I wasn’t obsessed with last year's John Lewis Christmas advert. I didn’t get the space angle and it felt a bit forced. But unlike their previous tortured, slow instrumental covers of famous songs, Lola Young’s rendition’s rendition of Together in Electric Dreams was utterly perfect (if you haven’t listened to her, her voice is what I would imagine a Diptyque candle to sound like - just total bliss).
A year later and here we are again. Michael Buble is defrosting, Mariah Carey is doing lunges, we’ve watched the Jackson TikTok 100 times and the John Lewis Christmas advert has been shared far and wide.
For a long time Christmas ads have been full of capitalist notions of Christmas - painting idealistic portraits. We've seen mostly joyful white middle class families in beautiful houses, crowded around a gorgeous tree, with far too many pigs in blankets and stacks of presents.
But in the recent past we've endured a global pandemic and cultural and economic systemic shifts - so as a result, brands have had the challenge of representing and talking about Christmas amidst these changes - which is not an easy task.
From 2020, we’re seeing brands attempt to bend to this new age of accountability. Representations of an ethnically diverse Britain were the order of the day for 2020 Christmas ads. Brands attempted to reflect diversity and the different ways in which people celebrate. It took the BLM movement in 2020 and larger conversations for this to happen and the idea that these brands are somehow doing a service, by simply representing a multicultural and diverse Britain (e.g what Britain actually looks like) is ludicrous. It still often feels like a performative stunt, rather than a genuine and authentic effort to showcase diversity. Because from an agency perspective, the senior leadership teams or boards of agencies are still usually not diverse at all. And from the brand side, if we take a look at the actual shelves in supermarkets and department stores - the product offering isn't diverse either.
But… on a positive note - at least there is some form of change and drive for diversity. We’ve seen the positive impact of representing real people in media and advertising - just take the reaction to the Little Mermaid being a Black princess, or responses to campaigns such as When Everybody Plays, We all Win and A Loving World Starts With a Loving Home.
Fast forward to 2022 and Britain’s recovery from the pandemic is not going according to plan: the devaluation of the pound, the energy crisis, multiple collapsed cabinets, Queen Elizabeth II’s passing and more. Many are concerned about making it through Christmas, rather than celebrating it.
Unlike other brands this Christmas, John Lewis have - at least - read the room and not tried to shove capitalism down our throats.
If you’ve not seen it, the advert set to a reworked version of Blink 182’s 1990s hit All the Small Things shows a middle aged man learning to skateboard. Across dreary backdrops of snow, wind and rain we see him falling off across various settings, gaining injuries and watching skate videos during office hours - whilst his wife gets the house ready for Christmas. Only at the end do we realise, his skating efforts are so he has a way to bond with his foster daughter, who likes to skateboard.
I think most people appreciated the ad, and what John Lewis were trying to achieve - but unfortunately lots of people haven’t. I’ve seen headlines like “John Lewis’ advert is totally depressing” and Phillip Schofield said “It could be a little more Christmassy couldn't it? It's a bit bleak in the car park! Couldn't they make it snow?” on This Morning.
The reality is, although I’m sure it doesn’t affect Phillip Schofield, many families are really feeling the squeeze this Christmas, so it would have been totally tone deaf to be like ‘hey come and spend all your money on loads of prezzies instead of your energy bills’.
One of the things that is most interesting is how the John Lewis store and the John Lewis advert have almost become separate entities. The John Lewis consumer is affluent and middle-class but the John Lewis Christmas ad watcher is literally - most of Britain. The Christmas ad has become a cultural moment that drives conversation. People get surprisingly heated about it, and in ad land - it's seen as the one to beat.
John Lewis know that with their Christmas ad they're not just talking to their customer base - they're talking to the whole of the UK. And realistically, Christmas just isn’t joyful and glorious for everyone.
Christmas is a time where social inequalities are seen and felt the most, so it’s admirable to see John Lewis choosing to highlight an overlooked group of people who don’t have the same Christmas experience as everyone else. Ultimately, they used this hugely anticipated moment in the annual marketing calendar to platform and provide visibility for people from underrepresented family structures, at a time that can be most reflective and painful for them. After all, this Christmas, an estimated 100,000 young people and children in the UK will spend the day in care or in other temporary accommodation. Holly Kicul, the senior advertising manager at John Lewis, said “We could have heavily gone for Christmas magic and fun but that didn’t feel the right thing to do this year with everything going on.”
Obviously, one advert isn’t going to change the lives of everyone in care - but the one thing the John Lewis advert does so well - every year - is generate conversation. Using their platform to drive conversation about such an important topic is better than telling us to buy more stuff. It’s an admirable moment when one of the season’s biggest brands swaps a commercial message for a charitable one. The ad has over 400 million YouTube views and has been mentioned in over 10,000 tweets, not to mention how many people will have seen the ad on TV.
I love the fact it gets back to the basics of what Christmas is all about - bringing people together and giving. I love the fact that people could watch the advert and think ‘maybe we could foster’ and I love the fact it stops and makes you think about someone else apart from yourself at Christmas.
Most importantly, the ad is not just performative, John Lewis have a whole host of initiatives to show up for people in care, from donating food and gifts, to running apprenticeship schemes.
We’re not where we should be. Not even close, and brands aren’t doing enough. But at least we are seeing companies begin to reflect and highlight real life and real people through their media and advertising.
We need more representation of Britain for how it truly is. Brands need to put their money where the true interests of the public are - because they do have the power to make real change.