The John Lewis ad: The two minutes that launch Christmas
With Lily Allen, cute cartoon critters and a peak Saturday night slot, John Lewis is playing for high stakes, finds Harry Wallop
No one speaks. It lasts for two minutes. But on Wednesday night, this short “film” merited a West End première in a chi‑chi hotel, accompanied by a three-course dinner for select guests, complete with speeches and razzmatazz.
But then, it was not any two-minute film. It was the John Lewis Christmas advert, an event that is now greeted with as many leaks, wild rumours and anticipation as the publication of a new J K Rowling novel or a James Bond release. As Lily Allen, who ended a three-year break from recording to sing the music for advert, tells me: “The John Lewis ad – especially the Christmas one – is a big deal.”
It certainly is. And not just for John Lewis, but also for Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, all the supermarkets, and a host of consumer brands. According to market analysts at Nielsen, retailers will spend about £390 million on advertising over the last three months of 2013, throwing off the cloak of austerity. John Lewis alone is spending £7 million on its Christmas campaign (the advert itself cost £1 million).
This is a remarkable turn of events. Only a few years ago, it was predicted that TV advertising would slowly die, as we all started to watch programmes on catch-up boxes, such as Sky Plus, or on tablet computers.
And yet today Christmas adverts are as big as they were back in 1978, when Woolworths first pioneered the glitzy, celebrity-stuffed festive spot, showing Windsor Davis, Tony Blackburn, Nicholas Parsons and members of Pan’s People camping it up in front of tinsel-covered Old Spice aftershave and a Ferguson music centre.
The stakes, after all, are high. Steve Sharp, the marketing chief at M&S (and the man responsible for recruiting Twiggy), says: “This is the golden quarter for retailers. This is make-or-break time – you need to throw all your efforts at it.”
He has hired two-time Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter to star in M&S’s lavish tribute to Alice in Wonderland, with its star model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley playing the girl who falls down the rabbit hole. Her clothes also seem to fall off a lot, leaving her and her long legs to brave the snowy evening in nothing but her underwear, poor thing.
Cadbury, in turn, has spent £1 million covering an entire street in purple wrapping paper, which a gang of children gleefully rip off on Christmas morning, while Debenhams has spent “many millions” on its glossy, model-filled campaign, filmed in Budapest.
John Lewis, meanwhile, has again eschewed celebrities in favour of trying to make you cry – part of its ambition, in the words of Craig Inglis, its marketing director, to “connect emotionally with our customers”.
And oh how we connect. The store’s animation, using old-fashioned line drawing (by artists who worked on The Lion King), features a rather grumpy brown bear and his friend, a hare, who looks – with his doleful eyes – as if he has jumped straight out of Watership Down to escape the bulldozers.
The bear has never experienced Christmas because he spends all winter hibernating in a cave, we learn. This makes the hare even sadder, but he gives the sleeping bear a present in the hope he might be roused from his slumber and join in the woodland fun. Since the gift is an alarm clock, his ruse works.
It is charming, though not as immediately reach-for-the-hanky as the 2011 advert, which featured an impatient boy, waiting – here came the twist – not to unwrap his booty but to give a present to his parents.
The real star this year is the song. Keane’s 2004 hit Somewhere Only We Know is covered by Allen in what is now John Lewis’s trademark tug-at-the-heartstrings style. In fact, so seriously does the company take its advert that the singer had to audition for the part, along with a clutch of other leading female vocalists who included Annie Lennox.
Singing a cover for a department store advert may not sound like a credible move for a successful chart-topper such as Allen. But she is in little doubt that it is a sensible “way of stepping back into the marketplace” after three years away to have children – she has two daughters under the age of two.
For starters, there is a long tradition of John Lewis songs topping the charts. Secondly, the advert will make its TV debut during The X Factor tomorrow night, watched by nearly eight million viewers, with ITV handing over an entire ad break to John Lewis. As Inglis at John Lewis says: “It may not seem a big deal, but it really is – ITV have had to reschedule the whole evening and we needed to get Simon Cowell himself to sign it off.”
Allen’s comeback starts to look rather canny. Not many songs get this level of exposure, she notes. “It’s a massive opportunity. It has massive reach. They play it during X Factor, it is something that everyone sees.”
For the 28-year-old, this is the most commercially viable way of introducing herself to a new group of fans before she launches an album early next year. “My market has usually been young kids,” she explains. “I am a bit older now and it seemed like a good fit to try to appeal to slightly different audience.” Today, as she jokes, she is a dutiful John Lewis credit card holder and shops at her local Waitrose in Gloucestershire.
And yet despite all the fanfare around the advert’s unveiling tomorrow, it makes its true debut this morning – online, as is now common practice. As Sharp at M&S says: “It used to be that people would watch the ad and then find it on the internet. It is now the other way around. It’s as if we throw a pebble into the pond and watch the ripples spread out via social media.”
This does not mean television is less important, however. Ofcom, the regulator, says 91 per cent of UK adults view televisions on their main set each week, up from 88 per cent in 2002 – helped by the rise of major event programmes such as The X Factor and Downton Abbey.
People rarely watch these shows with undiluted attention, however. More than half of all adults (53 per cent) “media mesh”, to use the terrible industry jargon, which means they fiddle about on another device, perhaps playing Candy Crush while watching Lady Mary turn down another suitor, or critiquing Anton’s paso doble on Facebook during Strictly.
This is Ad Land’s real competition: people’s eyes drifting away from the glossy advert on the television screen, towards their mobile phone or the tablet on their lap. And this explains why companies need a campaign which can create a buzz on social media – and why John Lewis this year is spending more money advertising online than on television. “Social media keeps the story going,” says Neil Saunders, a retail analyst. “It’s a second bite of the cherry and it actually drives people to watch the advert.”
Still, for all the anticipation, magic and even tears the adverts engender, there is one commercial reality that they cannot quite sugarcoat for Christmas. Just turn over the back of the alarm clock featured in the John Lewis advert and note the inscription. “Made in China”, it reads.