November. John Lewis have “unveiled” their new Christmas advertising campaign. Everyone seems to be taking it very seriously indeed. It’s been “hailed as the best Christmas advert ever”. The little lad in the ad has been profiled in several national newspapers. The Guardian have taken to placing spoiler warnings at the start of discussions of it, like it’s some piece of great art that must be enjoyed in the correct conditions. This is something new, and very odd indeed.
As a piece of ABC1-style advertising, it’s pretty good: tastefully shot, neatly edited and with a cute twist at the end. It avoids the two most prevalent sins of current TV advertising, namely bludgeoning the viewer into submission with a parade of available famous faces, and inventing a feeble catchphrase and pretending the whole country’s become obsessed with it. But that very OK-ness makes its sudden fame all the more confusing. There’s not that much to it. It’s been done before, many times, many ways. Granted, it features – horrors! – a Smiths song, but how worked up can anyone get about that in an age when The Fall flog hatchbacks and John Lydon ekes out his dotage as TV’s Mr Spreadable Butter?
Adverts celebrating themselves are nothing new. The industry put itself in the foreground in the mid-’80s with an onslaught of auteured prog commercials. Some, like Rutger Hauer’s gnomic Guinness utterances, both did the dirty job of flogging product and stuck in the collective consciousness. Most, though, managed to get the nation’s back up with wistful New Age philosophy, the nadir being a painfully artful campaign for the Nationwide in which a Mick Fleetwood lookalike wrote a gushing letter to his gap year-travelling son, all about personal journeys and “swimming with the sharks and the dolphins”. (That one garnered a Jasper Carrott parody almost as elaborate as the real thing, so on the grounds that bad publicity doesn’t exist, it was a success, too.)
Even before then, ads had never been shy about giving themselves equal billing to the product they were selling. This was usually done in a sly, self-deprecating way, with celebs giving wry glances to camera that said “yes, I know, undignified isn’t it? But hey, we’ve all got to eat”. As far back as 1965, Tony Hancock was helping out the Egg Marketing Board in such a convolutedly postmodern fashion punters were unsure whether to make an omelette or start the revolution.
This apologetic tone had a tendency to disappear at Christmas when, buoyed by the heady seasonal mixture of sentimental bonhomie and commercial desperation, Woolworth’s block-booked entire ad breaks for a celebrity-festooned pantechnicon of Bontempi organs and blank cassettes, and the Country Life buttermen (the ruddy, animated variety, who looked like they’d sooner share a flagon of ale with Bill Grundy than call him a rotter) introduced a festive compilation of their previous adverts in the manner of Stars on Sunday. (“And for all you housewives out there, here’s a little something especially for you!”)
TV ads aren’t the behemoths they were in the ’70s and ’80s. Dwindling revenues and budgets mean big, brash, elaborate campaigns of the sort advertisers love to make are slowly becoming extinct. In the gaps, small, foraging rodents take the most unpromising of weak puns and turn them into a comedy book and a range of cuddly toys, and all in the name of a company that does nothing more than tell you how much other companies are charging for their services. We’ve come a long way from the days when Wigan Market could be advertised on Granada with a still photo of Wigan Market, a caption reading “WIGAN MARKET” and a cheery voiceover saying “Come to Wigan Market!”
The difference with the John Lewis ad is that it has attained this sort of cult status, and much more, in a little under four days. Even allowing for the speed the media move at these days, there’s no way that was achieved from a standing start. Previous campaigns for the store have built up a kind of Woolworthian momentum in the past few years, replacing Marks and Spencer’s ailing efforts in the national favour. There’s a little “making of” film about this year’s ad on YouTube, which strongly suggests a high degree of planning around this “phenomenon”. So we have a marketing campaign that is itself being marketed by its own companion campaign. The ad has become as much a commodity as the shop it’s pushing. This is either something that can only be done once, or the start f a potentially insidious new stage in the development of TV commercials. Either way, one thing’s for certain – we could all do with some new saucepans.