When my son was five, he announced that Santa Claus didn’t exist. When I asked what made him think that, he said, “In the library all the books about Santa Claus are in the fiction section.”
Welcome to the British education system, where you leave your sense of wonder at the school gates. We Brits often seem like a cynical bunch, especially when you view us from America, land of Disney and Chuck E. Cheese. It’s a cultural cliché that’s reflected in our advertising. British ads tend to be funny; a bit embarrassed about appearing in your living room, trying to sell you something, trying to laugh it off with a joke. American ads, by contrast, are often more heartwarming and sincere. Or, as we’d have it on this side of the Atlantic, a bit soppy.
Until December, that is. A decade or so ago, British holiday ads were a cacophony of noise and light, pushing products, screaming about price drops with the energy you normally associate with a pre-schooler on Christmas morning. Then something changed. John Lewis is a century-old retailer famous as a purveyor of timeless clothes and furnishings beloved by posh Londoners: toasters you can leave in your will to your grandchildren, cereal bowls the Queen would approve of, that kind of thing. It’s also owned by its employees, so it’s not bothered about such vulgarities as shareholder dividends or massive CEO bonuses. It’s hardly a place you’d expect a revolution, but that’s exactly what it created.
In 2011, John Lewis produced a gentle, quiet ad about the joys of giving a gift. A little boy gets more and more excited about Christmas morning and rushes into his parents’ bedroom at WTF o’clock . . . to give them a present. If you’re feeling a little stonyhearted at the end of 2020, do yourself a favor and watch it now.
It had everything British advertising usually doesn’t: namely, a soul. And the British public lapped it up: within days of its launch it had passed a million views on YouTube. It had caught a wave my branding firm has seen in our engagement data: Millennials in the UK responds better to heartwarming content than Gen-Xers and Boomers. The next year, John Lewis doubled down on the emotions evoked by a perfect gift, where a snowman goes on an epic journey to get the perfect present for his partner. That year, its stores saw sales increase by 44%. When we Brits opened our hearts, it turned out that we opened our wallets too.
Other big brands started taking notice, and the last decade has turned into a kind of arms race of sentimentality as players like Sainsbury’s, a giant supermarket chain, piled in with efforts like this First World War weepie of Spielbergian proportions
Every year, more and more advertisers join the race. This year, Sainsbury’s rival Tesco experienced a backlash for an ad that some felt was too inclusive. Some reactionaries claimed they “couldn’t see themselves represented” (though they remained silent about Aldi’s ad, which featured a family of carrots). Heartwarming stories have now spread across Northern Europe. This year, even the famously phlegmatic Dutch got in on the act with an absolute belter where an elderly man spends a year working out for an unexpected reason.
Back at John Lewis’s agency Adam&EveDDB, the stakes get ever higher. In a nation divided by politics, we’re all united in the thrill of a holiday advertising season kicked off by John Lewis every November. As one YouTube commentator put it, “Americans: excited for presents at Christmas. British: Excited for John Lewis ads every Christmas.” There’s a double pressure on the brand, first to top last year’s effort, and second to stand out in a marketplace that’s become the Super Bowl of emotions. How do they do it?
Nick Hirst is executive strategy director at Adam&EveDDB, although he’s not directly involved in the campaign. He says, “I suspect lots of brands are asking their agencies for ads that are ‘A bit John Lewis.’ What they usually mean is they want an ad that’s sentimental or nostalgic, but they’re missing the point. If you can’t relate the emotion back to your experience of the brand, you just come across as disingenuous. John Lewis actually is a great place to shop if you put some thought into your presents, which is why the ads keep working.”
The UK is in a weird place right now. We’re days away from leaving the EU but have still not worked out how we’re going to do it, four years after we decided to go. We ignored the lessons other countries learned about the pandemic, being told our own approach would be “world beating.” It wasn’t. Scotland wants a divorce and we’ve treated Northern Ireland the way the parents in Home Alone treat Macaulay Culkin. But for at least a few weeks a year, as we settle down to watch the holiday specials on TV, some ads reassure us that we’re better than that. We’re generous and warm-hearted, and we don’t put Santa in the fiction section. Perhaps in 2021 British reality will catch up with British advertising.
Brian Millar is co-founder of Paddle Consulting, a company that measures the engagement preferences of global audiences.