Presence or Presents this Christmas?

In an unprecedented move, this year John Lewis has teamed up with the charity Age UK to use their widespread reach for good. The Gryphon discusses the possible implications of this unlikely pairing.

Since the success of the 2013 Bear & the Hare advert, which has now had over fifteen million hits on YouTube alone, the John Lewis advert has become a beacon of Christmas and its release has largely replaced the long-reigning Coca-Cola advert as the sign that ‘Christmas is here’.

According to Robert Jones, an expert and professor of brand leadership, ‘Christmas ads have become a thing in themselves’. Eagerly anticipated by audiences around the world, the Christmas advert has become a phenomenon that includes chart-topping backing tracks (Lily Allen’s Somewhere Only We Know reached number one on the UK singles chart), spin-off products (such as the Monty the Penguin toy which retailed for £95), and even teaser trailers. The ultimate goal is to create an awareness of the advert, and thus the retailer, on social media. According to Hotwire, last year’s John Lewis ad did just that, with the hashtag ‘#montythepenguin’ garnering over 100,000 mentions within 24 hours of the launch.

This year’s ad pulls on the consumer’s heartstrings by documenting a young girl’s unfaltering attempts to bring Christmas to a lonely, somewhat miserable character, sitting on a bench on the moon, in the form of a nicely wrapped John Lewis gift. She ultimately succeeds in this by tying his gift to multiple balloons in a move that echoes the idealism of the Disney movie ‘Up’, the two age groups are able to heart-warmingly connect via telescope.

elderlyTying in with Age UK’s ‘No one should have no one at Christmas’ campaign, the isolation of this ‘man on the moon’ figure is intended to reflect the loneliness felt by many elderly members of our community at this time of the year, especially those who no longer have family and friends to spend their day with. Age UK have stated that they have received a lot of attention, donations and volunteers as a direct result of the advert.

As with last year’s advert, the man in the moon centres around a child’s perspective, perhaps indicating that the well-intended actions of childish innocence become lost in the progression to adult life, when we become consumed by the Capitalist cycle of working and spending. However, it is exactly this cycle that the advert buys into, closing on the tagline ‘show someone they’re loved this Christmas’. Remembering the context of marketing, it is not implausible to assume that the unspoken ending of this sentence is intended to be ‘…by buying an expensive gift from John Lewis’. As such, the message becomes less about caring and more about spending – ultimately perpetuating the materialistic views on which much of our society and its traditions (and certainly the celebration of Christmas) have become based.

In an advert designed to highlight the need of charity and unity, John Lewis manages to ignore a very large societal group: the twenty percent of our population who live below the poverty line (Oxfam UK). These are the parents who are left feeling like failures because they cannot afford to buy their child the Christmas gifts they long for; these are the children who begin to equate such gift-giving with the concept of love and thus construe that their lack of gifts indicates a lack of love. The cosiness of the advert is thus skewered by a lethal message – love equals money spent. Counting YouTube views alone, and not the millions more reached by television, last year’s advert currently has over twenty-five million hits – and this message is what the millions of viewers ultimately take away from the advert.

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Photo by: From Emergency Use Only: Understanding and reducing the use of food banks in the UK’

The number of people using food banks in the UK has almost tripled in the last few years, according to Trussell Trust Foodbanks. 

Some reviewers mark this last point as petty. Certainly John Lewis could not hope to meet the needs of every single charity in one campaign and has thus chosen to partner with and focus upon one which they see as apt for this time of year. However, whilst many are praising the parallels between Age UK’s campaign tagline and that of this advert, it is arguable that the essential meaning has been completely and utterly warped. Rather than ‘no one should be alone’, it ends up being ‘show someone they’re loved’ and the emphasis is displaced to a demonstration of love through the symbol of the gift – presents not presence. Obviously, sitting with a gift but with no one there will not solve the problem of being alone. So exactly what effect will this advert have in helping the elderly? Whilst some may be moved to donate to Age UK, it is most certainly John Lewis who will benefit the most from this pairing.

Following the ‘Inspired’ Virgin media advert which uses the feminism movement to advertise the speed of their internet, the John Lewis ad forms the latest addition to an uncomfortable tradition of large companies using real problems to their own ends: pretending to promote, but ultimately just profiting. The advert itself cost £1million to create and a further £7m will be spent on the ‘man on the moon’ marketing effort: if they really cared so deeply for the elderly community, surely John Lewis could have simply made a statement that they would not be making a high-budget advert this year, but instead donating the money to charity – an act which would have generated just as much social media buzz for the retailer.

However, it must be remembered that John Lewis is ultimately a market retailer and is thus sales-based. Whilst their decision to promote for a charity is perhaps slightly misplaced in the context of materialism, their intentions appear to uphold the values of the Christmas spirit and will hopefully form the basis of more companies using their position and reach to do such good in future years. It will, however, be interesting to see how much Age UK benefits from the pairing in comparison to John Lewis’s own sales, after the Christmas period is over.

Molly Walker-Sharp

Images: John Lewis, Age UK

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