How John Lewis owns Christmas

dogAuthors: Avi Shankar, Professor of Consumer Research, University of Bath; and Tim Hill, Lecturer in Marketing, University of Bath

Singing angels no longer herald the onset of Christmas – John Lewis’ Christmas advert does. Its release is highly anticipated and is guaranteed, more than any other Christmas advertising campaign, to get the British nation talking, tweeting and, of course, buying.

This year’s advert stars #BustertheBoxer dog, who watches wistfully as local wildlife bounce on the trampoline that a father has struggled to assemble in the garden for his daughter. The story it tells appears to depart from John Lewis’ tried and trusted formula of producing sentimental adverts that make us weep. But is this really the case?

Well, no. For this advert shares much in common with previous years’ campaigns: a focus on telling a story that powerfully expresses what John Lewis calls “thoughtful gifting”. The only difference is that the payoff is gentle humour rather than schmaltzy pathos.

But how have the John Lewis adverts come to symbolise Christmas for the British? The department store’s core demographics are the suburban middle to upper classes. But it also attracts a huge number of metropolitan, urban “elites” as well. It has quintessentially British corporate values and its long heritage of treating employees, suppliers and customers fairly is part and parcel of its DNA and not a modish response for higher ethical and CSR standards.

A credible storyteller

John Lewis has been a partnership – it’s owned by its employees – for nearly 100 years and isn’t beholden to institutional shareholders. A proportion of its profits are shared among its partners. They are motivated to deliver excellent customer service, which is crucial to retail success; after all, it’s their company.

At the heart of its relationship with its customers, is John Lewis’ “Never Knowingly Undersold” price promise. This is a commitment to have the cheapest market price for branded products. It was introduced in 1925; way before most of its rival retailers were even founded.

At a time when some high street retailers, such as Sports Direct, are in the media spotlight for the wrong reasons, John Lewis, has earned and maintains a special place in the nation’s heart through its corporate narrative of doing retail fairly. Thus, John Lewis’ form of ethical capitalism gives it the credibility to tell powerful stories, particularly evident in its Christmas adverts.

The hyper-consumerism of Christmas. IR Stone /

In secular Britain, Christmas now signifies the worst aspects of a consumer society: rampant commercialism and excessive spending, often in the pursuit of meaningless gift-giving and the accumulation of debt. For many, little thought is given to the wise men and the three gifts they brought baby Jesus.

For John Lewis’ core consumers – more likely than most to suffer from the material envy of “affluenza” – Christmas can become a source of worry. With adverts that express the power of “thoughtful gifting”, John Lewis soothes and ameliorates this culturally produced yet existentially felt anxiety. It is, in effect, trying to make Christmas special again, returning it to the realm of the sacred and away from the profane. This formula is now not only copied by its retailing rivals, but also by college students looking to hone their technical and storytelling skills.

Mythic quality

It was John Lewis’ 2011 “The Long Wait” campaign, that elevated its Christmas adverts to iconic status. The ad featured a young boy impatiently waiting for the arrival of Christmas and features a plaintive soundtrack, a reworking of The Smiths’ song Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.

This sets up the advert’s twist; we’re led to believe that he can’t wait for Christmas because of all the presents he’s going to receive. When Christmas Day finally arrives, however, he wakes up, ignores his own presents at the foot of the bed, and proudly marches into his parents’ bedroom to give them their present first.

No doubt, parents across the land were left weeping. The advert tugs at their heartstrings in two ways. First, it’s a beautifully executed advert that emotionally connects with parents and non-parents alike. It combines the idea of the unconditional love between a parent and child with the unselfish, re-enchantment of the act of gift giving – Christmas is for giving not receiving.

But it’s poignant, too. It has a mythic quality; an idealised, highly romanticised representation of family life at Christmas. For many, Christmas can be a painful period with fractured families, selfish children, too much food, too much alcohol, thoughtless gifts and troublesome relatives.

These unedifying realities are masked by John Lewis’ adverts. Instead they promote a Utopian version of Christmas that just happens to be ours, too.

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