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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