I'm not sure that I buy being sold a set of values by John Lewis

Yes, I know, if you can’t get a bit misty-eyed at Christmas, then when can you? However, John Lewis is, like Downton, selling us a set of values rather than a product, and I don’t know whether I buy it or not

Simon Kelner
Tuesday 10 November 2015 19:10
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If you watched the final episode of Downton Abbey at the weekend, interspersed with the John Lewis Christmas advert, you could be forgiven that Britain was a country drowning in sentimentality, and that we were a nation being manipulated and infantilised by an onslaught of populist rubbish.

The truth, however, may turn out to be rather different. The ITV audience for the climax of this run of Downton was 8.5 million, which was almost two million down on the programme’s high point, the final episode of the second series – and I can’t be alone in developing a resistance to John Lewis’s shameless tugging of our heart strings at this time of year.

The fact is that both these works are very slick pieces of communication. Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton, presents a vision of Britain based on rules and etiquette, where manners are impeccable and everyone knows exactly where they stand. There is little social inclusion, and certainly no diversity, and the not-so-subliminal message is that this was a society where everyone, by and large, is content. How much better our lives would be now if we returned to the proprieties fictionalised by this portrait of Britain between the wars.

Likewise, the people behind the John Lewis ad are selling us a idealised vision of a world where the young care for the old, and where we are defined by our altruism. I would be Scrooge-like in the extreme if I didn’t recognise the department store’s lofty ambition to shine a light on the plight of the aged, lonely and isolated at Christmas, but the hidden persuaders – to use Vance Packard’s memorable phrase for the corporations who manipulate their consumers – are at work here, sinking our latent sentimentality.

Yes, I know, if you can’t get a bit misty-eyed at Christmas, then when can you? However, John Lewis is, like Downton, selling us a set of values rather than a product, and I don’t know whether I buy it or not. With Downton, it’s pretty obvious what we’re being encouraged to believe, but as the plot line becomes more incredible – in any real-life family, Ladies Edith and Mary (pictured) would not talk to each other for years, rather than have a teary reconciliation a matter of days later – the clearer it becomes that viewers are meant to view this family as a cartoon creation.

The John Lewis ad is rather more insidious, implying that there is a wider mission to the store than simply never knowingly being undersold. The message is that we should care for old people, and there’s no doubt they are on the right track, both in terms of their own demographic and the fact that, in a youth-obsessed, gadget-mad environment, the treatment of our senior citizens is a matter of national disgrace. Old people aren’t just for Christmas, you know. So are John Lewis as good as their word? Do they have a stronger line on ageism among their employees than their competitors? Do they have better pension arrangements? I hope they do, because otherwise their advert would be just a hollow piece of hogwash.

Talking of which, look out for the Downton Abbey Christmas special!

Twitter: @Simon_Kelner

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