Why the John Lewis Christmas advert is so much better than the Littlewoods one

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:

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Posted in Essays, musings, Movies/audio on November 14th, 2011 | 13 Comments |

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Comments for “Why the John Lewis Christmas advert is so much better than the Littlewoods one”

    1. SteH90
      8:16 pm on November 14th, 2011

      Nice blog. The Littlewoods ad is horrendous on many levels but in all it’s awfulness may be a more realistic impression of today’s materialistic society. You’ve described the look, feel and sound of the John Lewis ad perfectly and I agree it’s intended to appeal to parents but in a subtle heartwarming way. A very enjoyable read.

    2. GrahamPhotographer
      10:27 pm on November 14th, 2011

      Nice write up. Whilst true, the sad truth is probably the target audience of the two brands. Both want to make substantial profit – but John Lewis’ audience, the Modern Middle-Classes, hold values such as the ones you speak of. I think the less money one has, unfortunately, the more likely one is to try and impress through the ‘isn’t my mum ace’ undertone of the Littwoods ad.

      That said, its grossly irresponsible of Littlewoods to go down this line. Dressing up ‘buy shit you can’t afford’ as ’spreading the cost’.

      On hindsight, Littlewoods would have been better off using a similar technique, but maybe with a stocking full of cheaper stuff. Values never harmed anybody. But I think profit-chasing got in the way here.

    3. Pete Sturman
      11:12 pm on November 14th, 2011

      I agree totally, I’ve just seen the Marks & Spencer’s one, not sure what they’re advertising the store and its goods or the inevitable download. The interspersed family Christmas shots could easily be replaced with ‘Buy this single now!!’ lets face it is going to happen. Never thought I’d say this but bring back Twiggy

    4. Trevor
      11:44 pm on November 14th, 2011

      The John Lewis ad is certainly more pleasing to watch, they did a fantastic job (and i was happy to see they shot on film, thanks for the making-of link:) Interesting comparison, Natalie. I do want to note that we should be careful how much we romanticize the past.. Canadian history for example – people like to talk about the good old days, when in actual fact our country was “founded” by racist, self-righteous tyrants. Of course i need to be thankful for the free life i get to live that comes after their efforts, but to think things were necessarily better back then? That people had more holistic motivations?..
      Similar with Christmas and the saturated consumerism that comes with it. I agree things seemed more spirit-of driven and family based, but i wonder if we were able to peer into the minds of those who participated back then what we would find? And this thirst and greed for more more more comes from somewhere, it didn’t sprout overnight.

      Anyway, i know you were getting more at the successful ad side of things (rather than this lil rant), with which i definitely agree with you. And funny how they found a child with such a suitable name – or was he renamed?! Did the company buy him??

      Thanks for the insightful discussion.

    5. Jonathan Brusby
      11:55 pm on November 14th, 2011

      A good dissection of the two and I think you’ve hit the nail firmly on the head with both. The problem with the Littlewoods one is it portrays them as a ‘purveyor of brands’, whereas John Lewis’ portrays them clearly as a ‘brand’ in its own right. Frankly you could substitute Littlewoods for any other brand-saturated high street department store and still get the same advert. All it makes you do is want an iMac, etc. from anywhere and you won’t think “I must get it at Littlewoods”.
      On the other hand, John Lewis merely says, ‘buy anything from us and it’ll be appreciated because we care about our products’. John Lewis are very adept at describing their brand and instilling pride and loyalty in it. I really admire the way they do it. Watch their previous ‘She’s always a woman to me’ campaign – it oozes the same kind of values of family, tradition, affection and quality over quantity (and dare I say it, love?). That said, you’re still buying into a name, although the mass consumerist aspect is thickly veiled.
      But watching the Littlewoods ad just makes me feel queasy and very uneasy. It’s almost as if John Lewis made their ad in direct response to seeing it.

      If you did branch into the oft grubby world of advertising, how would you reconcile your own convictions and instincts (like those above) with those of propaganda? That would be my biggest problem I think, dealing with blinkered marketing teams. I guess you’d have to choose who you work with very carefully. No doubt you’d make some amazing work though, I hope the move works out.

    6. Elizabeth
      8:27 am on November 15th, 2011

      A thought-provoking post. Telling a story visually and clearly – but also subtly – is challenging, isn’t it? Especially in 60 seconds. And the John Lewis ad isn’t too crazily aspirational either: the scenes are packed with their products, but not in an architect-designed home with a vast open plan kitchen. As you say, it’s oozing traditional values. A clever touch to produce a ‘making of’ while they’re about it too. That’s where John Lewis are really tapping into the Zeitgeist! Maybe the Littlewoods ad agency folk were secretly trying to sabotage the brand? ;-)

      Can’t wait to see you doing more advertising, to see where that takes you creatively…

      I hadn’t seen either of the adverts. I wish I’d watched the Littlewoods one first so the John Lewis one could help wash away that nasty taste afterwards. Ack.

    7. Han
      1:57 pm on November 15th, 2011

      I think you’re quite right, both about the offensive materialism of the Littlewoods ad, and the nostalgic appeal of the John Lewis ad. I think there’s something else in the latter, though – I have a young son, and their short film had me welling up a little because I recognised his natural selflessness and generosity in this (fictional) boy’s behaviour. I suspect many parents may feel this, as well as being reminded of their own childhood. The other thing that shows it’s clearly aimed at the parents are the visual quotes from famous movies – or maybe that’s just the director having a little fun?

    8. PATSY
      11:56 pm on November 19th, 2011

      love the John Lewis ad…

    9. Miss Aniela
      6:55 pm on November 22nd, 2011

      Interesting comments.

      I must admit I am a bit ashamed of myself now for allowing my eyeducts to prick with tears at the JL advert, and thus, as Charlie Brooker joked, sobbing out several IQ points… (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/20/christmas-adverts-john-lewis?newsfeed=true) After all, they’re all adverts, they’re all out to sell, no matter what emotion they have to convey to get you to stop in front of the telly whilst you were on your way to turn it off. But like many people, liking an advert doesn’t make me shop at the store. Disliking an advert may well make me try purposefully to avoid it, however…

      Try watching the JL advert to The Shining soundtrack, there won’t be any tears, but you’ll definitely let out an evil chuckle when you see how perfectly it works at the end shot:


    10. Andre Rivest
      3:51 am on November 23rd, 2011

      Nice piece Natalie; I fully agree.
      The Littlewoods ad is just horrendous; it lacks so much subtility that one could think it is a parody.
      The John Lewis ad on the other hand is wonderful; the music is great and the emphasis is on the beauty of giving.
      Giving, receiving, ultimately it all means consuming for these guys. Like a marketing exec of a US Fortune 500 company once said at an advertising conference I was attending, advertising is the art of convincing people they need things which they really do not need. At least the Littlewoods people are making it in a much more evocative manner. It is probably also, I fear, a much more effective manner…

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