John Lewis
John Lewis
A view from Tamara Littleton

John Lewis shouldn't be afraid to defend its new ad

When putting out any ad with potentially controversial content, a brand should be prepared to handle the response.

A child with short hair (presumed to be a boy) decked out in a t-shirt, a dress and a dazzling face of make-up tears around their house, causing chaos and destruction in their efforts to dance a beautiful dance. The new John Lewis ad for home insurance has caused a ruckus on social media and has divided opinion even within our own industry. 

Criticised by some for depicting a spoiled child and by others for leaning into “old-fashioned high camp stereotypes of what it means to be gay”, the ad has – predictably – stirred controversy. 

I say predictably because unfortunately, even in today’s society, a boy in a dress upsets vocal commentators for a range of reasons. 

But the John Lewis ad didn’t make me wince. 

As a gay woman and long-time advocate of being out and proud, I see the value in representing every part of the LGBT+ community.

Some of the criticism levelled at the ad has been that it’s clearly an LGBT+ message, given it's an adaptation of an existing ad. I would dispute whether we need to read so much into a child dressing up and having fun; but even if we do, it’s a message that I believe in. 

The ad was a lovely and clever twist on the original "Tiny dancer" ad. There will be gender non-conforming children who connect with this ad. That they can see themselves on TV is wonderful; it’s powerful.

There are many "types" of person within the LGBT+ rainbow, and we are not always easily categorised. Of course, not every representation in our media should be of the same "type". But I can’t say that I’ve seen many depictions of a boy having fun in a dress on TV, as is common at that age.

What’s more, I don’t think we should malign "camp" as a characteristic. Of course, not all gay men are camp, but many LGBT+ people celebrate and adore camp.

Historically, the word has been associated with negative connotations, yet this is a broad sweeping generalisation that ignores the other side of the coin. Championed particularly by queer and trans people of colour on the dancefloors of the ballroom scene, it has been used to build a powerful collective identity. Therefore, we must not become afraid to include femininity among men on our screens and in our advertising. 

What I do wish had been different was how John Lewis defended the ad. On social media, it was being attacked by a cohort of those who claimed to have a problem with the child's behaviour, homophobic accounts and the insidious "gay is fine, but this isn’t" type. There were many John Lewis fans who innocently commented that they enjoyed the ad who were subjected to abuse from troll accounts.

Earlier, I said the response was predictable. Sadly, when putting out any ad with potentially controversial content, a brand should be prepared to handle the response.

Fans of the ad should have been protected by John Lewis’ social team, and there should have been comms ready to go from John Lewis across PR and social media that protected the ad, the child who starred in it and the customers who love it.

You can never truly know when a crisis will unfold but if it had the correct structures and processes in place to respond effectively, the fallout may well have been managed through smart engagement with those emotionally reacting to the ad in public. 

When it comes to our own industry, I must urge caution from those who quickly condemn attempts at LGBT+ representation.

John Lewis has been brave and risked the wrath of (some) customers to be inclusive. Whether it was spot on or not, I commend it for trying. 

My worst nightmare would be that brands are so scared to fail, they stop trying. Let’s start applauding when brands are inclusive and help them to improve. And most of all, let’s celebrate diversity in all its forms. 

Tamara Littleton is chief executive of social media agency The Social Element