Get the tree out and put up the lights because the John Lewis Christmas advert has just landed, so it’s officially Christmas.
Over the years they’ve had dogs and monsters, penguins, bears and hares, a sweet old grandad on the moon, and a snowman who melted the nation’s hearts.
This year however, it’s a little different – check it out below:
In September it was revealed by the Mail on Sunday, Elton John had signed up for a cool £5 million on-off appearance deal. The shoot reportedly cost £10 million to produce.
They always say things were better in the old days, but when it comes to Christmas adverts, this statement is patently untrue.
John Cleese faffing about making dinner, a school nativity scene with a pregnant woman hawking Mr Kipling’s mince pies – these are ghosts of Christmas past, repressed from our memories.
For the greater good, much like the modern traditions of Black Friday and German markets, the blockbuster TV ad has become a staple of festive times.
But when did this all come about?
When I were a lad, adverts were just things appearing between Christmas specials and repeats, and we all gathered around to watch together.
Coca-Cola’s Christmas trucks is the first one to stick in my memory as a signal the ‘holidays are coming’ and the central heating can go on – one way of instilling the warming Christmas spirit.
Or there’s Ferrero Rocher’s Ambassador’s Party, which in hindsight, looks as ridiculous as it would’ve done to the grown ups in my childish life.
Simple ads for a more simple time: buy our sugary goods.
Our screens have become stuffed like Santa’s sack with big budget efforts from the regulars, as well as supermarkets and online outlets pitching in to grab our attention.
Neil Godber, Head of Planning at JW Thompson – the firm behind last year’s Debenhams advert (though not on the team that put it together) and the leader of judges on the board who award the industry’s best efforts assures me he’s not wearing a Debenhams shirt when we discuss exactly just when Christmas adverts became ‘a thing’.
As well as the question, why does everyone keep banging on about them?
Christmas, Neil confirmed to UNILAD, is coming earlier and earlier every year:
There’s an endemic structural issue within retail and selling stuff, which is where you have to meet your year end and make all the sales happen.
You’ll see no end of brands ultimately chasing the commercial aspect of the calendar toward the end of the year, so it’s absolutely vital they have a bumper Christmas.
Part of this pressure comes about by trying to pull sales forwards and change market behaviour, which is about waiting for sales to come on and waiting for later and later – the more sales they can land non-discounted, the more profit they’ll make.
If you’re trying to affect behaviour and you’re trying to create an immediate impact, then you need to start going out there with blockbuster comms and turn it into the UK Superbowl.
Who better to speak to than one of the ad men behind the brand who started it all?
David Golding is Chief Strategy Officer for Adam&EveDDB – the ad men for John Lewis – who’ve been making TVs sparkle with a bit more Christmas joy since 2007.
It’s not as simple as John Lewis jumping on the scene making it a thing, but rather their approach to interpreting their Christmas message for an ever-changing audience.
The effect their adverts have had on us has been more than water-cooler talk although this is where the magic begins.
‘You had the ‘holidays are coming’ from Coca-Cola and before that there used to be the Woolworths ad people would look forward to’, David explained, making us look foolish for thinking anything that came before us was culturally irrelevant.
David told UNILAD when the explosive moment happened:
It was really social media which has made Christmas ads the social phenomena they are.
They get shared before they go on television and it becomes a shared cultural experience, rather than just something that happened on telly last night.
‘The Long Wait’ was probably the first one that exploded on social media, around the time social media became bigger and more normalised among your standard John Lewis audience.
Once Facebook and YouTube users got hold of it, it spread like wildfire.
How the wildfire spread – you can’t move for Christmas ads now – from the end of October to halfway through January – but there lies the beauty of what they’ve produced.
It touches something innate in all of us which we find compelled to talk about.
‘What those guys have managed to do, which is absolutely amazing, I would argue from a creative perspective, they’ve pretty much relaunched and rebuilt John Lewis,’ says Neil. ‘From an advertiser’s perspective they’ve dramatically improved the creative landscape around Christmas.’
So how did they go from stylised adverts for an aspirational department store to changing the way we watch the bits between our favourite programmes on TV?
Now we’ve become accustomed to them, are we becoming more discerning viewers?
The key to John Lewis’ success is each year’s advert is ‘defined by what went before it’ explains David – he says their ‘Man on the Moon’ was a big success but ‘some people thought it was too sad’.
Using adverts as social commentary is another key to the appeal of their ads, Neil explained:
You’ll get the highly emotional story but it always feels like they identify a subtext in how people are feeling and they respond really well to that.
It’s something not explicitly said but there’s an undertow of sentiment they’ve managed to pick up on.
I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the UK, what happens economically, culturally and what that gives John Lewis to feed on.
That in itself is an alluring message – on top of the thoughtfulness which goes in, is how can you use the chassis of an idea to comment on something else that’s going on within society?
Everything else is execution. Separate those two things and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes in the future, because they do have a voice at Christmas and they can use it to comment on what they think is important.
All kinds of brands are now getting in on event ads – Aldi had Kevin and Katie the carrots, Debenhams a Cinderella story and Amazon had injected a humanising angle to their warehousing practices.
The production quality has increased even if we’re all gathered around at home staring into our devices.
Although John Lewis have been banging out quality commercials, their competitors have taken inspiration but haven’t necessarily turned out many memorable ones over the last six years.
In 2014 Sainsbury’s produced a Christmas tale from the front lines of the First World War to mark the 100th anniversary of the conflict.
Beautifully produced? Yes. Tasteless? Absolutely.
240 people complained to the advertising watchdog for its cynical use of war imagery to promote the supermarket brand.
Last year Debenhams attempted to take the high street king’s crown with a modern interpretation of Cinderella, with nods to overcrowded public transport and our obsession with social media. 1.4 million views of the official video on YouTube alone, it’s a story we were happy to lap up.
Yet does it make you feel all warm and fuzzy like a few mulled wines?
Neil explains how our Christmas adverts have changed:
What we’ve seen is extreme emotional storytelling at a particular time of year when the nation is probably feeling highly sentimental, and forgiving.
It’s a great time of year when you can try and leverage that spirit.
It’s best to come back to the people who started this all, to ask whether we’ve got a bit bah humbug and entitled when it comes to our Christmas telly ads.
David, who’s worked with John Lewis from day one says:
There’s expectation there every year. People are expecting things from us, without a doubt yes.
They’re expecting something from all the retailers and not just us. We’ve become a bit of the poster boy for it.
And there’s every reason for that. Anyway, the moral of the story is buy your child a musical instrument – who knows they may get famous without the X Factor…
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Tim Horner is a sub-editor at UNILAD. He graduated with a BA Journalism from University College Falmouth before most his colleagues were born. A previous editor of adult mags, he now enjoys bringing the tone down in the viral news sector.