Yesterday on twitter I felt the urge to tweet my reaction to seeing the latest Littlewoods TV advert. Kids on stage, instead of performing the Nativity play, sing a popstrel ode to capitalism, naming an array of branded gadgets, the audience full of proud smiling parents. The voiceover talks of interest free credit, like some tasteless sofa advert. I instantly searched it on YouTube so I could have another watch, seethe within my woolly trousers and even feel my eyes swell in sadness for our crap material society that places £ signs in the pupils of sprogs barely out of the uterus.
Then I saw the John Lewis advert, which tells the story of the boy who impatiently waits for Christmas, doing a variety of cute things to try make time go faster, so that when Christmas morning arrives he can finally present his crudely-wrapped present to his parents. As the story unfolded with delicate nostalgic charm, I knew 30 seconds in that I would be tweeting a follow-up to my last comment with ‘this one’s better’.
Advertising is an area that I am, as a photographer, trying hard to enter. I take a great interest in advertisements, even just to hate the ones I find tasteless and figure out what makes them tasteless. With this spontaneous advert comparison I made, I wanted to probe at exactly why I like one so much more than the other. They’re both major high street outlets, advertising themselves at a prime commercial time of year, using kids as their commodity, employing a pull on parents’ heartstrings and purse-strings. But whilst one epitomises exactly why advertising can feel so morally uncomfortable, one demonstrates exactly the kind of job I would love and be proud of.
Both adverts want to sell, but the John Lewis advert chooses a less brash way to do so. On face value it’s all a bit obvious: a less than groundbreaking story, mellow enjoyable soundtrack; there is snow, there is cuteness, all is well. But the orchestration of fine detail in the narrative condensed into 60 seconds is what makes this piece of advertising positively filmic (though it did cost a reputed £5m to make.)
The Littlewoods ad is full of many children, a mass of children, it is precisely the ‘mass market’, kids and families with no identities, personalised instead by products: MacBooks, D&G watches, HTC. The high value of these designer and luxury goods, that these young children eulogise over, seems so inappropriate. A whimsical £1700 laptop for Grandad seems so wasted especially if Mum had to borrow the money to buy it!
The John Lewis ad, however, does not place the products centre-stage. The products become peripheral and nameless gifts, anonymous wrapped packages visible fleetingly at the end. The ad has a significant advantage in that it has a narrative, it tells a story, that time-old way to captivate the viewer who wants to know what happens. We never even find out what is in the packages, because the focus is purely on the characters: the boy, along with wonderful details of the family (my personal favourite parts of this advert are where his wide-eyed baby sister stares wide-eyed and almost with melancholy at her older brother’s antics).
Whilst the John Lewis advert inclines towards the ghost of Christmas past, the Littlewoods advert pushes the evil spirit of Christmas future, a technocratic Christmas governed by high value goods that these kids expect on a plate – or a credit card. It is intertextual with the mod cons of current mainstream telly: the X Factor-esque rap scene, the vibe of High School Musical, and the fad of vacuous self-celebration, the culture of ‘all I want in this world is to be rich and famous.’ Emphasis is on the value of the presents, not on relationships. ‘My mother’s wicked!’ may just have a double meaning.
You’re more likely to be humming the song from the Littlewoods advert afterwards, and being eye and ear-catching is certainly a goal of advertisers. But the John Lewis ad has not even any spoken words, relying solely on its visual story. It has a markedly traditional look as if we’ve gone back about a decade; its use of slight desaturation, thick snow, woolly hats, and the appeal of a family’s peaceful and lonesome lead-up to Christmas, as if they’re the only family in the world (a reason why I personally like it more than the cacophonous creche in the Littlewoods advert that screams ‘one born every minute’). Also I noticed how the children are shown in contexts with adults, eating at the table, painting, going off to bed without a word. It sells idealism, of kids in their place, seen and not heard. It sells the Christmas spirit of giving, not receiving (even if that’s somewhat hackneyed).
The kids in the Littlewoods advert may appear to be singing about giving, but as the voiceover says, it’s about getting them ‘the things they really want this Christmas’. All they truly paint is an image of a generic parent (not sure why it’s the mother who’s got the job of buying the whole family presents) who has finally got time to sit down after draining the bank balance on the war-torn edge of pester-power.
What I think is that the John Lewis ad takes on an anti-modern tactic, whereby it reminds parents of their own memories of Christmas as a child. The Littlewoods ad is aimed at children, like a man in the street with a lollipop trying to entice a child while keeping one eye on the child’s parent, knowing he needs the child to go and grab the reluctant parent’s purse. The John Lewis ad, however, is aimed directly at the parents, directly at the ones holding the purse. They will recognise the Smiths cover and enjoy the idealistic representation of the family, maybe even be reminded of why they wanted children in the first place. For that reasons it’s what I think will make it more successful as an advert campaign (not just the fact that is cost a bomb to make, but the Littlewoods one doesn’t exactly look low-budget either). It puts story, emotion and tradition first, and sells more than gear, and I think that’s much more important for a brand in the long term.
Also, check out this behind the scenes of making the John Lewis ad: