November – the month when all the major retailers in the UK begin their relentless sales drive for Christmas. So begins a month where you’re being bombarded with bargains, offers, and deals whenever you’re unfortunate enough to experience an advert break on the TV. Like stuffing a turkey, you’ll have fliers detailing yet more offers crammed through your letterbox, and almost when you think you’re fed up of the pseudo-Christmas that has become November, the shops will start putting their garlands up early, the products you buy will get their festive packaging, and you’ll be hearing the same Christmas songs before December has even begun. You’ll just want some peace and quiet. You’ll be thinking it’s not even December yet, and resign yourself to the yearly conclusion – that every year, Christmas only seems to become even more commercialised, if that’s possible.
Why then am I writing a post about Christmas adverts? Why have I mentioned #bearandhare, the tag for retailer John Lewis’s Christmas advert for 2013? Well, it’s not to single it out as a caricature for an article about Christmas being too commercial – like the adverts we’re subjected too, that argument comes every year, stronger and earlier. We’ve all heard it before, and it would be a waste of time to write about that topic. Instead of despairing at the amount of crass advertising on the airwaves at the moment, I’ve chosen the John Lewis 2013 advert because it does something, so far, that I haven’t seen other companies do. What can I be on about? Let’s watch!
Strange. What have we just watched? An advert for Christmas that doesn’t mention a single price. It doesn’t feature a tirade of products. There’s not a single mention of savings, deals, or offers. There’s not even any of that small print at the bottom of the screen telling you the actual conditions of those seemingly ‘too good to be true’ bargains. Instead, we have a sweet animation about a bear and a hare, with an underlying message telling us to not buy something, but give someone a Christmas they’ll never forget. Let’s take a moment to think about that. Give (not buy) someone a Christmas (not a product) that they’ll never forget.
What? It sound’s unbelievable when you put it like that. If we want to be really cynical, we can perhaps take a guess that the one moment of product placement is the alarm clock that the Hare gives the Bear, but that’s so fleeting it feels like we’re clutching at a straw – not to mention it fits within the story being told. Or you can say that their message of giving a christmas that they’ll never forget implies that you can do that by shopping at John Lewis, and I think you’d have a good idea there. But you can’t deny it, this advert makes you smile. It’s sweet. It’s emotional. I don’t roll my eyes in exasperation because it doesn’t conform to the trend of this time of year; that is the tirade of hyper-commercialised Christmas imagery. Let’s take a look at a different advert.
Oh, the product placement. The assurances that we’ll get the presents we want. The iPad being made by elves, the Coca-Cola that seems to be everywhere. It’s unnerving, isn’t it? The message of doing good is being tied to the product, in the hope that we’ll form an association with the two. This makes me sceptical, because underneath the Christmas message there is the very obvious desire from the company to make us buy their goods. You can even suggest that Christmas is theirs – and it’s an idea you can be forgiven to think, given the company’s long association with Santa Claus.
From 1931 to 1964, Coca-Cola advertising showed Santa delivering toys (and playing with them!), pausing to read a letter and enjoy a Coke, visiting with the children who stayed up to greet him, and raiding the refrigerators at a number of homes.
(Source http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-santa-claus. Accessed 11:58AM GMT 17/11/2013.)
If you’re interested, I recommended giving that article a read, as it details how Santa Claus has been used in their marketing campaigns since the 1920’s through to the present day. However the implication that Christmas is tied to Coca-Cola is one we already acknowledge. Remember how we say it’s only Christmas once we’ve seen the Coca-Cola truck? Here’s a video with precisely that.
Again, it’s the implication that the “holidays are coming” exactly as the Coca-Cola trucks roll in. This isn’t the only company to try to claim their influence over Christmas, it happens everywhere. Supermarkets are always keen to promote their food for the holiday season, eager to claim Christmas dinner as their own. They compete to be the company that provides the perfect meal, and to do so they fill the airwaves with sensuous displays of piles of steaming and perfectly prepared food.
Yes, Christmas dinner is done the best, but remember you’ve got to “spend some dough to put on a show.” If you’re looking for something that takes Christmas and really encourages you to spend money and revel in consumerism, it’s the above advert. It appears glutinous, certainly encouraging over-indulgence and spending in the hope that the consumer will be driven to recreate that perfect pile of food wonderfully rendered in their advert.
To draw this back to the Bare and the Hare, John Lewis have been making adverts for Christmas in a similar thread for years now. As we’ve seen, plenty of other retailers are keen to carve up Christmas for themselves in their adverts, and subject the viewer to a tirade of products and crass consumerism. They encourage us to spend money, to buy and to indulge in wealth, while at the same time of year many charities begin their appeals for Christmas. What makes the current John Lewis advert so effective? It gives a carefully thought out message – to make a special Christmas someone will never forget. As all the other retailers bombard our senses, this quiet message stands out because it demonstrates a sensitivity that no other retailer has so far been prepared to follow. While the underlying motivation for the advert is to make us spend money at John Lewis, I think it’s good to see a retailer thinking carefully about how it wants to advertise to us, rather than subjecting us to a frenzy of sales. There is a tangible dignity to the advert, and I think that’s the underlying factor that makes it such a powerful piece of advertising. To end, I leave you with the John Lewis advert from 2012, and wondering what we might be seeing during advert breaks in 2014.