Published on 16 November 2018
This year’s John Lewis Christmas advert featuring Elton John -‘The Boy & the Piano’ - is proving a big talking point.
Love it or hate it, University of Sunderland psychologist Dr Helen Driscoll argues there is much more to this ad than sentimental festive feelings.
Once again the John Lewis’ Christmas advert has already sparked a lot of reaction and commentary.
Some viewers’ express sentimental emotional reactions, others pour scorn on it for using nostalgia as a marketing ploy, and some other stores have already produced their own parody ads in response.
Whatever this year’s advert made you feel, it is unlikely to have escaped your attention.
This year’s advert faithfully follows the winning formula of the past few years in setting an emotional visual story about the joy of giving to music.
But there are some particularly clever elements to this advert. It opens with present day Elton John playing Your Song on a piano, and reminiscing. There are flashbacks to him performing this at various points in his life. We see images of greatness, flamboyant stage performances… a life of success flashes before our eyes. We see a young Elton playing at the piano with his proud and emotional-looking mum watching.
This reminiscing goes on for some time. On first viewing the connection with John Lewis and Christmas is puzzling. We might wonder whether this is a non-consumerist message – after all, Your Song is about someone with no money, whose only gift is his song.
But then we see Elton as a very young boy, opening an enormous gift given to him by his mother – it is a fantastic piano. And following that a flashback to an emotional looking present-day Elton at the piano, and then the tagline: ‘Some gifts are more than just a gift’.
The message is clear: buying your children very expensive presents can change their lives, and result in them being incredibly successful. Given that humans have evolved to invest in their offspring to ensure their reproductive success, this is an incredibly effective message to encourage consumerism at Christmas.
It is made more effective still by the use of emotional music. Emotional music helps us to connect with an advert and also helps us to remember it. In this case, the genius is to use one of Elton’s own and most successful songs.
Ironically it is a song about having no money and giving a gift of only a song – and here it is being used to make an advert promoting expensive gift giving more effective.
John Lewis have pulled off the same trick as Coca Cola and the unveiling of the Fenwick window display in Newcastle; their advert has become synonymous with the start of the Christmas season. Once you have seen one of these things, in your mind, it is Christmas-time. And once the annual festival of consumerism is underway, there is an impetus to buy presents for your family and friends.
Coca Cola have been featuring Santa Claus in their adverts since the 1920s and they argue that they have helped to shape his image. The Coca Cola trucks were launched in 1995. They bring the message that Coca Cola is almost literally delivering Christmas, and the appearances of the enchanting trucks across the world at Christmas-time helps to reinforce this message.
John Lewis have achieved synonymy with Christmas in just a few years. This year’s advert reportedly cost millions to make. That is a lot of investment for an advert that does not appear to be advertising much in the way of actual products.
The connection between the Coca Cola advert and sales is even more elusive. People don’t buy Coca Cola for Christmas. People generally don’t even want cold, fizzy drinks in Winter. These adverts are not directly selling products; they are meta-adverts for Christmas itself. They are launching Christmas, and providing an impetus to start Christmas shopping.
They deliberately avoid crass scenes of the excesses of consumerism that characterise most Christmas adverts, yet in avoiding this, they are a far more effective advert for consumerism, and all companies trying to get us to buy presents are likely to benefit from their emotional and magical launch of Christmas.
Typically, the John Lewis Christmas adverts of the past few years have ignited our evolved desires to give gifts to family, partners and friends in order to get us shopping. In recent years, we have seen a little boy counting down the days to Christmas so that he can give his parents a present, a snowman on a mission to acquire a hat, scarf and gloves for his cold beloved, a sleepy bear who usually hibernates through Christmas receiving his first Christmas present from his friend the hare (an alarm clock, to wake him just in time for the unwrapping of presents), a little boy who finds a girlfriend for his best friend, Monty the penguin, and a lonely old man on the moon who receives the gift of a telescope to look back to Earth.
This emphasis on family, partners and friends reflects the fact that gift-giving is typically an extension of three things which have been beneficial during human evolutionary history: helping our relatives and our partners, and being altruistic to others due to the benefits of others helping us back.
Children are particularly heavily featured in John Lewis adverts. This is true in this year’s advert as we see Elton as a small boy being given the gift of a piano from his mother. In our modern consumerist society, evolved tendencies to share with family, partners and friends are exploited for profit, and that is why Christmas adverts typically evoke the desire to give gifts to these people; this is precisely what encourages us to start shopping.
John Lewis adverts evoke these emotional bonds and in doing so, not only encourages you to start shopping, but to associate their brand with these evolved desires to give things to the people we love. They do this expertly, playing on nostalgia, sentimentalism and magic, and pairing these feel-good visual stories with familiar emotional songs, slowed down and accompanied by soft piano notes.
The central message is about the joy of giving to those we love – and they make us want to experience that joy.