Life Christmas

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Why do we love tear-jerking Christmas 'sadverts'?

John Lewis’s 2016 Man on the Moon advert
John Lewis’s 2016 Man on the Moon advert
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

The much-anticipated John Lewis Christmas advert has landed and speculation about Elton John's involvement has proven to be accurate as the ad charts his career right back to childhood and the gift of a piano on Christmas morning.

As usual, the brand's 90-second magnum opus has us weeping fat, salty tears all over our keyboards.

John Lewis has cornered the Christmas advertising market in recent years with a winning formula of emotive storytelling, stirring soundtracks and button-nosed children. The department store has been making epic Christmas ads since 2007, but it wasn't until 2011 that they tugged on our heart strings with 'The Long Wait' - a story about a little boy counting down the days until Christmas, set against the maudlin lyrics of The Smiths' song 'Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want'.

There was a time when Coca-Cola's twinkling 'Holidays Are Coming' truck owned the festive advertising space. Nowadays, thanks to the John Lewis Effect, we expect heart-swelling, spirit-soaring masterpieces by Oscar-winning directors.

This year's offering from Sainbury's, directed by The Greatest Showman's Michael Gracey, depicts a young girl who suffers a brief moment of shyness when she takes centre stage during her school play. A reassuring nod from her mother gives her the confidence to belt out 'You Only Get What You Give' by the New Radicals and stun the audience of proud parents.

The Iceland Christmas advert - voiced by actress Emma Thompson and originally made by environmental campaign group Greenpeace - features a baby orangutan telling a little girl how his home, the rainforest, has been destroyed by humans harvesting palm oil. The ad has been viewed over three million times on YouTube but never made it to TV screens after it was banned on grounds of political advertising.

They're both clear attempts to win the hearts of the nation but, so far, nothing has touched the heart-wrenching pathos of John Lewis's 2016 Man on the Moon advert; German supermarket Edeka's 2015 advert about a grandfather who fakes his own death to get his busy adult children to convene for the festive period or the gorgeous 2015 Spanish Christmas lottery advert that had echoes of Disney's Up and a piano backdrop of Ludovico Einaudi's 'Nuvole Bianche' to boot.

As for the Sainbury's Christmas advert which depicted the Christmas truce of 1914? The line "Mein Name ist Otto" still makes me weep...

Thanks to John Lewis, brands are no longer promoting their Christmas catalogues with a glitter-strewn extravaganza of conspicuous consumption. Ten years ago, it was the norm to engage festive shoppers with fantasy and escapism. Nowadays, it's all about building an emotional connection.

Brands are now positioning themselves as social crusaders, moral guardians and champions of family values. They still want us to buy the luxury handbags and the fancy cufflinks, but they'd prefer to use the softly, softly approach to get us there. You could argue it's a form of emotional blackmail.

What's much more interesting, however, is just how receptive we are to Christmas 'sadvertising'. There has always been a nostalgic, melancholic tinge to the festive season and it seems we're only too happy to have been given an outlet for Christmas-time catharsis, even if it's courtesy of the people who are trying to get us to buy perfumes and sock sets.

Our inner cynics should really step in and protect us from these blatant attempts to melt our hearts and empty our pockets, but it seems our inner softies have taken over. Sure, we know deep down that the creators of these adverts are only interested in the bottom line, but still we go along with the charade of the romanticised festive season during a period that is undeniably stressful and, for others, unimaginably painful.

Ultimately, Christmas adverts help us resolve the things that we find difficult to articulate at this time of year: the simmering tension, the inexplicable sadness and the disillusionment with rampant consumerism.

It helps of course that these adverts only last a minute or so. In an instant-gratification economy we expect everything on demand - even emotional release.

Irish Independent

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