The John Lewis Christmas ad is now an annual event, launched in 2007 and running like clockwork ever since. But for the past few years, the department store has been hit with criticism for not living up to the glory days (and massive merchandising opportunities) of ‘Monty the Penguin’ and ‘Hare and the Bear.’ So, did they get it right this year?
First, let’s quickly recap the ad. Entitled ‘The Beginner,’ the ad opens with a middle-aged man learning to skateboard against the soundtrack of All the Small Things, an instrumental cover of the Blink 182 song by US singer Mike Geier—John Lewis is well known for setting their Christmas ads to acoustic covers. Not a snowflake in sight.
The man falls. He falls again. He gets back up. He skates alone at night under the floodlights. He perseveres. Finally, when cooking Christmas dinner with his wife, the doorbell rings. Standing beside a social worker, a scared foster child with a skateboard in hand. The camera pans to the man’s skateboard as the girl spots the board. She walks inside, and the importance of the skateboarding is revealed.
The ad ends by saying: “Over 108,000 children in the UK are in the care system. We’re making a long-term commitment to support the futures of young people from care.”
Beginning to believe
“This ad is genius for a couple of reasons,” says Jason Baker, Strategy Director at Hunterlodge. “First, from an industry perspective, they succeeded where brands like Iceland failed in the past (remember the orangutan) by putting social responsibility front and centre in their brand in what I see as credible and very relatable to the majority of the nation. It sets an example of how it can be done tastefully and with integrity (we’ll see how it fares commercially).”
Important to note that while John Lewis does not reveal the production costs for its ads, this one is estimated to have come in cheaper than past examples. An article in The Guardian suggests that The Beginner may have cost around £6 million including payment for TV and online slots, a significantly smaller figure than its 2021 ad which featured a crash-landing alien girl.
“Second, the problem right now is that things are pretty bleak for many,” Jason says. “And instead of prescribing retail therapy for the masses or taking a ‘Keep calm and carry on’ approach, showing big happy families glugging and scoffing around the table when many families will struggle to celebrate what many would call a ‘proper Christmas,’ they have done something smarter.
“In recent years, John Lewis has failed to have their finger on the pulse of Great Britain in the same way that brands like Aldi have as of late,” Jason says. “Aldi has been great at leveraging irreverence to entertain with their ads like Kevin the Carrot or The Tale of Ebanana Scrooge. It’s very clear to me as someone who comes from across the pond – Brits like irreverence.”
Another bit of deft handling is that John Lewis sought specialist advice from Action from Children and Who Cares? Scotland, two charities that help vulnerable children and their families in the UK. A quarter of the value of sales of a special toy bear and other products, including the skateboard seen in the ad, will go to these charities.
“Finally, sometimes the way to make people feel good is to make them feel bad,” Jason says. “That sounds very sadistic but it’s true. Right now, people think things are bad, but they could be worse. And when the chips are down kindness and empathy trump everything. All in all, it presents a great example of the adage that follows: it’s better to give than receive.
“John Lewis has pulled their finger out and put it back where it should be – on the pulse of the nation.
“We like it.”