Dreaming of Christmas 2016

You could power much of the national grid on the hype that’s been fissioning on social media. We’ve been drip fed on teasers and speculation has been rife. It isn’t a new Star Wars or Bond. It’s November 2016 and we’re watching the latest John Lewis Christmas ad. Could it possibly top the previous year’s much lauded television event? Since its broadcast Man on the Moon went on to become an award winning classic. Lewis saw an 18% rise in telescope sales and even Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who bears some resemblance to the grizzled and lonely lunar figure, saw a significant, if short-lived, bounce in his poll rating.

The magic of John Lewis cannot be reduced to a simple formula. But it would be fair to concede that the 2016 contribution to the cannon was comfortingly familiar. An adorably toothless child in a well-furnished house befriends a fantasy figure with a particular cause for sadness. The figure is a metaphor for the magic of childhood refracted through the wistful gauze of adult memory; we know this because the soundtrack is a popular song from ten years ago that’s been covered bittersweetly by a breathless young chanteuse.

After a period of everyday adventure –football in the rain, trips to sun-drenched parks- Christmas arrives. The Lewis Yuletide seems magicked into being, as if it’s always been there like Stonehenge or the BBC. It comes as no surprise that our adorable toothless child is able to produce the perfect gift for the fantasy creature. Even figures of imagination need to wait 364 days before they get what they want. Finally there’s the twist of weirdness at the end: the ‘it’s all in his head’ reveal in Monty the Penguin or the peeping grandad shot in Man on the Moon. In 2016 the joke is on us: it was all dream, a sleepy composite of half-remembered fragments from adverts past.

Waking up in 2015, Twitter is hailing the Man on the Moon as another jewel in the Lewis crown. No doubt it will go on to be talked about and remembered in a cultural space that is otherwise marked by shelf lives of hours rather than months. John Lewis have an impressive approach to the period- they know which boxes to tick and then they gift wrap them too. Can Lewis, and the other big retail players that share their crowded market, continue to plunder this formula?

Once upon a time supermarket and department store advertisements were about products on sale. The sumptuous Christmas spread and mountains of presents were the obvious markers of conspicuous wealth and boom-time consumption. Post-crisis, trustworthy retailers can’t be seen to be pushing austerity Britain into further January debt. Hence we saw the emergence around 7 years ago of the Christmas wishes from a brand that sells emotion and values. As more brands jump on the ethos bandwagon and partner with worthy charities they risk undermining the very decency that they are trying to evoke.