The Timeless Christmas Ad
Christmas has a lot of traditions. Be it the tree, the big dinner, and perhaps the most difficult one to explain to someone on the street, an advertisement from British Department Store – John Lewis. Ever since 2007, the John Lewis Christmas Advert has represented the beginning of the Christmas countdown. It is a crucial part of the Holiday season, right up there with the traditional Coke-a-Cola Santa Ad, or for those of us based in Scotland, the Irn Bru snowman. Yet there is something unique about John Lewis’ ads so how did they become not only a frequent thing but a part of British holiday culture as a whole? Beginning in 2007 with their first campaign “Shadow”, it wasn’t quite the staple ad we see from John Lewis, inventive? Yes. But not quite what we’d all come to know and love. It was the first of John Lewis’
Christmas adverts in the past three years, and they’d sunk a massive six million pounds into their comeback. But it wasn’t until the following year that the more traditional John Lewis’ advert began to take shape. This year featured a cover from some still unknown John Lewis employees of "From Me to You" by the Beatles and it began the precedent for these campaigns to feature these more slowed down and emotional takes on songs, but at its core, it still felt like a traditional ad. It was in 2009 when everything changed. 2007 and 2008 successfully laid the blueprint for the campaign going forwards, now helmed by London-based agency Adam & Eve/DDB. 2009 put much more of a focus on narrative. With children opening gifts, but not toys or games, but instead gifts intended for adults like coffeemakers, a laptop, and comically oversized jewellery, all over a cover of the Guns N' Roses song "Sweet Child o' Mine" by Taken by Trees. It pulled on the minds of adults everywhere, asking them to “Remember how Christmas use to feel” and also marked the return of the company’s “Never knowingly undersold” customer proposition on their pricing.
The campaign evidentially worked as it drove John Lewis’ sales up by 12.7% as compared to the previous years. 2010 followed a similar structure, with people wrapping gifts for loved ones to an Ellie Goulding cover of Sir Elton John’s Your Song. It began the focus away from the products, and instead onto the experience of Christmas. We can see this as a natural progression of last year, however moving away from the gift-receiving and putting much more emphasis on the giving. It also featured the first major appearance of an animal in the campaigns, which would become frequent features. From here, and before we shift onto 2011 where Dougal Wilson, a commercial and music video director who would go on to direct five different adverts over the next 10 years, would make his first appearance, we can begin to come to our first conclusion on the ad campaigns, a track record. In retrospect, it’s rather easy to see how the ads became as they are, but John Lewis couldn’t have found the structure for such effective campaigns without looking at what had worked for the previous years, and holding onto that while dumping what was unnecessary. The addition of the Non-Traditional style covers, the selling of an experience over products, and the reliance on crafting a heart-warming narrative were all things that developed over time.
Being able to reflect and build upon what has worked in the past is incredibly important, we shouldn’t expect to have a blow-away hit on the first try but instead, be able to find what works in a successful campaign and use that knowledge to continue to grow. As mentioned above, 2011 saw the introduction of Dougal Wilson and the solidification of a narratively based advert, this was the stage where the campaigns seem to shift from just adverts into something close to short films- a strategy many brands would continue to follow even outside of Christmas for the years to come. The ad features a child eagerly waiting for Christmas, counting down the hours until the morning final hits. It’s something that every family can recognize, having seen it either in themselves or in their children. However, the twist comes when rather than rush to a big pile of presents, the young boy instead eagerly rushes to give his parents their gifts. It’s a heart-warming small story that again focuses on selling an experience rather than selling a product. From this point on the campaign was fairly consistent, with musical covers, heartfelt emotional core, and the selling of an experience over a series of products. 2012 introduced humour to the mix, with a snowman going on a pilgrimage to a John Lewis store to buy his fellow Snowwoman a Hat and Scarf, and this campaign saw a massive 44.3% sales increase to the last year, and garnered over 3.5 million views online. By 2013, the campaign had grown beyond simple advertising, being teased like a TV show and featuring a sneak preview it was fair to say the John Lewis adverts had lodged themselves firmly in as a mainstay of British Culture. 2014 saw a multimedia campaign, 2015 and 2016 made waves when they secured a massive 27.57 and 29 million views online each, and again all sold on the experience of Christmas over the product. This is one of the strange realities of Advertising in the 21st century.
Due to the rise of more accessible streams of advertisement, and a rise in competitors in all industries, people are less likely to buy a product for the product, and it’s become harder for campaigns to sell themselves on their products without slipping into technical jargon. So the focus of advertising has needed to shift with the demands of the market, and now it’s better to sell the experience over the item or service itself. The way it’ll improve your life, the way it will make someone feel and think. The John Lewis adverts don’t sell Scarfs or Hats, or Coffeemakers, or any particular product anymore, it sells itself as part of the Christmas experience and it’s proven to work. By the time 2016’s campaign rolled around, the Ad was shared more times in the first hour than any of the previous campaigns had been in their first days. By the time 2018 hit, rather than using a cover of an Elton John song the campaigns were just able to feature Sir Elton John himself, and in 2019, the commercial won the Visual Effects Society Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Commercial. Not only do the adverts do well, but the music with it, with 10 of the past 13 years breaking the UK top 50, and five of them breaking into the top 10. It’s had everyone from the previously mentioned Sir Elton John, to Lily Allen, to more indie musicians like Taken by Trees and Bastille.
So, why do the John Lewis adverts endure? From what I can see it comes down to three major factors; Consistency, in which we know we’ll get a new one every year that scratches the little itch in our brain for heartfelt stories of love and families. Reflection, each campaign takes what works from the previous years and builds on it, first with the covers, then with the emotional experience, to the use of cute children and animals, to breaking the boundaries of being a simple advert and becoming a multimedia spectacular. And finally, it sells a way of life over a product. People want to have a perfect, picturesque Christmas, they want love and joy, and ultimately that is what John Lewis is selling, every year the products change, the content change, but those experiences, just like the John Lewis ads themselves, endure.