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John Lewis vs the £50 Christmas film

By Rupert Lane, global commercial director, Brands at Work


Since 2007, the John Lewis and Partners Christmas advert has become an annual tradition. It's a popular culture sensation - there’s always a fanfare of media coverage and it is widely regarded as a sign that Christmas is here. This year they have given us Sir Elton, but the reaction of the press has been somewhat mixed.

To me, the John Lewis advert has been overshadowed by a poignant Christmas video that cost a mere £50 to produce. ‘Love is a Gift’ was made by a professional videographer Phil Beastall in 2014 but has been released again this year as an “antidote” to the lavish extravagance now associated with the Christmas adverts. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to watch it. It is an amazingly powerful film that creates a genuine emotional response in everyone (I challenge you not to cry). The actor, Chris Ilston is able to convey emotion very subtly – his facial expressions say it all. The video was simple but impactful, and this was down to the strength of the story being told. The film didn’t have lavish production, big name actors, gadgets, gizmos or expensive tech; instead it just focuses on the incredibly strong story being told.

The anticipation that builds up to the big day was created in a clever and cost effective way, and you never once guess what was going to happen until the end comes crashing down on you and you realise that you are witnessing the climax of a very long and heart-breaking story.

John Lewis are rumoured to have spent £7 million on this advert which, in my opinion, is a little excessive in this day and age. Having a big budget still doesn’t guarantee an impactful message. Sir Elton John is a flamboyant performer who has a reputation for sometimes being controversial– which is hardly a great association for any brand in this current climate. The John Lewis advert is trying to evoke a reaction through its sentimentality, but it doesn’t come across as authentic, just a bit schmaltzy. 

I do feel a little bit sorry for John Lewis – there is a huge expectation for their Christmas advert to continually do better than the year before. This is their biggest budget to date, yet the big spend does not equate to a big impact. 2018 hasn’t been a great year for them – so perhaps they felt stuck between a rock and a hard place; if they didn’t spend money on a lavish Christmas advert it could be seen as an indication that they have fallen on hard times, yet if they spent big bucks they are criticised.  

Iceland, the once poor relation of the food retailing world, is now changing perceptions by undertaking a number of great initiatives to emphasis their green credentials. They were the first major retailer to commit to eliminate plastic from its own-brand products earlier this year, and now they have used their Christmas advert to announce that they are banning palm oil in their own- brand products. This is the sort of Christmas message that conveys authenticity, and by teaming up with Greenpeace they really have nailed their green credentials to the mast (and saved money too by using an existing cartoon). Although the advert was banned for being too political, it really has given the retailer a huge boost – and the ban simply created more publicity for them.

Todays audiences are a discerning bunch, they are a tough crowd who can see through the gloss of a traditional advertising messaging. It is so easy to google a brand and discover their true actions and ethos and see the real company behind the message. Great content is not dictated by how much money you spend, it’s all about being authentic and true to your brand values. Whether your content is for a video or a live experience, all great content starts with a great story; one that resonates with your audience and that will impact on them personally and evoke a reaction.

I’m sorry Elton, but a great story simply doesn’t need expensive and flamboyant flourishes to bring it to life.