John Lewis advert: Ah the spirit of Christmas, brought to you by huge department stores

It used to be the vicar. Now ads are deciding the tone of Christmas

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People used to complain that Christmas started earlier every year. The moment the Back to School banners were put away, out came the red and green. Shop mannequins had barely removed their blazers and ties before sporting a Christmas jumper and a Santa hat. But with the conversion of Halloween into a fully fledged holiday with costumes, food and crackers (both the Hallow-cracker and the Easter-cracker now exist – don’t shoot the messenger), Christmas actually starts later than it used to. Technically, it has begun this week.

Or if not Christmas, then Advent. Or, if you’re being finicky, advert-advent, which officially begins with the launch of the big-budget Christmas adverts. This week has seen Rosie Huntington-Whiteley falling down a manhole and appearing at an Alice in Wonderland tea-party (briefly minus all but her pants and bra – the panto season also starts earlier every year) for M&S.

And tonight sees the launch of the John Lewis Christmas ad, which has a lot to live up to after the heroic snowman endeavours of 2012. You can tell it’s a big deal, because this week ITV showed teaser trailers for the ad. Yes, adverts offering us a tiny promise of another advert. I’m hoping this heralds Christmas, rather than the end of days, but I can’t quite be sure.

It seems that the big supermarkets and department stores have decided to take on a parental role in the run-up to Christmas. They used to be offering us help. Their advertising message was, in essence: come and do your Christmas shopping here; it won’t be too awful; we’ve got extra staff on the tills and we promise not to reorganise the whole store the week before you come so you don’t know where anything is and, say, did we mention we’re selling chocolate oranges cheaper than the other guy?

Now, they’ve taken on a more paternalistic tone: the big brands all launch their adverts around the same time, so they decide when we really start thinking about Christmas, like our parents did when we were children. But their adverts have acquired a moral dimension too. The Boots ad shows a hoodie-wearing teen sneaking out of the house to … mug an old lady? Burgle a house? No, silly, he’s delivering presents to his grandad and his friends and a pretty girl at school and the nurse who looked after his nan. A classic bait-and-switch, playing on the prejudice of the viewer.

Waitrose is taking a punt with a film of its turkeys roaming free in a field, being fed grapes by a kindly farmer. None of which would make old Gobble-Gobble feel a bit better about the final shot of the advert, I suspect, but that’s because I’m a poultry-petting vegetarian who would no more eat a turkey than I would a kitten. He’s not going to be eating any grapes in January, that’s for sure.

Littlewoods promises a twist in the tail of its commercial which features Myleene Klass working as one of Santa’s helpers. The twist seems to be that there is a handsome man on the shelves among the scented soaps and toys, so perhaps its Christmas message is that Father Christmas is a people trafficker.

Meanwhile, John Lewis has gone for the full Disney-style animation, with a hare and a bear having their friendship interrupted by the bear’s hibernation. To be honest, the hare looks so devoted to the bear that I am wondering if this might be the real love which dare not speak its name. I don’t want to give away the ending, but suffice it to say that the hare finds a way to spend Christmas with the bear who has never seen Christmas, and that’s after some badgers decorate a tree with baubles. I guess the message is that love conquers all at Christmas, which it does (unless your loved ones are awful and neck all the sherry by lunchtime).

These ads are taking on the status of proper movies: there are “Making of …” films online. It’s been happening for a while: my partner is an actor, so he’s always flogging you stuff (they don’t pay me, so I won’t tell you what), and he is currently appearing in the blooper reel of a series of ads he made earlier this year. Advert blooper reels didn’t used to happen. (Did I mention earlier that the end of days might be coming?)

But they’re also deciding the tone of Christmas, in a way which used to be done by the local vicar. Most of us don’t go to church any more, but we do go to the shops, so perhaps it was always the case that the Christmas message would eventually be decided by the high street. Having grown up in Bournville, where the morality of the Quakers was intimately linked to the smell of Cadbury chocolate, I feel I’ve trained for this societal shift. Except now Cadbury is owned by Kraft, and much of its chocolate is made elsewhere.

And this is the real problem with multinational companies declaring themselves the arbiters of Christmas spirit. Their ads are full of fluffy snow falling on small, cosy shops, with shopkeepers who know our names offering friendly service and perfect gift-wrapping. Cadbury itself has gone the extra step and gift-wrapped an entire street in Plumstead in its advert. (There must be someone in your life for whom a street in Plumstead would be the perfect gift. No?) It’s consciously mimicking the kind of shopping experience that hasn’t really existed since the supermarkets appeared.

More than that, they’re offering us a festive vision of the small high-street shops which they have systematically helped to put out of business. It’s a curious admission: they realise that when we want to feel happy about shopping, we tend to lapse into nostalgia, for a time we never lived in, more Dickensian than our own. It seems we don’t want Christmas to be in the present at all.

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