The John Lewis Christmas advert and the commodification of loneliness

 'Is its heart in the right place? Or does it communicate corporate, materialistic, self-interest values under the guise of charity?'

As you hoovered up your tears with your brand new vacuum cleaner from johnlewis.com on Friday morning, you probably experienced some sort of cognitive dissonance after viewing the Man on the Moon advert - feeling simultaneously moved and manipulated.

I wrote about how it yanks at every heartstring possible following its YouTube debut, but now Dr Patrick Lonergan, lecturer in consumer culture at Nottingham Trent University, has skewered the paradox of it perfectly, highlighting what many missed - that the old man is more alone than ever at the close.

Here's his 'alternative view' in full (emphasis my own):

The Commodification of Loneliness

'I woke this Friday morning in a great mood. Then having watched the John Lewis 2015 Christmas advert released today, I instantly felt like a horrible person. Shamefully, the ad triggered in me an “awh…no… that’s sad, I hope that never happens me” selfish type of reaction, the exact opposite of what Christmas is meant to be, and exactly in line with the values of consumerism.

John Lewis has said that the purpose of the ad is to raise awareness of the elderly and the importance of being together at Christmas through “thoughtful gift giving”. But, in an age of intense commercialism, does the ad have mixed messages?

By that I mean, is its heart in the right place? Or does it communicate corporate, materialistic, self-interest values under the guise of charity? For instance, the ad cost multi-millions to produce, yet it is estimated that “hundreds of thousands” made from only three distinct products will go to Age UK.

So, having watched the ad, do you think John Lewis (like every contemporary advertisement does) is possibly commodifying our deeper fears, worries and anxieties by wrapping them up and selling them back to us?

John Lewis is not alone in creating such kind of Christmas campaign, of course, as we see similar strategies by other large retailers which pull on our heart strings and provide consumerism as the solution.

In this case, the two-minute piece seems to be a commodification of loneliness. Think about it, when was the last time you were truly alone? No phone, social media, contact with human existence. As a society, we have come to greatly fear this prospect. To be alone is bad enough, but to be alone at Christmas? Blasphemous.

We are increasing brand awareness of John Lewis by bonding with one another over our shared dread of loneliness

Dr Patrick Lonergan

While the brand’s attempts to raise funds for Age UK is a noble gesture, the ad also increases brand awareness by attaching to that universal fear we all share, a fear of not being loved and being alone. The emotional triggers in the ad (a melancholic tune, an old man on his own, a young girl and her family, the colours of warmth in her home contrasted with the bleak, cold surface of the moon etc.) work to provoke this deeper fear, bringing it to the surface. In other words, this fear is made to feel not only real, but also as a distinct possibility.

By consuming the ad (sharing it via social media- hypocritically, as this piece is also doing) I feel we are increasing brand awareness of John Lewis but also subconsciously bonding with one another over our shared dread of loneliness. Becoming aware of, and bonding over our vulnerabilities is very healthy. The problem lies in the supposed remedy by which we believe we can fix this problem; though the material consumption of endless brands.

So for me, this ad typifies what we do as consumers. To ease our sense of vulnerability, frailty and lack when confronted with images of perfection, we peer through a lens that distorts reality and allows us to momentarily escape the sometimes bleak, cold, lonely aspects of daily life. Of course, as is the case when we try soothing these inner troubles with consumption and materialism, we are bound to experience dissatisfaction.

The irony is that as the advertisement ends, the old man is still on the moon… still alone. Is it too “humbug” of me to suggest that maybe the poor fella is crying because he realises that he has been staring at a mirage; that his sense of loneliness has only intensified and all the material gifts in the world won’t make the slightest bit of difference? As we are left reeling from the emotional piece, cut to tagline; “show somebody they’re loved at Christmas”.  But this is not by inviting them into your home, but by giving them some sort of material gift that still, ironically, keeps them at the same distance they always were…half the world away.'

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