Expert Opinion

The John Lewis Christmas ad – a different approach for a depressing year?

The long-awaited John Lewis Christmas advert, staring Buster the Boxer, was finally unveiled this week and in this blog post, Neil Kelley, Course Leader for the BA (Hons) Marketing and BA (Hons) Marketing and Advertising Management courses at Leeds Beckett University, shares his thoughts on this year's festive offering.

As winter draws in, the days get shorter and the temperature lower, what do we have to look forward to? Recently, it seems that Christmas advertising will save us, from the cold, the darkness and from politics. I’ve even seen posts on social media that John Lewis’s Christmas advertising will save us from concerns in relation to recent political news, which is pretty impressive for a piece of marketing communications that is ultimately designed to make us prefer one brand over another.

Is modern advertising a form of escapism? Well, O’Donohue (1993) discussed the premise that consumers actively seek gratification from their encounters with advertising,1 with seven different kinds of satisfaction being sought. One of these types of satisfaction is through ‘vicarious experience’, that we can escape reality through our imagination, imaging the feelings and actions of others; others in adverts perhaps?

The wait for the John Lewis Christmas advert is over, the #BounceBounce 10 second teasers were released throughout the week and on Thursday the 10thof December the full broadcast advert was made available on YouTube, promoted by various other social media channels. The reaction to the advert has been varied this year, and the creative approach taken has been different. Gone is the attempt to tug, or heave, at our heartstrings through sympathy and empathy. Gone is the heart-breaking complication in the narrative arc, that of lonely penguins or lonely old men on the moon (that is then overcome by gifting a purchase from John Lewis, such as a soft-toy penguin or a telescope).

It seems that John Lewis’s new approach has left the public a little disappointed, many are sad that the advert didn’t make them cry this year, but what if it made you smile? It’s a different approach, but the vicarious experience mentioned earlier is gone. We can still escape from reality for a little bit, but there’s less sadness in the emotions conveyed and it’s this that may have left people disappointed (unless you can empathise with Buster the Boxer; you’ve always had to watch people on trampolines but never got to have a go yourself). Do we have to sympathise and/or empathise with sadness for a John Lewis Christmas advert to be effective? Happiness is also a powerful emotion, but perhaps one that doesn’t provide enough social media talking points.

Aldi, the discount supermarket chain, released an advert featuring their Christmas mascot (Kevin the Carrot, I kid you not) to poke fun at those who become obsessive during the wait for John Lewis’s newest piece of Christmas entertainment. He almost explodes with excitement and hyper-ventilates whilst waiting for the John Lewis advert to be shown. Perhaps that’s a good approach from Aldi, John Lewis shoppers and Aldi shoppers arguably have different socio-economic status and if Kevin is parodying the actions of a perceived higher social class, or just poking fun at the ridiculous state we’ve gotten ourselves into around Christmas advertising.

The Christmas advert battle for hearts and minds, tweets and comments, likes and shares, is fought on social media. Who loves Kevin, who loves Buster, who did cry, who didn’t cry, who can parody the adverts the quickest, who’s disappointed, who doesn’t care, which brands can piggy-back on the campaign and parody. We all want to be gratified, we all have our opinions, we all want to share… but this Christmas, spare a thought for @johnlewis, “Computer science educator, father of four, social liberal, atheist, and not a retail store” and how he’s dealing with our confused response to a UK retailer’s Christmas advertising campaign.


  1. O’Donohoe, S. (1994) Advertising Uses and Gratifications, European Journal of Marketing, 8/9, 28: 52-75

Neil Kelley

Course Director / Leeds Business School

Neil Kelley is a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for the Marketing Subject Group at Leeds Business School. Neil is responsible for both undergraduate marketing degrees, Marketing Management and Marketing with Advertising Management.

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