This Side of the Pond – Nov. 22

By Sarah Pridgeon

Anyone who suspects Christmas has become too commercial need look no further than the shenanigans of my countrymen. Yes, I know it’s still only November, but this invented tradition wants to give you as much time for shopping as it possibly can.
None of us are strangers to that moment when the jingle of festive adverts begins on the television. The noise builds and builds until it reaches a crescendo in mid-December, when most of us are part way through a panic attack because we haven’t even managed to get the tree in an upright position, let alone put anything underneath it.
That’s normal behavior, these days, for both the people who are selling things and the ones who are feverishly trying to work out which ones to buy. I’m aware not everyone sees each ad as a judgment on their time management skills – I’m sure some people actively enjoy them.
But there’s one company in Britain that has pushed the festive envelope to an extreme I never thought possible. Step forward, John Lewis, harbinger of tinseled doom.
It started out fine, but we all know what the road to hell is paved with. John Lewis is a department store that’s known for being more costly than its peers; quality, not quantity, is the name of the game. Knowing this, and feeling it would be better to position its expensive nature as a feature rather than a flaw, John Lewis adopted the slogan, “Never knowingly undersold”. As a pennypincher, it’s harder to get cross with them if they’re up-front with the cost. Even so, anyone on a budget was heading to more affordable places.
Presumably after a long meeting that involved shouting and some tears, they came up with an idea that would place them at the forefront of everyone’s minds when the gift-giving season rolls around. They decided to make the very best Christmas adverts of them all.
That first year, it really was a brilliant piece of storytelling. An adorable little boy tries to distract himself while waiting for Christmas morning, but he’s too excited for it to work.
The days tick by slowly for him until Christmas Eve finally arrives, when he wolfs down his supper and rushes to bed. The next morning, he wakes up and leaps out from under the covers.
But then he runs right past all the bright parcels and opens his wardrobe to take out a badly wrapped gift of his own. It turns out he wasn’t excited for what Santa was going to bring him – he just wanted to give his parents their present.
John Lewis ads make you cry, in that awful but also good way that only seems to happen round the Yule period. The next year, they told the story of a snowman battling his way across mountains, fields and rivers just to buy his lady love the perfect gift.
The year after that, it was a hare convincing a bear not to hibernate, but to stay up long enough to see the joy of Christmas. Then it was an unlikely friendship between a boy and a penguin and then, in a real blow to any of us too sentimental to avoid a lip wobble, it was the lonely old man on the moon.
A little girl catches sight of him through a telescope, all by himself for the holidays, and asks Santa for a special gift. The man on the moon, sitting on his uncomfortable bench, is befuddled when a box carried by balloons sets gently down in front of him. He opens it to find a looking glass that he can use to see what’s going on down on the planet and wave hello to his new young friend.
He’s not lonely any more, but the rest of us are pretending not to sniffle. Such is the downside of the campaigns John Lewis has brought into this world.
Six million pounds was always an eye-watering amount to spend on one advert, but the company realized it could do so much more. It began scheduling a premier for its Christmas ad, as though the thing is a real movie, and then started releasing teaser ads – a teaser for an ad! Whatever next!
This year, I can’t help but think things have finally come to a head. They prepared us for the coming of their advert – advertising an ad! What is the world coming to! – by changing the sign at their flagship London store to just read “John”.
Then, they somehow convinced ITV, one of our three major television networks, to change the theme music for a whole slew of its regular programs. Everything from soap opera Coronation Street to morning compilation show This Morning was suddenly being introduced by new versions of their jingles played on the piano.
All of this to drum up anticipation for the first showing of this year’s offering, which features Sir Elton John playing his classic tune “Your Song” before going back in time to the Christmas he was given a piano by his grandmother. See what they did there?
It’s all a bit much, if you ask me, but I’m glad to see the competition fighting back. John Lewis has not grabbed the title of favorite Christmas ad this year – that honor goes to Aldi.
The budget supermarket went quite the other way and features its mascot, Kevin the Carrot, driving something suspiciously similar to the Coca Cola truck until he has an accident and is left dangling over a cliff. The campaign, of course, is to “Save Kevin!” (though I’m unclear as to how one would go about doing so.)
Millions of pounds, the overhaul of an entire network and the involvement of one of the biggest names in music. All of that, to be pipped to the post by a root vegetable – perhaps there’s some justice in this holiday-mad world after all.