The John Lewis Effect

It’s that time of year kids, advertising for Xmas begins. Now I must preface this Essay (rant) with the fact that I unironically love Christmas and December. Autumn is my favourite time of year for sure but December is a lovely month that despite all the commercialisation and marketing is a time when you’re encouraged to be nice to one another, spend time with people you love and wrap up warm and get cosy and do nice things like read books, watch favourite films and take nice walks with friends. It’s a great way to end the year and never fails to make me happy and look forward to the next year with greater cheer and promise.

That being said; fuck John Lewis.

I don’t remember which of the maudlin, manipulative, bourgeoisie recruitment videos came first but they laid the template for the modern trend of incredibly high budget, very long adverts for television that normally revolve around some sort of deeply nauseating, idealised depiction of suburban family life that is alien to 90% of us. I mean overall I find the whole thing irritating but this saccharine gunk is so offensive on a human level that it genuinely makes me sick. On an artistic level however, they’re cynical, soulless garbage. Similar to the way charity marketing is emotionally manipulative and cruel to both the people they depict and the people they hope to wrest some cash from, John Lewis has created a template for their Averageness Propaganda that has become an annual event. Imagine that? An advertising campaign for Christmas that becomes a yearly national talking point in and of itself. The marketing team must be RAKING it in.

So what is this perfect formula that generates such a huge buzz and made an entire industry copy them in the hope of catching the same wave of online discussion? Well first you need to spend a fortune. I just googled it and apparently the first one was the silhouette of a girl and a dog created by John Lewis products blocking the light. You may remember a rash of similar ads at that time in the UK because of the shadow puppet group that either won or got to the finals of Britain’s Got Talent (I don’t know, I don’t care) and subsequently they, or pale imitations, were in a load of adverts at the time. Despite that, you can see the formula begin to emerge: simple shots, well lit sets, perfectly choreographed imagery, focus on the product and relating to either children, a character or some form of nostalgic image, in the case of the silhouette it’s a girl in a scarf, her dog and some snow. The operative part of this campaign is the focus on the products and how they quite literally construct the image of an idealised Christmas.

The next one is really when they found their groove. This time a stronger focus on the person. Shots of the ‘Standard’ family members we all have then a hard cut to the product or ‘Perfect Gift’. Again, beautifully lit, no dialogue, perfectly staged, iconic images associated with Christmas placed alongside the products, but this time the real breakthrough. The thing that has stuck with advertising campaigns the world over ever since and seems to never go away: the bloody effing music. Some twee, stripped back, piano only, ‘reimagining’ of the Beatles classic “From Me To You”. And that was it. That’s the formula. Nary would they stray from this potent, cloying, saccharin form of nostalgia porn.

Thereafter it got more ambitious and more child focussed, all about the kids and gifts (products) and some nauseating short story about them. But always the fucking music. After the Beatles it was “Sweet Child O’Mine” done on a piano, then it was ‘Your Song’ by Elton John and yeah alright that one was originally on a piano but this time it was ELLIE GOULDING, and then it was the Smiths done on a piano. Oh and that year they hit upon another little doozy to add to the formula: a Twist. You see the kid waiting for Christmas – big AWWWWW. DON’T YOU REMEMBER IT BEING LIKE THAT?! AWWW – except OH SHIT no he was waiting to GIVE his present to his parents all along! Of course, this is utter bullshit and no child actively runs past unopened presents to give his parents a gift, that’s laughable. It’s an idealised magical realm where unappreciated parents can live out their upper middle class dreams in this pocket fantasy land of expensive consumer goods and children that thank you for getting into debt for the toys they’ve been begging for over the last six months that they will promptly break by the end of Boxing Day. Either way, this was the biggest hit so far and warranted the most discussion at the time which meant next year was going to be REALLY important.

Well this time it’s an update of the Snowman in which a static effigy of crystallised water, trudges across a wilderness, that I think is meant to be Britain but instead looks more like Middle Earth via Harry Potter via half a bottle of Sherry, to get his apparently female snow companion (I’m not sure what gender they describe themselves as because THEY’RE FUCKING SNOWPEOPLE) a pair of gloves and a hat, ignoring the pretty fucking huge lapse in judgement that SHE’S MADE OF FUCKING SNOW AND THEREFORE HER MEAN TEMPERATURE NEEDS TO REMAIN BELOW FREEZING. From which we can only derive that this snowman is actually trying to kill his companion in an incredibly roundabout way for reasons so dark that man cannot tell what icy slurry pours through their black heart and what evil reason compels him forth on this journey of death. Unlike the Snowman book and animation where the scarf the boy is gifted doesn’t have a price tag and ISBN barcode to find online, no that one is just a sign of a child’s imagination and a representation of the kindness of the season and how friendship and companionship is what makes Christmas so special, but what’s the point in that if you can’t fucking SELL IT am I right? So that one’s a huge hit OBVIOUSLY because this time it’s Gabrielle Aplin singing a – YOU GUESSED IT – piano only cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Power of Love. Now it’s become a game of guess the song for next year.

Next year? It’s Lily Allen’s PIANO ONLY COVER of ‘Somewhere Only We Know’. A shit song by a shit band covered not entirely different to the original but whatever fuck it right? It sounds Christamssy and magical because at this point folksy, soft voiced piano covers of alternative classic just equal Christmas ALRIGHT? Anyway, this year it’s a fully hand-drawn animation with hints of Watership Down and the Animals of Farthing Wood cartoons. You know? Those animations that were in no way mentally scarring to an entire generation and ultimately about the horrors of animal nature and the grotesque, monstrosities humanity enacts on the natural world in the name of industrialisation and consumerism? Those stories, yeah. But nothing means anything anymore so whatever. There’s a cute bear and a bunny in it and they’re off to hibernate or actually they’re off to see the Christmas tree that has been magically decorated in the middle of the forest. But the bear gets a John Lewis alarm clock that wakes him up? I think? I don’t know but the point is, this is the formula and we’re sticking to it now. Nostalgia, piano cover, expensive production values, narrative tied to product. Boom. What’s in store next year?

Turns out they’ve given up on the more abstract narratives about non-human effigies and animals that celebrate a festival of their comrades being eaten. This one has the same gist as the gift giving one a few years back (I guess the anthropomorphic ice crystals didn’t go down well with the key demographics) but this time it’s about a real live penguin which OH WAIT turns out to be a cuddly toy the little boy loves, and he’s got it a friend. Cue the sound of gushing water as a million mothers and fathers across the country burst into tears, hug their child closer, then venture to the attic to find their own favourite cuddly toy that has a family of mice now living in it because you haven’t given a shit about it for twenty years. The genius that year was first, the Penguin had a name and became a featured product in stores and second there was a Hashtag to go with it so you could all bleat about how fucking beautiful childhood is while savage cuts to education and public services shutting down libraries meant that generation of children may own Monty the Fucking Penguin but would struggle to achieve basic reading standards. Oh and the music? It’s an experimental electro jazz fusion rendition of Mendelshonn’s Songs Without – just kidding! It’s A PIANO ONLY COVER of John Lennon’s unrecorded ‘Real Love’, because a stuffed penguin is REAL love you ninnys!

And on and on it goes, there’s one about a paedophile that lives on the moon, presumably banished there so he can no longer harm the people of Earth, this time to a PIANO ONLY COVER of Oasis B-Side and theme to Royale Family, Half the World Away. Then its foxes on a trampoline because who fucking cares anymore? Then it was a monster under the bed to sell a book. And this year? WHO CARES?! The damage is done. The formula is set in stone. Even if John Lewis were to buck the trend and do something truly revolutionary like show one of their stores and play an ACTUAL FUCKING CHRISTMAS CAROL it’s too late! Every other company with a big enough budget will churn out an identikit simulacrum with some god awful piano or acoustic cover of some well known ‘alternative’ song. Sometimes it goes wrong. Remember when Sainsbury’s copied it that year of the WWI anniversary with the advert set in the trenches? Three and a half maudlin minutes of ill-thought out pandering that shows British and German forces becoming chums in the famous ‘No Man’s Land Footbal Match’ of 1914 that ends with a crass push in on the Sainsbury’s chocolate bar. Ignoring the fact they all either killed or were killed by those Germans the next day and those Sainsbury’s chocolates probably fell into the dirt and got blown to mulch by heavy arms fire. But it just goes to show that now, nothing is sacred, because they’ve found the formula. You know why? Because it WORKS.

I went back and rewatched all these bloody ads and by the end of each I ended up teary eyed with a lump in my throat. Because Christmas is about childhood, the nostalgia of the time, the companionship, the ability to overcome differences and recognise our similarities, the willingness to forego any issues we have and do what needs to be done for the greater good, to be forced to think about one another, to endure the various traditions just so we can spend some special moments with those we love that, so in their turn they become precious, sacred memories we all carry through our lives and we’ll have a fond and warm feeling to look back on in darker times. It’s why Christmas is so special to me and millions of others and its why these fucking ads are so successful. Because they’re right. And I hate it. I hate that this lovely, wonderful feeling can be manipulated and tied to such a totem of conformity and mundanity as fucking John Lewis! That it can be used to specifically target products at emotionally vulnerable people and make you equate abstract and nuanced emotions with high margin sale units. It’s the cynical yet deft way this formula is now used to ascertain peak emotional response and engagement with the Brand which can be converted into their bottom line. John Lewis’ campaigns of the last 10 years collect all that I love about December and squash it together with all that I loathe. I will never stop finding Christmas a genuinely magical and beautiful time of year that brings out the best in everyone but equally it shows up the absolute worst things about society and how the machinery of our culture sees us all. As grist for the fucking mill.

This year ignore the fucking John Lewis ad. I hate that I’ve written two thousand words on the bloody thing. Don’t tweet about it. Don’t give the video your views. Watch an old home movie of your own Christmas instead. Give your family or friends a hug and ask them what their favourite Christmas memory was. Take your kids out to look at the lights. Get everyone together and play a game or watch a film. Get everyone to read their favourite Christmas book aloud. Do something that these evil, cynical, manipulative, shallow, heartless adverts tell you everyone else is doing and the only way to achieve it is by buying their products, but do it without a company telling you how. Make a memory they can’t put in their expensive, nauseating ads. A moment that can only occur because only your grandma, dad, partner, child, best friend could have possibly said or done the thing that makes the moment so memorable. Don’t wait for a business to tell you to feel something, just go and do it.

Oh and shop local and independent. The high street is dying, do your bit.