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‘We considered not doing it at all’: How this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert is different from any other

Usual high octane advert traded for low-key animated film championing human kindness and charitable giving

Olivia Petter
Friday 13 November 2020 11:57 GMT
John Lewis & Waitrose Christmas 2020 Advert: Give A Little Love

The John Lewis Christmas advert is an undisputed highlight of the festive season. With big production values and even bigger budgets, it never fails to impress viewers. In fact, most of the time, it moves them to tears thanks to its heartwarming storylines, emotive soundtracks, and compelling characters. This year, things are different.

The pandemic has had a seismic impact on our daily existence, with many of us living a life unimaginable to us this time last year. What would normally be dubbed “the most wonderful time of year” is looking a little bleaker than usual, not least because Britons are still unsure as to whether or not they’ll be able to spend Christmas with their loved ones. It seems fitting, then, that, like everything else, this year’s John Lewis advert should be radically different from those that came before

The theme of this year’s advertisement, “Give a little love”, was inspired by the kindness shown by the British public during the pandemic. Created in partnership with Waitrose, the campaign marks the first time that the two retailers have launched a joint Christmas advert with a philanthropic purpose.

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They have selected two charities, FareShare, which helps those facing food poverty and boasts England footballer Marcus Rashford as its ambassador, and Home-Start, which supports parents in need, with the intention of raising £4m for both. Hence why this year, the John Lewis advert is centred on the spirit of giving to others

The two-minute film begins with a young boy and girl in a snowy village, looking up at the boy’s football stuck in a tree. In a bid to help, the girl opens her umbrella, which turns into a ginormous red heart that she flings at the tree, nudging the football loose. The heart is then passed between a series of animated scenes featuring an array of characters and animals.

For example, we see a snowman offer up his head as a spare wheel to a couple trying to get home for Christmas. Upon making the offer, the ball of snow miraculously turns into a heart-shape. We also see a family drop off a bag of Waitrose food outside someone’s front door, after which the bag also transforms into a heart.

(John Lewis & Partners)

There are other touching exchanges of kindness, too, as each character pays it forward, such as those between strangers on a bus, neighbourly pigeons, and even hedgehogs.

“The scenes are connected to create a long chain of giving, as each film passes the campaign’s heart emblem on to the next part of the film,” explains a statement released by John Lewis and Partners.  

“The storyline illustrates how acts of kindness, large and small, can multiply and positively impact the world in which we live as we pass them on to others.

“The different ‘moments’ of kindness captured in the film are designed to appeal to different audiences, from children upwards.”

(John Lewis & Partners)

What makes this year’s advert particularly unique is the way it celebrates different forms of moving art, featuring animation, claymation, CGI and cinematography, where usually just one of these would comprise the advert.

There are nine vignettes in total created by eight different artists, including Chris Hopewell, who has made music videos for Radiohead, and French animator Sylvain Chomet.

“The unique approach was chosen in a spirit of kindness towards the creative industry, which has been hard hit by the pandemic,” John Lewis & Partners explain. “Instead of a single production team, multiple artists were selected, giving employment to many people across the creative industry.”

(John Lewis & Partners)

As for the soundtrack, that’s different too. In previous years, John Lewis has selected an established musician to perform a cover of a well-known song. Recent highlights include Lily Allen singing Keane’s “Somewhere only we know” in 2013 and Gabrielle Aplin singing Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love” in 2012.

This time around, they’ve chosen Brit Award-winning artist Celeste to write and perform an original song written specifically in keeping with the advert’s theme. The eschewing of covers suggests that no pre-existing song could have captured the impact of the pandemic – the Bay City Rollers’ hit 1975 track “Give a little love” might’ve matched the name of the campaign, but as its soundtrack would’ve fallen astonishingly flat. Thankfully, Celeste’s haunting vocals and evocative lyrics do not.

Normally, a John Lewis advert would go into production in May or June, several months ahead of its release date. However, due to the various restrictions imposed on the UK this year, the production turnaround was much faster. An idea that would usually be conceived in the spring was conceived in the summer, and the advert wasn’t produced until the autumn.

It’s not the first time that a John Lewis Christmas campaign has been a philanthropic endeavour. The company’s 2015 “Man on the Moon” advert raised funds for Age UK, while 2017’s “Moz the Monster” advert was created in partnership with children’s charity Barnardo’s.

But this is certainly the most explicit charitable partnership, with both Home-Start and FareShares’ logos featured prominently on the retailers’ corresponding merchandise – 100 per cent of profits will be donated to the organisations.

The retailers are encouraging its customers to donate through other ways, too, by giving them the opportunity to give money to one of the two charities every time they swipe their John Lewis or Waitrose cards, for example. The shops will also be promoting volunteer projects across their stores for the duration of the Christmas campaign, in the hope of enticing shoppers to “give a little love” this festive season.

“The pandemic has highlighted the growing inequalities across the country, with those who are already most vulnerable disproportionately impacted,” said James Bailey, executive director at Waitrose. “We did consider whether it was right to produce an ad this year at all.”

McDonald’s 2020 Christmas advert

Of course, not everyone has the means to donate to charity, least of all when the UK has fallen into a recession for the first time in 11 years. But the advert acknowledges this with its underlying theme: that small acts of kindness, whether it’s holding the door open or helping someone change a tire, are often free.

“We want this campaign to be uplifting and to inspire everyone to give some kindness in their own way this Christmas," comments Pippa Wicks, executive director of John Lewis. "The pandemic has proved that it’s our small acts of love and kindness, that captures what it is to be human; and when one small act of kindness multiplies it can have a lasting impact.”

It might not be the multi-million-pound blockbuster we’d normally expect, but this year’s John Lewis advert reflects the current climate. Like the pandemic, the campaign’s key message is one that will undoubtedly have a lasting impact that will transcend the festive season. This is a good thing, of course. Because kindness is certainly not just for Christmas. 

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