I don’t think I’ve seen anything more sickeningly self-indulgent than this year’s Christmas advert from Waitrose. Not only does it advertise Waitrose’s dark chocolate and orange Stollen cake, but it also acts as an advert for the John Lewis advert – a partner of Waitrose. “Guys it’s the John Lewis advert,” crows the girl in the ad. “It’s really good this year, you’re gonna love it.”
Thank you so much, John Lewis, for telling us that your advert is good. Then again this, in a way, is what they’ve done all along, and how they’ve created such a hype around their own ads. , the cost of their ads is something close to £7million and ‘the vast majority of that is on media spend’. So, don’t be fooled when you see countless articles telling you that the advert is ‘heart-warming’ () and has been ‘hailed as a triumph’ () because stirring up this sort of hype is exactly where a great deal of that budget probably goes.
But, you might argue, whilst they can undoubtedly create a certain amount of hype, that only works if the actual videos are any good, and people seem to think that they are. Then again, why wouldn’t they be? These ‘adverts’ are effectively high-budget short films, whose status as an ‘advert’ seems to get more and more tenuous each year. This time, for example, the John Lewis advert is a tribute to Elton John with only the most tangential connection to Christmas and even less of a connection to John Lewis. This criticism is so obvious that it feels as if John Lewis are just baiting people to make it.
Adverts, after all, are generally a nuisance.
But if John Lewis choose, instead of focussing on promoting their own products, to create a sweet, loveable short film each year then, what’s wrong with that? Well, that line of thinking then subtly starts to change the way that you perceive their adverts. You stop thinking about them as being adverts at all. Adverts, after all, are generally a nuisance. Adverts are the things you have to watch before your YouTube videos begins, in the middle of a TV commercial break or at the cinema as you wait for the film to begin. But the John Lewis advert isn’t like those things – in fact, it’s the kind of thing you might even seek out on purpose, to watch out of choice rather than because you have to.
But I think we mustn’t let ourselves forget that the John Lewis advert is most definitely still an advert. It’s still there for that very specific purpose of advertising, no matter how covertly it does so. On the most obvious level, it promotes the John Lewis brand. On a more subliminal level, it promotes a very specific idea about Christmas, that being that Christmas is a time to give gifts. No matter what emotional story or pretext it uses to promote that message, that is what each advert strives to say.
I personally find the overly commercialised nature of Christmas to be abhorrent
Take the 2015 ‘Man on the Moon’ advert as an example. The pretext is that the advert is about ‘showing someone they’re loved this Christmas’. Yet this is achieved, not by anybody actually bothering to visit the elderly man on the moon at Christmas, but rather by sending him a gift. Because, you know, sending someone a gift is obviously just as meaningful as actually spending time with them.
It’s hardly surprising that a retailer is pushing this materialist agenda. And since I personally find the overly commercialised nature of Christmas to be abhorrent, it’s no surprise that I take issue with this. But what makes the John Lewis advert so much worse than any other in this regard, is that it tries to pretend that it’s more, that it’s different. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And this becomes all the more problematic the further that it goes in establishing itself as a part of Christmas tradition (the most ingenious ploy of any Christmas marketing campaign).
Yet through aggressive Christmas advertising campaigns and shop displays, we are constantly made to think that excessive buying is normal and is even what Christmas is all about
And I just have to end by saying this – by saying what no John Lewis advert will ever say. Christmas should be so much more than material gifts. From the undue stress of Christmas shopping, through to the awkwardness of receiving a disappointing Christmas gift, far too much of gift-giving culture has totally lost its heart. Despite the cliché, I truly believe that Christmas should be about spending time with people, being in high spirits and perhaps exchanging a few thoughtful gifts. Yet through aggressive Christmas advertising campaigns and shop displays, we are constantly made to think that excessive buying is normal and is even what Christmas is all about. Now more than ever, we should really be doing more to question this ideology. Because this enormous annual binge is about as sustainable for our earth as it is integral to our personal relationships.