It’s fair to say that the British public anticipates the John Lewis Christmas advert almost as much as it does the big day itself. Never mind advent calendars, the John Lewis Christmas advert is the modern-day version of a countdown. First launched in 2007, the adverts have become more and more adventurous, both in terms of the ephemeral cinematic experience they create, and the budget, which is estimated to be a staggering £7 million per year. The British public has become very attached to the messages of giving, friendship, and love, which push the boundaries of realism and draw us in. Nevertheless, the religious undertones have somewhat become undermined by the capitalist subtext, emphasised by the flurry of reminders to spend, spend, spend.
In 2014 we fell in love with Monty the Penguin and in 2015, the Man on the Moon reminded us of those who aren’t fortunate enough to be surrounded by loved ones at Christmas. In 2013, the unlikely friendship of the bear and the hare proved just how meaningful small acts of kindness can be.
But when we take a step back, the ulterior motive is, of course, to encourage us to spend money at John Lewis. The implication is that in order for us to practise these good qualities that Christmas appears to encapsulate, we must do so through the act of giving. Whilst the aim of every advert is to spend money, the problem here is that the values of what is actually a religious festival (although we may sometimes forget it), are being manipulated in order to create a positive association with John Lewis. We were enchanted by the adorable Excitable Edgar in 2019, but even Edgar himself was commercialised, sold at £15 per cuddly toy, and even expanded into a range of books, wellies and pyjamas.
At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, I tentatively add that slogans like: “Show them how much you care” (2019), “Give someone a Christmas they’ll never forget” (2013) and “Give someone the Christmas they’ve been dreaming of ” (2014), imply through their imperatives that we must spend money as a tangible way of showing our gratitude for our loved ones. The message is latent, yet omnipresent. As a marketing technique, this is admittedly very intuitive, but there’s a sense that the constant encouragement to engage in materialistic habits is almost expected and perhaps even demanded of us in order for us to feel a sense of fulfilment within ourselves. Through highly persuasive storytelling, we’re being fed messages that Christmas isn’t about an abundance of gifts but, instead, about coming together and spending time with family and friends. But this is paradoxically being done through an advert that ultimately aims to empty our pockets.
It’s worth adding at this point that John Lewis often donates a percentage of the revenue made from the merchandise related to the advert to a relevant charity. This year, 10% of the revenue will go to FareShare and Home-Start, which will support young people and families fighting hunger and poverty, especially as a result of the pandemic. Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for using this psychology to the advantage of the retailer since, subconsciously, the public feels more inclined to purchase something from John Lewis. The sense of fulfilment achieved through the act of purchasing gifts will be heightened by the altruistic act of giving to charity.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the John Lewis adverts. Every year, I have a ritual viewing with my housemates, after speculating about which storyline could possibly tug at the heartstrings more than the previous one. Nevertheless, Christmas has become commodified and enshrined within the institution of capitalism. Even the semantics surrounding the celebration: ‘Christmas list’, ‘Christmas shopping’, ‘Secret Santa’, have come to be associated with gift-giving, which is practically synonymous with the Christmas period. And whilst it’s nice to show your appreciation for others, this doesn’t always have to be done through monetary means.
So, what about 2020? This year the sentiment of “Give a Little Love” permeates the charming vignettes, and it seems that now, more than ever, this “love” really is meant in the purest sense of the word. But this year, we’ve come to appreciate what money can’t buy. Covid-19 has been a testing time for everyone and if ever there were a time for the meaning of Christmas to be recalibrated, it’s now.
Image: Ron Dauphin via UnSplash