Voices: We need to talk about the John Lewis Christmas advert


Emma Kernahan

Sun, 13 November 2022 at 12:34 pm

“Have you seen the John Lewis Christmas ad? Have you seen it?” “The John Lewis ad, you need to see it.” “The skateboard thing babes. Watch it.”

I don’t know about you, but by 10am on Thursday, with fireworks and bonfire smoke still hanging in the air, I had already received over a dozen messages from friends telling me to watch a Christmas ad about a man learning how to skateboard.

This had never happened before, and I have to confess, it annoyed me. I’m not a dewy-eyed fan of retail advertising. Like a lot of people I know, my day job lies at the sharp end of the cost of living crisis, with Clean Slate – a CIC supporting low-income households to be better off financially. It is, to put it mildly, not an easy time to be helping people find ways to pay their bills. So when it comes to cosy ways to increase the sales of a sector with record-breaking pandemic profits – well, my cockles are not easily warmed.

Imagine my surprise then, when I finally watched it, just back from the shop and wrangling snack demands from the kids. This wasn’t about skateboarding, or shopping – this was foster parents welcoming a child into their home. I found myself suddenly and embarrassingly – oh no – crying? To a slow cover of Blink 182?

And it wasn’t just the unexpected depth of my reaction. The speed with which I emotionally unravelled is something I normally reserve for weddings, the Strictly final, and when Greggs have sold out of festive slices. In the space of 90 seconds, I’d gone from narrow-eyed cynicism to standing in my kitchen among the half-unpacked groceries, snot-crying in front of a bag of oven chips.

Of course, it’s only advertising. But while some prefer the more traditional signs of the season (mistletoe appearing in the trees, frost appearing underfoot, a former health secretary appearing in the Australian jungle) for most, the only true starter pistol for festive fun is, in fact, the John Lewis Christmas ad. And Christmas advertising in general has always been a bellwether for the mood of the nation in a way that other, more fragmented mediums, are not.

So what swell of empathy is this ad tapping into this year? What has prompted this tidal wave of responses? What is it that made one of my friends in children’s services – someone who deals with enormous emotional pressures daily – stop mid sentence on the phone, her throat catching as she tried to describe it?

Firstly, you cannot understate what it is for an enormous retailer to put children in care at the heart of its flagship ad campaign – and investing in long-term support beyond this. This is, let’s not forget, a time when the number of children in care has risen by a third in a decade. Eighty per cent of children’s homes are now run by private companies for profit – with fees of up to £8,000 a week – 4 in 5 children move home with their belongings in bin bags and government policies have effectively ended care for children on their 16th birthday.

Whatever you think of corporate charity filling in a £4bn funding gap, it’s still a huge thing to see them centering some of the most vulnerable people in the UK. There is life-changing care in the act of fostering, and of course in the deathless act of love that is a middle-aged man choosing to skateboard in public.

But also in the creation of the ad itself: co-designed with care experienced people and partnering with Action for Children and Who Cares Scotland. No more stereotypes, this ad is saying. Everyone, especially the most vulnerable, deserve to be represented truthfully, and with respect. No wonder our eyes are leaking.

Secondly, to mix up my marketing taglines, this is no ordinary Christmas. This festive season marks the start of a period of domestic hardship not seen since the end of the Second World War. Essential services have already been pushed beyond breaking point, mortgages, rent and fuel bills are soaring, welfare recipients are facing the biggest real-terms cut in income in over 50 years, rolling blackouts are on the cards and even the food banks themselves are running out of food.

It’s a perfect storm, 15 years in the making, and – bad as it already seems for those directly in its path – it has yet to really make landfall.

If you listened only to our current government or media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this poverty of resources has turned the British public into mean-spirited lunatics. That the harder things get, the more divided we are, fighting over the remaining crumbs of the welfare state. Lazy scroungers who can’t budget are the problem. Immigrants miraculously taking all our jobs and all the benefits.

The more desperate things are at the top, the more hysterical the headlines, and look, I’m not saying that this is a chaotic and pointlessly cruel government, but my advent calendar this year features 24 recent home secretaries and 13 of them are Suella Braverman.

So, no shade on those whose understanding of teamwork comes from Conservative Party leadership elections. But anyone actually living in a real community rather than a gated one knows – that’s not how this works. The harder things get, the more we work to help each other, even when it’s the people arriving in helicopters, not small boats, who are to blame.

Kindness is the only commodity right now with an exponential growth curve. It’s no coincidence that the first basic income scheme run by a UK government has focused on care leavers. Or that warm, nuanced and fabulous TV shows like Alma’s Not Normal are such stonking successes.

This might be the longest, darkest winter in living memory, but outside our window is a twinkling network of lights. An army of colleagues, friends, neighbours, support workers, volunteer food banks, warm space staff, community kitchen volunteers, refugee hosts and foster carers – whole communities working flat out, trying to hold back a flood of need with hot water bottles and steely hope and £85.24 from the local Levelling Up fund.

This government does talk a lot about community, and no wonder. There’s no money, they keep saying, so if you want something done, ask a busy person. And by busy, they mean former hedge fund managers married to multi-millionaires. Not really! They mean lone parents on minimum wage, volunteering at a breakfast club.

And that is why an ad about small kindnesses has struck such a chord – not because we don’t see it around us already, but because we do. Our best selves, our real selves, are reflected back to us so rarely now that when we see it, it stops us in our tracks. In this disaster, we are all looking for the helpers – and those helpers are us.

Somewhere out there in the ether, a media tide is turning. And when we all know what strength there is in compassion, then who knows what we’ll be capable of next. Politicians, take note. And John Lewis – look out for me flamboyantly crying in the kitchenware department at Cribbs Causeway all through December, sorry about that.

Published by anthonyhayble

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