Why I don’t like Buster the Boxer

by Tom Albrighton 13 November 2016 Blog, Christmas, Copywriting reviews

The John Lewis ads truly have become a fixture of the festive season – as have the blog posts noting that fact. And, having written about the 2015 and 2012 ads, it just wouldn’t be Christmas if I didn’t chuck in my two cents on Buster the Boxer.

Watch the ad below, if you haven’t had enough of it already.

Previous years’ ads have been distinguished by their contemplative, almost melancholy mood. This year, we’re firmly in ‘cute animals + old song’ territory, as exemplified by Three’s ‘dancing pony’.

Dozens of ads have taken this angle in recent years, but people are going nuts for Buster regardless, with plenty saying that they’ve laughed and/or cried at his antics.

For me, though, the ad falls short of the high standard John Lewis has set itself.

Dreaming of a non-white Christmas

Before we get to the canine, let’s talk about the humans.

I noted last year that it would be nice to see some people of colour in the ad, and/or hear them on the soundtrack. Clearly, Adam & Eve DDB are devout readers of mine. With Boxer’s charming human family, we’ve definitely got the former, and we’ve kinda got the latter, in the form of a Vaults cover of Randy Crawford’s ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’. It’s hardly revolutionary, but it’s still a breath of fresh air.

Musical mechanics

The mechanic of the accompanying song is slightly different this year.

As in film and TV drama, some powerful, recognisable music drops are justified by what’s happening on screen, while others feel unearned and tacked-on.

Arguably, everything ads do is cheap and manipulative anyway, so maybe it’s an academic distinction. But Buster’s story has so little human resonance that there’s a bit of a disconnect – rather than adding depth, the track just provides a wry counterpoint to the comedy.

What’s more, while it is an undeniably emotive song, its sentiments are independence and defiance rather than closeness and caring – not particularly Christmassy.

All of which begs the question of whether it was really worth using (commissioning?) a melodramatic indie version. But I guess that’s become a tradition too.

Niceness neglected

As I’ve noted before, the key John Lewis brand value is niceness. We’re nice to people, we’re nice in ourselves and we want – no, deserve – nice things.

Most previous ads have centred on generosity and caring one way or another, and last year’s ‘Man in the Moon’ opted for an expansive, almost mythical take on the idea.

‘Buster’ dials all that back to a more straightforward celebration of selfish glee, taking it one step closer to H&M’s inspired ‘spent it on myself’ campaign (also by Adam & Eve, incidentally).

The joy of giving, once so central, is confined to the faithful dad’s solitary nocturnal trampoline building. (I’ve trapped my hand like that, and it hurts.) What takes centre stage instead is Buster’s lugubrious, mournful visage, as he wallows in his jealous, entitled yearning to bounce.

Then we’re invited to laugh as he barges the poor little girl aside on Christmas morning. If a younger sibling did that, they’d be on the naughty step before you could say ‘overcooked sprout’.

Despite his questionable morals, Buster inevitably has to be a thing, with his own hashtag and everything – the digital equivalent of enforced jollity at the office lunch.

It’s still early doors as I write, but I can see him losing the engagement battle to M&S’ Mrs Claus (#LoveMrsClaus). At the end of the day, there’s just not enough to Buster. Mrs Claus is a sassy, ass-kicking fairy godmother in a chopper. He’s just a dog on a trampoline.

Modest ambition

I know, I’m a miserable old sod. I have accepted it, I am at peace. But the ambition of the storytelling is so modest this year that I can’t help but feel let down. The ad is undeniably competent and effective. But it’s so untopical, so parochial.

We’ve devolved from last year’s thought-provoking magic realism and social commentary to cute CGI animals. Maybe that decision is a deliberate reaction to last year, when some felt John Lewis was made to look po-faced and maudlin by Sainsbury’s eager-to-please Mog the Cat ad.

With a floppy bouncing dog up on the screen, nobody will outflank John Lewis on the right this year. But if another brand makes a successful pitch for viewers’ wistful sighs, they might regret their decision not to ‘own’ that ‘space’.

Capturing the moment

Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s is tying up with Great Ormond Street, even as John Lewis takes some serious social-media heat for advertising in the Daily Mail. It’s not a good look if you’re trying to attract middle-class liberals.

Obviously, it would be ridiculous to expect a department-store ad to rise to the historical moment and encapsulate it through art, like Picasso’s Guernica or something. And yet investing far too much meaning in ‘trivial’ works is what popular culture, at its best, is all about. We look to the things we love to save us.

Such faith is not without foundation. With last year’s charity tie-in and genuinely inspired creative, John Lewis seemed to be boldly reimagining what ads could do, what role they could play in the cultural life of a nation.

This year, I was really hoping they’d go further along that trajectory, shooting for even bigger creative and social ambitions. After all, there’s no shortage of source material – refugees, rising poverty, Brexit bitterness, take your pick. But no.

Maybe the brand wanted to shrug off the expectation that they’d set the bar ever-higher each year. But then again, perhaps the smallness is precisely the point.

In shying away from big issues and retreating from generosity, the ad perfectly reflects the zeitgeist of 2016. Buster – a stupid, selfish animal who thinks only of himself – truly is the perfect mascot for this most divisive, disappointing and depressing year.

Merry Christmas.

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