John Lewis’s Christmas ads are not slipped quietly into circulation like most; they drop like hot new albums. In fact, John Lewis don't so much make Christmas ads as release seasonal mini-epics.
Its latest effort is now upon us, accompanied by an avalanche of headlines touting its million pound price tag and new star, Monty the computer-generated penguin. But will this newest instalment continue John Lewis's run of critical and popular adulation?
Predictions are hard. Especially, as they say, ones about the future. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that this newest ad will not do so well as its predecessors. To understand why, you need to know a little about how the psychology behind this kind of advertising works.
John Lewis’s Christmas ads use what psychologists call “narrative-based persuasion”. They present no facts, they make no claims. They don’t even tell you what type of product they are selling. Instead, they tell stories that aim to ‘transport’ us into a state of suspended disbelief. They invite us to disengage our critical faculties, and plunge ourselves into the world of the narrative. There, we swallow things whole that we would never normally accept: magic-flinging wizards, impossible technologies, and small animals who gift wrap presents for their predators. Once we are caught up into these imaginary worlds, we absorb ideas and emotions from them that we would normally filter out as untrue.
Take John Lewis's Christmas ad from last year. There we meet a bear who hibernates through Christmas every year, and his friend a rabbit who gives him a gift. This gift turns out to be an alarm clock that wakes the bear just in time to share a joyous unwrapping party with the other cute animals. It evokes the warm and fuzzy emotions that are associated with acts of intimate friendship (boosted by a beautifully evocative sound track), and conjures the idea of relating to our loved ones through perfectly thoughtful gifts. These are then implicitly linked to John Lewis by the appearance of their name and strapline at the end. These thoughts and emotions are beautifully consistent with JL’s brand image (i.e., a place to procure such items) so they reinforce these connections in our mind. This is what makes it a smashingly successful advert, on top of being a lovely morsel of art.
The new ad has a premise that sounds similarly enchanting: we follow a boy and his pet penguin on a quest for love. The execution, however, does not deliver the same type of brand resonance. We start with a little boy and his pet penguin playing together: building Lego, bouncing on a trampoline, etc. Unfortunately, there is not yet a narrative thrust to hook our interest – we just see a kid hanging out for a while with his rather unusual pet. The penguin animation is impressively realistic but, paradoxically, this makes it look more ordinary than magical
Eventually the penguin starts seeing various human couples kissing, and this makes it wistful. While this does, finally, create a narrative drive, it is one of tragedy rather than Christmas cheer – the penguin has apparently outgrown the little boy’s affections and is yearning for same-species adult love. We now have a love triangle, two-thirds of which is unrequited.
Then comes the resolution: the boy gives the penguin a Christmas gift of… another live penguin, potted in a gift box, whom it immediately waddles over to nuzzle. And so the boy, nobly, orchestrates his own abandonment. He literally buys the penguin love with money – an act that for humans falls somewhere between crass, illegal, and, according to the Beatles, impossible.
Ironically, given this last point, the musical accompaniment to all of this is a cover of a John Lennon tune – a competent (if, to my untrained ears, not unusually evocative) effort. The ad then ends with the boy holding two stuffed penguin toys, suggesting this was all imaginary, like an episode of Calvin and Hobbes except recast as a tragi-drama.
Where previous John Lewis Christmas ads transported viewers into a magical world of warmth and giving, this one has a montage of everyday play (except with a weird cute pet), before finally starting a narrative of yearning and self-sacrifice. This is beautiful, but in a dark way, rather than embodying the warm fuzziness with which John Lewis wants to associate itself. This is why, to my mind, this ad is not going to bring John Lewis the level of success to which they have recently become accustomed.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Predictions, as I say, are hard. But here, for posterity, is my forecast. Marking the marketers, I give this ad a B-, well short of their last A+.
Alexander Gunz is a lecturer in marketing at Manchester Business School