Christmas comes early in the UK, and one of the first signs of the season is the release of the John Lewis Christmas Ad, now as much a part of the cultural institution as street lights and carol services.
Now in its third year, the hugely successful ad campaign pulls on the heartstrings as it explores the emotional backdrop to the holiday. More akin to pocket sized dramas than conventional advertisements, the ads are unashamedly sentimental and are said to reduce millions to tears. Tears of joy, that is.
While naysayers are quick to jump and shout that it is far too early for Christmas, in any shape or form, with Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night now past, Christmas is only just over a month away. In the UK, there is no Thanksgiving to break the run up. Christmas is the next major festival on the calendar, and for retailers, that means they can take the brakes off. Harrods, the famous emporium in London’s Knightsbridge, has its lights on. Shops everywhere are already stockpiled with mince pies, tinsel and fake trees. And to top it all off, the John Lewis Ad is coming on the telly.
Lily Allen in the chanteuse providing the soundtrack to 2013’s John Lewis tear-jerker, which features the storyline of an adorable animated bear. She is singing a cover version of the Keane hit song Somewhere Only We Know. This could spell immediate Christmas Number One chart success for Lily, as the previous years ad did for Gabrielle Aplin with The Power of Love, her haunting version of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit. John Lewis had a budget of £7 million for this latest campaign, and pulled out all the stops. They hired no less than Aaron Blaise to direct, his previous animated credits including The Lion King and Pocohontas.
Blaise and his team worked in a specially constructed set in south London, and are said to have used hand-drawn, labor intensive techniques, not seen on UK television since the heyday of Paddington bear. It took them 6 months.
Just to maximize the impact of the release of what has become a cultural institution in the UK, John Lewis will show the ad for the first time during Saturday night’s screening of the X Factor. The ad will run for a full two minutes. Permission for this had to be granted by the show’s creator, Simon Cowell, who personally signed off on the decision to turn over all the X Factor’s advertising on this one night to one brand.
CEO of John Lewis is clearly pleased with this year’s ad. He said that it “pays tribute to all our most memorable childhood Christmases.” Somewhat more bullish, he also said that he intended it to place John Lewis as “owning Christmas in the UK.”
The ads, unsurprisingly, usually weave their plots around the dilemma of finding the perfect gift. This year, the bear’s little friend, a hare, is worried he will miss Christmas by hibernating. His ingenious solution is to buy him an alarm clock, which wakes him up for the wonders of the day.
Last year’s mini epic was the tale of a snowman and his girlfriend. The snowman traveled for heroic miles over hill and dale to find his lady love the perfect hat and glove set. Its huge success was attributed to a 44.3 percent increase in sales. This was great news for all who work for John Lewis, as it is a partnership, with all employees taking an annual share in profits.
Many thought the snowman was not a patch on 2011’s ad, The Long Wait. In this poignant piece, a small boy counts down the days to Christmas in a genuinely anguished mixture of frustration, anxiety and tension. The twist in the tale is revealed in the closing scene. He was not, as his worried parents suspected, only itching to see what Santa had put in his stocking. He was, in fact, eaten up about their reaction to the present he has carefully chosen for them.
The Long Wait to date has had 5.2 million hits on YouTube.
John Lewis will be hoping that the bear and the hare will summon up the same enthusiasm. The marketing director, Craig Inglis said “we’re hoping to evoke nostalgia and build anticipation ahead of Christmas.” It is a risky strategy for the retailer to only feature one actual product in the ad – the alarm clock. Inglis thinks they are getting it right though, “we are trying to do things differently and always trying to raise the bar.
For the first time John Lewis are also attempting to harness the power of social media to promote the campaign. This seems to be working so far with sneak previews on Twitter under hashtag #sleepingbear, kicking up a storm of curiosity.
Needless to say, soft toys versions of the bear and the hare will be available to purchase.
The increasingly massive amounts spent by retailers on Christmas ad campaigns, particularly in times of recession, has not escaped criticism. Last year, Waitrose, an upmarket grocery chain, and a member of the Jon Lewis Partnership, put out a supposedly “unglamorous” ad to deflect this sort of accusation. Filmed in an empty studio, it starred their in-house star chefs, Heston Blumnethal and Delia Smith. The celebrity chefs did not charge for their appearances. Waitrose then gave £1 million to charity.
They are repeating this exercise this year, again to highlight the store’s commitments to charity. Waitrose operates a green token system, which are accrued to donate to local fund-raising causes. Waitrose boss Mark Price said “our role is much bigger than being a food supplier, it’s about our role in society.” This ad will also run during the X Factor.
John Lewis, already the favorite of the UK middle classes, has really captured the market and become a cultural institution with its Christmas ads. Marks & Spencer, in a scramble to catch up, have booked Helena Bonham-Carter and Rosie-Huntington-Wheatley for their competitive campaign. Even for these two beauties, the bear and the hare will be a tough act to follow.
By Kate Henderson