Seasonal advertising: As John Lewis well knows, commerce is the gift that keeps on giving
If its TV ad now sets the Christmas tone, then we have only ourselves to blame
I am not, perhaps, the most natural enthusiast for Christmas. I have spent too many in the office, eating cold, dry turkey in a deserted canteen, and hoping fervently for big news breaks to hold off until I've gone home. When I do manage to spend the big day in the bosom of my beloved family, I am always awkwardly conscious of being the least festive person in the room, particularly when my 15 nephews and nieces are tearing through their gifts in a frenzy of shredded wrapping paper. My abiding memory is of the time, a few years ago, when my mother, in an excess of seasonal zeal, put one too many flickering tea lights in the piles of cotton-wool snow that adorned the nativity scene, thereby setting a roaring blaze in the wooden stable that caused the Baby Jesus to melt. Such dark recollections make it hard to get all "Jingle Bells".
Despite this predilection for humbug, though, I hadn't expected to be sick of the festive season by the first week of November. My grudging respect goes to Craig Inglis, marketing director at John Lewis and the man credited with that company's extraordinary stranglehold on seasonal advertising hype. Asked to explain the message behind this year's offering, a sad story of a hibernating bear forced from his well-earned slumber by a manically acquisitive rabbit, he gave a truly grisly explanation. John Lewis's hopes for Christmas, he said, was best summarised by one simple phrase: "thoughtful gifting".
Thoughtful gifting! You can see it on a greetings card. And, in the way it matches cloying sentimentality with a ruthless disregard for real tradition (such as the word "gift" not being made into a gerund), it perfectly summarises the modern spirit of Christmas. The advert, with its widely noted evocation of The Animals of Farthing Wood and ostentatiously lo-fi soundtrack, masquerades as a piece of proper culture. It came with a "premiere" and will probably spawn a Christmas No 1, which Lily Allen and Keane are no doubt delighted about. And, grasping and self-interested though I suspect that rabbit (OK, fine, hare) may be, it features only one product: a quaintly analogue alarm clock.
Don't be fooled. Year after year, John Lewis proves that the fewer pound signs on show in an advert, the more ruthlessly effective its capitalistic ambitions will turn out to be. Of the ad's £7m budget, after all, fully £6m went on buying airtime. Its first slot was last night – at full, two-minute length – during The X Factor. And actually, technically speaking, the talent show is the piece of work with greater creative integrity.
The bear and the hare are, of course, very far from alone. Retailers will spend £390m on adverts in the final three months of this year; this time around, John Lewis's closest competitor for our attention is probable Marks & Spencer, helped along by the mysterious way that Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's clothes fall off. Then there's Tesco, taking a celebrity-free route, and claiming, therefore, to be "shunning" its competitors' "airbrushed Christmas".
Let's be clear about this: it is not a matter of principle. It is not about "values". If Tesco thought an airbrush would sell more mince pies, it would fire the thing up in a jiffy.
Of course, none of this is really the fault of Mr Inglis or his colleagues. That's what's so depressing. It is their job, and a perfectly respectable one, to try to sell their products; it is our job to try to ignore them. They are doing their job better than we are doing ours. The headline on The Daily Telegraph's version of the story (everyone had a version) says it all: "The two minutes that launch Christmas." I think, all things considered, that I preferred it when the two minutes that launched Christmas consisted of an ill-advised snog at the office party. When did we cede so much cultural capital to the forces of consumerism? It's one thing to think John Lewis is a great place to buy vests, quite another to grant it authority to set the tone for the year's most widely observed holiday.
Once upon a time, there was a hard-headed deal that cast us, the public, in a slightly less embarrassing light. We watched the ads to get the telly, the good stuff, the stuff that was made to entertain and inform us and not to part us from our money. Everyone could at least pretend that they weren't susceptible to the reminders that their lives were incomplete. Not today – as the 1,350,000 views that the John Lewis ad had racked up on YouTube by yesterday evening will attest – today, we must admit that we are interested in the ads for their own sake. Sometimes when viewing online, we will willingly watch another ad in order to watch the ad we clicked for. Think about that. It's like going to the cinema and finding an endless loop of trailers. It's like cooking yourself dinner, and then moving straight on to the washing-up. And even if it is Lily Allen singing while you scrub, you still haven't had anything to eat.
I suppose, in one sense, this makes for a more honest Season of Goodwill. Gifting, thoughtful or otherwise, has been at the heart of Christmas for an awfully long time now, at least as far back as Coca-Cola made Santa dress up in red; the way these ads have become the symbol of the season is perhaps just an admission of an old truth. But that it is in truth wholly appropriate does not make it any less depressing. I am, accordingly, going to sleep until January. And if anybody wakes me with the heart-warming gift of an alarm clock, I am going to eat them.
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