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John Lewis and the Ghost of Advertising Future

Read our Senior Strategist, Adam's take on John Lewis' place in both popular culture, and a fragmented media landscape...


Adam Knott



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John Lewis and the Ghost of Advertising Future

In a fragmented and overbearing media landscape, the collective attention that’s afforded to any single piece of advertising is probably lower than it’s ever been.

I’m not trying to get into the debate about whether advertising’s just shit these days, but in 2018 BBH Labs compiled an aggregation of the “best ads ever”, and only one of the top 50 was made since 2010. That might say something about the degree to which we’ve lost a communal consciousness about advertising – and the causes of this are multi-faceted.

There’s one day in the UK calendar where that changes, and we celebrate that movable feast with hot takes. I’m talking, obviously, about the morning John Lewis decide to drop their Christmas ad.

Yep, it’s another blog post about John Lewis ads…

Honestly, though, is there any wonder ad folks write and read and tweet so much about the only day of the year where even an iota of how much we give a damn gets reflected back by the British public?

For starters, two paragraphs ago, I talked about John Lewis “dropping” their Christmas ad. No other ad in the UK gets “dropped” like a surprise Beyoncé album. A lot of ads go quietly into the airwaves and even quieter into the night, celebrated in the marketing press and largely ignored by the general population, who are busy focusing on their real lives.

All this creates a really unique context in which we have to view John Lewis’ advertising. When half the country is guaranteed to watch your 90 second film, it means you can do things with it that other brands either couldn’t get away with or wouldn’t have the courage to try. The successful early years of the long-form, emotive Christmas story ad created the conditions where that same format could be reliably deployed a decade later.

It also changed the landscape for other Christmas ads – notably those made by supermarkets. There is a secondary tournament for their efforts, which Aldi are probably winning on recent form.

But all of this makes Christmas retailer advertising a wholly unique game to play. It means that, in 2022, John Lewis can dial back their creative ambition to make way for a deeper purpose, reverting to the sort of charity partnership they last used in 2015 with “The Man on the Moon”, but stripping out even that entry’s gift-giving call to action. The Home Of Thoughtful Gifting has evolved once again.

The sensible thing to say, of course, is that well over 99% of marketers don’t inhabit this alternate dimension where reach and attention is guaranteed and our place at the heart of a cultural moment automatically generates salience. And it’s true. We have to earn every eyeball and every second of someone’s time and focus. We do, we do, we do.

But it’s equally fair to say that, if the rest of us don’t have this license, it’s because we’ve given up on trying to obtain it. As an industry, we’re too quick to revert to the comfort zone, too frightened to explore the unknown, and too busy trying to mimic (usually digital) virality that we are incapable of creating the conditions for real word-of-mouth to exist. If we want to bask in a more frequent glow of people giving a shit about the things we make, the first step is to start a fire.


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