The John Lewis advert betrays the confidence of a market leader

Not a single product shown, no overt sales message, just a simple evocation of that most powerful aspect of Christmas - sentimentality

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Apart from state occasions and big sports contests, it's increasingly rare that the nation gets to have a shared experience these days. In the average household of an evening, diverse entertainment will be consumed in different ways on a variety of devices. Platforms? We've got more than Paddington Station. Real time, catch-up, i-Player, YouTube, box sets - we're in charge of what we watch, and when, in a way we never have been before.

There is, of course, event TV - X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing, for instance - for which there is a critical mass, and which most people watch live, but, by and large, you can arrive at your workplace in the morning and no two people will have watched the same thing at the same time the previous evening. So I was rather taken aback when, yesterday, everyone in my office was excitedly discussing something they'd all seen on TV.

“I thought it was amazing,” said one, employing the all-purpose adjective of the younger generation. “It was manipulative and overly sentimental,” said another, “although you had to admire the story-telling.” Hold on a second. Was it Downton Abbey they were analysing? No, it couldn't have been. Story-telling? I don't think so. There hasn't been a storyline at Downton since Lady Mary had a bunk-up with a visiting diplomat who died on the job. No, the subject of the debate was something with a much bigger budget than Downton, that's much more relevant to our lives today, and whose release has become one of the most anticipated media events of the year.

I don't know whether the John Lewis Christmas advert, a two-minute film that cost £7m to produce, will get people flocking to their stores, but it's certainly got them talked about. Each year, John Lewis set the benchmark, and now all their competitors - notably Marks & Spencer and Tesco - splurge their marketing budget on similarly ambitious, expansive pieces of advertising. And while M & S have given it both barrels - literally - with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Helena Bonham-Carter, John Lewis have created a Watership Down-style piece of animation involving a bear and a rabbit, with a soundtrack by Lily Allen. This betrays the confidence of a market leader: not a single product shown, no overt sales message, just a simple evocation of that most powerful aspect of Christmas - sentimentality. Tesco, meanwhile, have gone for nostalgia, a jump-cut home video of Christmas down the years with Rod Stewart as an accompaniment. These are short films that withstand critical analysis.

So what are we to make of all this? It is indisputable that a lot of craft, a huge amount of creativity and massive lumps of cash been deployed in getting us to buy into an idea, yet we are regularly told that traditional forms of advertising are losing their relevance in the face of the viral power of the Internet. While so much of British TV is bland, formulaic and repetitive, the hidden persuaders (copyright Vance Packard, 1957) are at least providing content the nation can engage with, and argue about. And you don't have to be a Mad Man to recognise that.

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