Did John Lewis strike the right tone in its Christmas campaign?

Retailer has not gone for an emotional roller coaster this year.

John Lewis Partnership: ad uses variety of animation styles
John Lewis Partnership: ad uses variety of animation styles

There is no question that the topic on adland’s lips on Friday (and probably well into the weekend) was the 2020 John Lewis Partnership Christmas campaign. With this being a year unlike any other, John Lewis has created a film that’s unlike its predecessors.

Instead of the tear-jerker, as is customary, John Lewis & Partners and Waitrose & Partners have gone for a different tone – the idea being that, frankly, 2020 has been enough of a tear-jerker and none of us needs any more manipulating, thank you very much.

The film has chosen to use a selection of animation styles to show heart-warming vignettes with a focus on kindness, from a boy giving a snowman a balloon to a hedgehog befriending a flock of pigeons.

This marks a departure on several fronts, aside from the mix of live action with animation. With the use of an original track by Celeste, could this be the end of the ethereal indie cover in Christmas ads? Whispery-voiced young female singers up and down the country demand to know.

Moreover, this is the first time since John Lewis ads became a bona fide festive “event” that the brand and its agency, Adam & Eve/DDB, have not gone for a linear narrative. Previous, wildly successful spots have all relied on a classic beginning-jeopardy-end formula, such as a boy’s impatience for Christmas in “The long wait”, an unlikely friendship in “The bear and the hare” and how a dragon became part of his village’s celebrations in 2019’s “Excitable Edgar”.

All of this means the ad is more likely to make viewers feel like they’ve had a nice mug of hot chocolate than to claim something’s in their eye. Or, as John Lewis Partnership customer experience director Peter Cross put it: “We don’t want people to laugh out loud and we don’t want them to cry. We want to inspire a feeling of contentment – it was that centre ground we strove for.”

It has been a particularly difficult period to make Christmas campaigns, which traditionally get planned in the first half of the year, due to uncertainties from the logistics of filming to gauging the mood of the nation. Never mind all the ads that have been released so far, this past weekend alone provided an example of the different approaches taken by brands.

Sainsbury’s went for a three-parter centring on nostalgia, rather than one big film, Tesco opted for humour as it ditched the naughty list, while O2 had the most "traditional" tactic featuring a little girl dancing to an emotional track. Lidl, meanwhile, went "full John Lewis" before becoming a pastiche of Christmas ads, with knowing digs at its rivals.

As arguably the standard-bearer of the UK’s annual Christmas advertising extravaganza, did John Lewis make the right call not to get the nation too teary?

Ben Priest

Co-founder and former group chief creative officer, Adam & Eve/DDB

Make no mistake, this year's John Lewis/Waitrose Christmas ad is an absolute cracker. I had nothing to do with it but, oh, how I wish I had.

I love the fact that it's not a single character story, I love the leap from live action into multiple, brilliant animation styles and I love the song choice and soulful delivery.

So, it's beautifully crafted, but what really sets it apart is the "Give a little love" thought at the heart of the ad. At a time when people are living under the considerable shadow of a global pandemic and its physical, social and economic consequences, this ad is a love letter to kindness, togetherness and hope. It's perfectly judged; moving but not saccharine, and the partnership with the two charities at the end offers people a wonderful, extra way in which to give a little love.

And that's why we love Christmas so much; it's a time when we are together, when we are thoughtful and when we are giving. You see, Christmas brings out the best in us. And it certainly brings out the best in Rick [Brim] and his creative department.

Lucy Jameson

Founder, Uncommon Creative Studio

I salute anyone who has managed to get a Christmas ad made in this weirdest of weird years. We all need the warmth, light and hope of Christmas this year. So, thanks to John Lewis and Waitrose for keeping on keeping on. The message that everyone needs a little love and kindness feels bang-on for this of all years. Promoting the two brilliant charities was great, too, but I thought it could have been far more central.

My only real criticism was that with such a "sunshine and roses" message, I was desperate for something to cut the saccharine. The best recipes always balance a little salt with the sweet. The playful use of different animation styles was nice but not enough. I wanted a dose of humour or edge or acknowledgement of the year we've been through.

Rory Sutherland

Vice-chairman, Ogilvy

I can see why some people profess themselves to be disappointed, but I think John Lewis got the tone exactly right here. I found the ad charming and it rewarded repeated reviewing too – particularly valuable when views may be online.

Nice, too, to see the subtle interfaith touch of fusing the message of Christmas with the Buddhist idea of karma. And good to see a south Asian face in an ad – these are extraordinarily underrepresented on TV, never mind advertising, possibly because media folk in London have no idea of what the national population figures are.

Jude Bridge

Managing partner, Oystercatchers; former marketing director, Marks & Spencer

I know from my days as M&S brand director what a vital time this is for retail; the golden quarter that makes or breaks the year. Capturing the spirit of Christmas is essential. But this Christmas feels very different and, with all the uncertainty, judging the right notes to hit is a challenge.

As always, John Lewis captures what it means to be human and taps in to a big Covid-theme – kindness. The campaign goes straight to the heart, giving hope and reassurance at a time when we really need it. And appealing to customers' sense of community as well as their purses feels right. John Lewis, Waitrose and Adam & Eve/DDB have read the room well.

Adrian Rossi

Creative partner, The Constellation Collective

During the Great Depression, there was mass starvation and there were record rates of suicides. Out of this, came upbeat songs like Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries by Judy Garland, while Flash Gordon became a staple form of escapism for many others. Historically, in every crisis, whether that is war or an economic dip, the same themes have emerged. From music and literature to film, history tells us a lot as to what we should be doing culturally now.

The epitome of joyous escapism over recent years is the John Lewis Christmas ads. This outing still ticks all the boxes. It may lack the emotional depth of previous ads, but the team has had a tougher job this year trying to create a narrative around the marriage of Waitrose and John Lewis. The craft is incredible. It provides the nation with what it needs: a warm, fuzzy feeling.

It is a shame that other brands haven't changed their tone to reflect what the world is going through; too many are predictable when people need the opposite. Coke is predictably still Coke, but what about a bank or insurance company giving us joy or escapism? The nation – no, the world – needs more Judy Garland in their lives, and brands should embrace this.

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