Just what are the John Lewis Christmas ads?

by Tom Albrighton 10 November 2015 Branding, Christmas, Copywriting reviews

Another year, another brilliant John Lewis Christmas advert. Once again, Adam & Eve have succeeded in repeating a winning formula while keeping it fresh enough to generate renewed interest. Clearly, this is epochal creative work, destined to be discussed and analysed for decades to come. (You can see all the past years’ ads here.)

Tactically, the link with Age UK deftly deflects accusations of cynical self-interest – not that many are being made anyway. Beyond the predictable clickbaity parodies and hipster pisstakes, none of which really land a punch, nobody really has a bad word to say about these ads. I haven’t either, but I am interested in how they work, how they’re evolving and what message they express.

Are you experienced?

The ads’ differentiation  stems largely from what they don’t do. First off, they have never shown the experience of actually shopping at John Lewis (no, not even in ‘The Journey’ , although it feels like a shop is shown). Not since 2009 (‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’) have they shown (or at least ‘heroed’) a product you can buy there. And 2010 (‘Rocking Horse’) was really the last time they presented any characters with whom target customers could directly identify – by which I mean someone who might actually go into John Lewis and buy something.

Over time, the ads have morphed into high-concept brand-building of a sort we arguably haven’t seen since the ban on smoking being shown in cigarette ads. Exiled from the copywriter’s elemental touchstone – the customer experience – brands like Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges launched themselves at a creative tangent into some truly outlandish realms, leaving smoking as far behind as John Lewis has (voluntarily) left shopping.



This strategy places the John Lewis brand in the same space as other oblique premium advertisers such as Guinness (‘Made of More’) and Apple (a few years ago anyway), giving them the same air of being somehow ‘above it all’. And, of course, it’s also turned the annual ad reveal into a national cultural event, and helped John Lewis become the brand people most associate with Christmas.

Sponsored emotion

In a way, the ads are a bit like sponsorship for a specific and quite subtle emotion: Yuletide melancholy.

Much has been made of the ads’ rather downbeat tone. Visually, they are notably short on red, gold, tinsel, mince pies and elves. The general feel is very unlike most seasonal retail creative, and this year is actually closer to a charity ad (not surprisingly).

The dominant mood is sighing and reflective; some might even say maudlin. But the downer is lifted by a sweet (or twee) sprinkling of children (‘Man On The Moon’, 2015), animals (‘Monty the Penguin’, 2014) or picture-book imagery (‘Bear and Hare’, 2013, ‘The Journey’, 2012).

Taken together, these two values define the mindset of the middle-aged, middle-class parent at Christmas: knackered and slightly wild-eyed from work-finishing, present-buying and sprout-peeling, then sufficiently softened up by shmaltz and Shiraz to have a little blub in front of the telly – possibly at something that’s supposed to be for children.

Without saying so directly, the ads cleverly evoke the warm ‘Aw, I love my kids’ feeling you get just after they’ve gone to bed. (Even though you were yelling at them to brush their teeth ten minutes ago.)

Nice to be nice

In terms of their actual stories, the ads revolve around the supreme middle-class value: niceness. Not only has the shopping disappeared; increasingly, the shoppers have too. Instead, niceness is embodied by lovable characters caring for each other (‘The Journey’, 2012, ‘Bear and Hare’, 2013), or children being implausibly thoughtful and generous (‘The Long Wait’, 2011). The ads distil the sentiments we really want a family Christmas to be about and express them through story.

It isn’t remotely real, but for the prime target market, the physical reality of choosing, buying and even enjoying products is perhaps a little vulgar. What we’re really about is having the perfect Christmas – or, perhaps, being seen to have it.

As a result, our celebration might not even be that ‘fun’ as many people would understand it. The antic, Asti Spumante-fuelled merriment in Iceland chrimbo ads is, frankly, beneath us. But that’s the way we like it. And the John Lewis ads mirror our idealism – or snobbery, as it may be.

By committing to this rather solemn vibe, the ads leave themselves open to being outflanked on the bright side, not just by earthy fun, but also by dry humour – for example, Harvey Nichols’ 2013 ‘Sorry, I Spent It On Myself’ campaign, which set an impish, self-centred glee against John Lewis’ slightly po-faced piety.


In fact, even Christmas itself features less and less in the John Lewis ads as the years go by. Having previously majored on gifts (‘From Me To You’, 2008) and the opening thereof (‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, 2009), the more recent, rarefied ads have focused more on advent than the big day. For the last five years – since Adam & Eve took over the account, and the ads became stories – their timeframe has opened at some point presumably around December 1 and finished by touching, usually quite briefly, on Christmas Day.

On one level, this temporal frame is a way to say ‘shopping’ without saying it. But it’s also a great differentiator from M&S-style ‘Christmas party’ or ‘Christmas Day’ ads, which arguably dispel their own jovial warmth by imparting a chilling sense of ‘Oh shit, there’s only two weeks left!’

By downplaying the resplendent family Christmas for which you are clearly not prepared, John Lewis cuts the viewer a bit of slack. That creates a relaxed sense of space and time in keeping with the feel of the ads and, to an extent, the John Lewis retail experience too. Instead of jostling for vol-au-vents in a chock-a-block Aldi, we’re languidly ordering an espresso maker from the comfort of our Eames chair.

Social conscience

Given their apparently central place in our national psyche, we should perhaps be grateful that the John Lewis Christmas ads seem to be developing a social conscience.

Having begun with more or less straightforward materialism (‘Shadows’, 2007, ‘From Me To You’, 2008), they shifted focus to family and children with the arrival of Adam & Eve (‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, 2009, ‘Rocking Horse’, 2010, ‘The Long Wait’, 2011) before branching out into fantasy, fiction and magic realism with the more recent ads.

Over the course of that arc, the underlying notion of ‘giving’ has gradually become broader and more nebulous, particularly in this year’s ad, where Old Moon Man’s balloon-borne bounty is more of a metaphor for kindness and consideration than a physical gift.

Truly, it’s now the thought that counts – as reflected in this year’s slogan ‘Give With Love’ (not seen in the ad, but in other media such as shopping bags).

That’s Christmassy, obviously. But it’s also sharply at odds with our mean-spirited national narrative of austerity and immigrant-bashing. And we should welcome it for that reason.

Since everyone knows someone older, you could argue that ‘help the aged’ was an easy win in terms of motivating charitable sentiment – as opposed to, say, a ‘journey’ narrative based on the experience of a refugee. But that would be like demanding that at least one of the couples wistfully observed by Monty the Penguin (2014) should really have been same-sex – fair on one level, but unrealistic on another. In terms of a mainstream brand using its clout (and its ad spend, don’t forget) to help society, this is probably as good as it gets.

Ads of Christmas future

So, where next? Well, the charity tie-up will presumably have to stay, for fear of the reaction if it was dropped, so charities will be falling over each other to be featured. If the reception for ‘Man in the Moon’ is positive, I expect we’ll see more of the magic realism (real people, unreal events) rather than a return to outright fantasy or animation. Such a move would feel like a retreat from the inclusive human compassion that now drives the ads, making it harder to forge a link to a charity.

Personally, I’m glad John Lewis haven’t gone down the road of ‘more is more’, as with that interminable Sainsbury’s World War I ad, and I hope they maintain the discipline of the orthodox TV spot in future years.

I’d love to see them take the social commentary a step further. But realistically, we have to remember they’re a company, not a pressure group. Relatedly, it would be nice to see some more people of colour on screen – and hear some on the soundtrack too (see my tweet above).

And finally, maybe it would be nice to have a Christmas ad about adults (adult humans, that is, not snowpeople). After all, we’re the ones paying for all this…

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