John Lewis’s half hearted emotional manipulation

Oliver Milne

It’s a formula that has created some of the best adverts in recent memory.

  1. Take a cover of a well known pop song which strips back the instrumentation and focuses on the emotional delivery of sentiment heavy lyrics. The slower the tempo, the better.
  2. Tell a story which focuses not on a particular product or the retail experience, but instead expresses a strong human emotion. Where possible add a nice twist which makes the entire narrative saccharine sweet. Reduce the emotionally weak to tears.
  3. ???
  4. Profit.

Seem familiar?

It should. This is the formula which has seen John Lewis create some of the most artful and engaging adverts in recent years.

Created by ad company Adam & Eve, the series began in 2010 with an advert which followed a woman as she aged; from childhood to time with her own grandchildren. All artfully set to a Fyfe Dangerfields’ fantastic cover of Billy Joel’s ‘She’s Always A Woman’.  Things that you can buy at John Lewis are present in the advert. Various dresses and home appliances feature, but are never the sole focus of your attention.

This isn’t aspirational advertising as we conventionally understand it.  This is advertising which isn’t trying to sell you something based on a superficial desire to possess a product.  This is using deeply held emotions – or the emotional experiences we all long to experience in our clinical, nano second interaction based and generally uncaring world – to advertise an overpriced department store.

Hell last year’s Christmas ad reduced half the world to tears. The other half missed the end because they were already in their cars on the way to their nearest John Lewis.

Well this year’s Christmas ad kicked the bucket.

The 2012 Christmas ad campaign entitled ‘The Journey’ seems to tick all the boxes. It features a slow – almost mournful – cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Power of Love’ and a story of two snowmen who are in love. Except it sucks.

Why? Because instead of the shopping experience at John Lewis or the products they sell taking a backseat to the emotional journey, this year it is the basic premise for the entire story of these amorous snow people. A snow man travels through the night to return by morning with a scarf and hat for his ice queen.

Sure you never see the John Lewis shop in the advert but it’s such a central part of the story as to make the emotional punch of the ad feel weak. You watch it and you are constantly aware that they are attempting to manipulate your emotions so that you buy your dad’s Kindle from a physical shop this year, instead of making the much quicker journey to the Amazon website.

I know that all of these adverts have been cheap attempts to manipulate my emotion  and designed to make me buy stuff, but the stories were always suitably twee and engaging to let me pretend we were taking a journey together. They were fucking me, but when I asked them if they would turn the lights off they politely agreed and told me I was pretty afterwards. This year John Lewis is rolling over in bed and pointing at a post-it-note with a minicab number on it. I feel cheap.

Maybe I’ll just watch last year’s on repeat from now until Christmas. Or maybe I’ll read a book. Whatever.