Is it really that time of year again already? Caragh Medlicott responds to John Lewis’ contentious Christmas advert and asks of its cultural significance in the year of the covid-19 pandemic.
In 2015, my younger sister got her first weekend job working in John Lewis’ furniture department. By all accounts, it was a fairly standard retail gig, but it did come with one extra special perk: John Lewis employees get access to the Christmas advert a day before the general public. Cue me and my family all huddled around a laptop ready to get sentimental about an Oasis cover and some never knowingly undersold gifts. Ironically, the 2015 ad – you know, the one where a lonely old man is stuck on the moon missing out on all the Christmas fun – would have been a pretty befitting take for 2020. But alas, it was back in the innocent days of five years ago; before Brexit, before Trump, before Johnson, and before the COVID-19 pandemic. Sigh. Good times.
In the UK, the John Lewis Christmas advert is perhaps second only to Coca-Cola’s ‘Holidays Are Coming’ in signalling the nearing commencement of festivities. And unlike the standard Coke ad, John Lewis graces our screens with a different two-minute tear-jerker every year. It has its trademark elements, of course; upcoming stars sing stripped-back covers of artists from The Beatles to Keane; then there’s usually some lonely animated character who just needs a bit of love; and – most importantly – the scenes are subtly packed full of John Lewis gifts.
This year, however, is different. 2020 has proven to be about as delightful as a bucket of ol’ fish heads, and as far back as May people were speculating about how the creative team at John Lewis & Partners might make us feel appropriately warm and fuzzy amidst a pandemic. And the answer, dear friends, has finally arrived in the form of….
A pretty crusty looking pigeon, too. A little boy has lost his ball in a tree and the pigeon looks all set to knock it back to him. The music swells, the boy and bird lock eyes, and…the pigeon flies away. John Lewis is just messing with us. Luckily a little girl comes to the rescue with a heart-shaped brolly to knock the football down. As it falls, we switch into stop motion. Thus begins a series of ‘pay it forward’ acts of kindness.
The boy who gets his ball back gives a melting snowman a balloon. The snowman floats to a picture-book animation town and selflessly lends his torso to a snow couple whose snow car has lost a snow wheel. The snow couple? They’re delivering bags of shopping from Waitrose (presumably full of things from its essentials line; Waitrose Essential Mustard Piccalilli, Waitrose Essential Flageolet Beans, Waitrose Essential White Pearl Caviar). The shopping is delivered to a delighted man who lives in a kid’s drawing. On it goes. A boy with heart-shaped hair (but apparently slapdash parents) receives a present in an unwrapped, John Lewis-branded cardboard box; some hip-hop stop motion pigeons gift a deranged hedgehog a hat; a woman on the bus gives a little girl an apple sticker to mend her glasses with and as she gets off the bus, she sees the boy whose ball is stuck in the tree, and… we’re back to the start.
Aside from employing the same narrative technique as the 2009 horror film Triangle, the key takeaway from this year’s ad seems to be a message of kindness. And not to trust pigeons. It’s easy enough to be cynical about adverts, especially sentimental ones, but I’m not sure that this is the year for extensive sneering. If the advert makes a few people smile, then why not? Christmas is built on commercialisation, anyway. The old line that Coke are the marketing geniuses behind Santa’s red getup may be a myth, but it does encapsulate a general truth that big companies have always tapped into our lovey-dovey goodwill when it comes to turkey sandwiches and gift-giving.
Perhaps what’s hardest to swallow about this year’s advert is not the ad itself, or people’s enjoyment of it, but the 1,500 job cuts John Lewis announced last month. James Morrison, head of brand marketing for Waitrose, has admitted that the advert nearly didn’t happen. Apparently they considered a big charity donation instead, but ultimately decided using the ad to promote their partner charities, FareShare and Home-Start, would allow some good to come from a slightly contentious big-budget production. And, of course, hopefully some money too (let’s not give them too much credit).
Though a bystander would be hard-pressed to notice it, the 2020 advert also marks some departures from previous years. Not only is this advert not explicitly about gift-giving, the featured song is an original, ‘A Little Love’ by Celeste, and the ad certainly feels lifted by the freshness of it. In marketing terms, the competition is full-on. From Aldi to McDonald’s, plenty of big companies are in the running to be the best at making us feel fuzzy, festive and suddenly desperate for a Big Mac.
Christmas (albeit we’re still in November at present) is the time of goodwill to all men. While John Lewis probably hopes our particular brand of festive selflessness coincides with the purchase of one of their tasselled lamps, 2020, if nothing else, has been a big year for numerous acts of spontaneous kindness. If a nice song from a Christmas advert helps us recall that in a few years’ time, then I say more the better.
The John Lewis Christmas ad is available to watch now on YouTube.