t a sad time. It can be intensely so, particularly when looking back over the year (or your life) with a drink to hand. (‘So this is Christmas. And what have you done?’) But what’s surprising is that a brand poised to profit from celebration and indulgence is ready to hit that note in its marketing. Isn’t it a bit risky, laying such a downer on us all?

Perhaps the real point isn’t sadness but quietness. John Lewis caters to middle- and upper-middle-class shoppers who, burnt out by another year of working weekends to cover Sebastian’s school fees, are really just after a nice sit down. Hence the contrast with the demented sausage-roll shrieking of Iceland (working class), or the mince-pie chumminess of M&S (lower middle class).

John Lewis folk are perhaps culturally inclined to snub tinsel-’n’-bauble-style excess. They  want a different kind of Christmas. With its studious omission of shopping, eating, drinking, dancing, laughing, merriment and indeed human beings (for 90% of its length), this ad provides just such a sense of forbearance and refinement. It’s practically Puritan.

Quistmas quest

Let’s talk about the story. The ad describes a classic quest narrative: hero sets out on a journey, overcomes many tribulations and finally returns having triumphed, achieving some sort of redemption. It’s the same immortal arc that’s shaped classic tales from the Odyssey to Star Wars, and the writers of this ad have reinvented it brilliantly.

More recently, the same quest arc drove the video game Journey, which told another tale of a lonely, wordless figure’s quest through a varied and unforgiving landscape, leaning forward into the gale and scaling a frozen peak. I wonder if it was an inspiration, whether conscious or otherwise? (Don’t watch if you plan to play the game – which you should.)

Of course, closer to home, there are also the obvious parallels with Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, which won’t do any harm.

What’s interesting about quest narratives, even those for children, is the element of dramatic tension inherent in encountering, and overcoming, some sort of peril. It’s what makes the difference between In The Night Garden and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. And again, this seems like a brave association for a brand at this time of year. Instead of everything being sweetness and light, we have advent as anxiety, gift-giving as redemption, and shopping as the gateway between the two. Where’s the bloody tinsel, for God’s sake?

Tell me a story

Unlike last year’s ad, which was a story about kids aimed at their parents, this ad is a children’s story aimed at grown-ups. I’m sure no-one needs me to recap the general trend towards using childlike language and tropes to sell stuff to adults, which I’ve covered here, here and here. These days, though, the technique seems to be maturing – using more sophisticated techniques to achieve subtler evocation and more finely judged emotional resonance.

For an example, check out the recent ‘Cloud’ ad for Guinness by AMV BBDO:

‘The cloud came from the sea. He was not like other clouds.’ It’s a beautiful piece of writing, achieving the same inscrutable, mythic simplicity of stories like Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man or Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’. But it’s also an interesting shift in tone from a brand that brought us the obscure ‘Surfers’ and the quirky ‘All The Time In The World’.

Where once we had adult pastimes and brain-bending ideas, now we have an anthropomorphised object drawn from the primary-colours world of childhood, placed in a simple, slow-moving story. The appeal is universal and the emotional punch undeniable – but there’s still something reductive and retrograde about this approach, with its faux-naïveté and implicit retreat from adulthood.

Are you in our car park today?

Returning to John Lewis, it’s easy to see why reminding people of tales heard as children makes sense at Christmas. And, as we’re forever being told, stories are one of the most powerful ways to communicate on behalf of a brand. But this isn’t ‘brand storytelling’ (as I understand it) because the story has so little to do with the actual experience of shopping at John Lewis.

In this ad, the ‘product’ that we’re being invited to try – parking the Audi, browsing the Timberland gilets, munching on a cheese scone – has been utterly deprecated. Redacted, in fact. The shop is nowhere to be seen, not even from outside. Like Melanie getting shot in Jackie Brown, we think we remember it, but it’s actually off-screen, reflected in a character’s face. Even the brand only appears only for the last second of 90.

Taking ‘sell the sizzle not the sausage’ to its logical conclusion, John Lewis effaces itself from its own ad, positioning itself as a mere enabler for those willing to ‘give a little more love’. (Which presumably means ‘spend a little more cash’.)

Like Guinness, the chain has shifted its advertising to one remove from reality, conducting its discourse with customers in the realm of imagination and emotion rather than experience and desire. It’s an obvious move if what you’re selling can’t be shown (car insurance, for example), but if I was a John Lewis store manager, I wouldn’t mind seeing my lovingly created store displays or carefully selected product lines up there on the screen, as opposed to a grinning snowman.

Back to the well

Is this the right strategy? Well, since John Lewis is going back to the well it built so expertly a year ago, and has already returned to with other campaigns, we can only assume it does the business. In fact, the similarity of this ad to last year’s sets an interesting precedent. Will the brand repeat the formula year on year, dusting off another 80s anthem every time? Or will that get awfully old (if it hasn’t already)?

Alternatively, if they break out of character, perhaps by getting Noddy Holder dressed as Santa, how will everybody feel? Will people start waxing nostalgic about the ‘classic’ ads? Or will they just feel relieved to feel a bit more merry?

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  • Hi Tom

    “I’m sure Aplin’s motive was purely to interpret a song she loved, and the result, in itself, is perfectly pleasant.”

    I’m not so sure. Part of what irks me about this whole business is that Aplin didn’t decide to cover the song because of any personal interest she had in it – she was asked to by John Lewis, and her record company no doubt told her to say yes.

    According to this article, ‘John Lewis asked Gabrielle to record the track and although she was hesitant, she agreed to do so.’ http://www.gigwise.com/news/77553/watch-gabrielle-aplin-covers-power-of-love-for-john-lewis-advert

    It was ever thus – the Rolling Stones recorded a song for Rice Krispies back in 1964, and the Carpenters’ ‘We’ve only just begun’ was originally written for a bank commercial.

    Maybe I wouldn’t mind marketing departments commissioning artists to perform cover versions if the results weren’t so pre-determined and formulaic. The stripped back, acoustic approach used to be a way to find hidden dimensions of emotion in familiar songs. In this case (and so many others), those dimensions were never hidden in the first place, and are only diminished by the reductive approach.

    I’m also uncomfortable with the power relationship between these marketing giants and the small artist – Gabrielle Aplin isn’t the Rolling Stones, and this isn’t an amusing little diversion in her career. It pretty much is her career.

  • @ Nick

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I didn’t know about the background to the music, and it’s illuminating. Although I’m wrong about Aplin wanting to cover the song herself. I would argue that the circumstances add weight to my argument about the motives behind the music – i.e. a rework of the original that keeps only certain aspects of its mood while jettisoning others. Which is, as you say, pretty formulaic.

    I think it’s interesting to see what people regard as untouchable, and what they don’t, and what that reveals about an implicit cultural hierarchy. Last year, 80s fanboys were furious about the Smiths being covered, but very few people (it seems) feel the same way about Frankie.

    On the subject of Aplin’s career, I wouldn’t worry. One of my favourite acts, Aqualung, got their start when their track ‘Strange and Beautiful’ was used for the ‘new Beetle’ ad for VW. Before that, they were pretty much unknown. But their career since, while not stellar, has still been pretty solid.

  • Nick Asbury

    Yes, you’re no doubt right about her career. It’s obviously massively valuable exposure, and her record company certainly knows it.

    It’s a fine distinction, but I don’t regard any song as untouchable, in the sense that it’s a free world and people can do what they like. It’s just that I exercise my right to hurl abuse at them for doing it. I consider a kind of civic duty.

    For my full unbalanced opinions see http://checkthis.com/johnlewis

  • A couple of opinions on this nicely written article.

    The ‘well’ goes back a bit further than one year. If you look at the ghosts of John Lewis Christmas adverts past – Ellie Goulding sycophanting ‘Your Song’ in 2010 and Taken By Trees covering ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ in 2009 – this ‘solo white female’ schtick with plinky piano accompaniment has become almost obligatory. I seem to recall thinking at various points throughout the year how many other brands have gone for a similar sound. It’s getting boring.

    In terms of the story/journey, I think it actually goes well with the heartstring-pulling cover in the background, placing John Lewis as the place to get the gifts you want, for the people you’ll go to any lengths for. It’s a bit mawkish, yes, but Christmas is an emotional time (as opposed to sad, I would suggest). I wonder if John Lewis have almost reached the point of simply going for people power to commend their brand, talking about the advert, creating an *event* about its release even, rather than using TV advertising’s position to display their wares.

    Finally, I would also say that “plodding, all-quavers style” balladry goes back to Imagine by John Lennon, at the least.

  • @ Tim

    Thanks for the kind words and comment.

    You’re right, they’ve been at it for ages. There’s the ‘She’s Always A Woman’ one too, with Fyfe Dangerfield updating Billy Joel without delivering a huge amount of ‘added value’.

    It did occur to me that John Lewis was going for the ‘social event’ angle, but I think they probably regard the internet froth as a bonus rather than the main event. Otherwise they wouldn’t be dropping the first showing in Derren Brown at 9pm. Social/online certainly does no harm, but doesn’t deliver such massive reach. I don’t know how many of their grey-pound customers would be interested in watching/discussing an advert online, although the numbers are no doubt growing.

    You’re right about the ballad style. In fact, I think Paul probably takes the honours with ‘Let It Be’ and/or ‘Hey Jude’. But I still think Coldplay have done the most to make it viable and (relatively) relevant again. Much as it pains me to say it, Chris Martin is probably Paul’s prime heir as a melodist in today’s pop scene. He also has a nice line in the emotional-sounding-but-borderline-meaningless lyrics that have been Paul’s stock in trade since he finished ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’. (*launches Spotify*)

  • Interesting little piece in the Guardian about the trend towards sadder Christmas songs: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/shortcuts/2012/nov/18/what-happened-novelty-christmas-number-1