Hello Man on the Moon, and hello again to the 'John Lewis effect'

Mark Fairbanks, ECD at Havas Worldwide London, unpicks the phenomenon we now know to be the 'John Lewis effect'.

Hello Man on the Moon, and hello again to the 'John Lewis effect'
Hello Man on the Moon, and hello again to the 'John Lewis effect'
The amount of requests to ‘Give me a John Lewis’ must be as numerous as the number of sales of each John Lewis cover versions (two number ones, 3 top tens and counting)

As I started writing this piece I also had open the website of a popular daily newspaper. On it was a countdown clock. Not to Christmas Day or The World Cup or even to The Second Coming, but to the launch of the new Christmas ad for a high street department store. 1 day, 22 hours, 15 minutes and 41 seconds. On another site for an even more popular ‘paper, Prince Harry’s love life had been knocked off the front page by the speculation of whether or not Adele was going to be singing the advert’s song. We now of course know that a 19 year old Norwegian named Aurora singing Oasis' Half The World Away is the soundtrack to this year's epic.

A 13% sales uplift

My point is, that at this time of year John Lewis sits at the very heart of popular culture. It is no longer merely another piece of advertising. It doesn’t rely on bought ‘likes’ and bot-fueled (false) impressions. Millions of real people are now as interested, if not more so, in the telly ad for a department store than who wins the X Factor. Think about that for a moment. And it’s no mere vanity project either. The fame garnered by John Lewis and its Christmas campaign is a huge sales driver for the business. Last year’s Monty campaign didn’t just create a lift in sales for stuffed toy penguins. For the first time ever ‘Monty’ helped JL smash through the £100M a week barrier resulting in a sales uplift of over 13%. Those are huge figures that must make just about every advertiser look on with envious eyes.

Be different to everyone else

But just why has this campaign become so successful? The answers are very simple yet difficult to replicate for so many reasons. First off, and this the fundamental key, it completely changed the way big stores sold themselves at Christmas. As Bill Bernbach said, "If your advertising goes unnoticed everything else is academic" i.e. be different to everyone else.

Before John Lewis, Christmas ads for the big supermarkets and department stores were full of gift ideas, basted turkeys, wasted granddads asleep in the corner and ‘funny’ mistletoe misadventures

Before John Lewis, Christmas ads for the big supermarkets and department stores were full of gift ideas, basted turkeys, wasted granddads asleep in the corner and ‘funny’ mistletoe misadventures. Adam & Eve and John Lewis showed us that they understood what Christmas is really all about. It’s a time of year that elicits unique emotions in us all. That’s what all the ads do - they simply make us feel good and even excited for what has become the most over-commercialised event on the calendar. Also they never talk down to us. They allow us to follow the narrative and close the loop ourselves. No explanatory VO, supers or ‘here’s the idea in long form in case you’re too thick to understand it’ endlines.

Create an identity

But what they also did was create an identity. The ads are never facsimiles of each other as so many other campaigns are. Each is very different, but also recognizably John Lewis. It’s a credit to the guys and girls in Bishop’s Bridge Road that each installment has been of such a high standard that each carries on living up to the hype. 'Man On The Moon' is no different, featuring a young girl who spots a lonely man through her telescope and manages to send him a gift for Christmas. It taps into that togetherness and kindness we all intrinsically associate with this time of the year.

Maybe we’ve become an industry that’s so worried about not doing the wrong thing that we have forgotten how to do the right thing

And then of course, there’s that music. The idea of taking a breathy female singer to reinterpret a Britpop classic now seems old hat, but only because it has been copied so many times and so badly by so many other brands. The amount of requests to ‘Give me a John Lewis’ must be as numerous as the number of sales of each John Lewis cover versions (two number ones, 3 top tens and counting). It has been said that a lot of people hate the ads and surely that’s a bad thing? Far from it. Popularity is always a double-edged sword – just ask any pop phenomenon or football superstar. But whether people love the new John Lewis ad or hate it, at least they have an opinion on it. They can’t ignore it.

Guinness and Levi's

And that’s what’s seemingly so hard to reproduce. Maybe we’ve become an industry that’s so worried about not doing the wrong thing that we have forgotten how to do the right thing. Something different, something bold, something that’s not afraid to be talked about, something that stops being another piece of advertising and starts being a vibrant, joyful, recognisable part of popular culture. The only campaigns I can recall that came close to what John Lewis has achieved were AMV’s ‘Good Things Come To Those Who Wait’ Guinness ads and BBH’s early work for Levi’s. Both had us all waiting in earnest for the next installment. But even those fantastic campaigns didn’t have a countdown clock in The Daily Telegraph.

Well, now we're here and I expect people up and down the country to be shedding a cheer of joy alongside the film's man on the moon, and for John Lewis to be reaping the rewards of advertising that just gets Christmas right.