Defying The Norms

Ah Mid-November, that time of year where everyone turns to the person next to them and exclaims, “Wasn’t it February 5 minutes ago?” while simultaneously our senses are attacked with all things festive.

Around this time has also turned into what now can almost be considered a tradition in the UK, where all the major high street retailers roll out their TV commercials that we will continually see over the next month or so. 2014 saw heavy hitters like Sky with their Step Into Christmas advert (a theme they have continued through with their 2015 advert) and Marks and Spencer with their ‘Magic and Sparkle’ ad.

All this furore about Christmas advertisements was arguably made more important than it ever was by John Lewis in 2011 when they first released their annual tear jerker with ‘The Long Wait’. Since then the release of the John Lewis advert has become an event with the retailer recognising that it gets the whole nation talking.

When the 2011 advert was released 61% of people in the UK said they has spoken about the advert with their friends, a full 36% more than the average UK retail norm. This popularity was also echoed on social media, after John Lewis released the commercial via Facebook the number of Tweets about the store rocketed from below 2000 to almost 16,000 in the space of two days.

With these adverts John Lewis completely transformed their brand image to make themselves more emotionally relevant. Everything from brand perception to customer visits per year to sales, were all dramatically improved thanks to the new direction they had taken.

And so 2015 swings around along with John Lewis’ next instalment ‘Man On the Moon’, a moving story about a young girl who discovers the man living alone on the moon and her quest to get a present to him for Christmas. 2014’s Monty the Penguin was an incredible success but the Man On the Moon has smashed John Lewis’ own records with 23,000 mentions on social media in the first two hours of its release and at the time of writing of this article has amassed over 12 million views in less than a week.

On first viewing ‘The Man On the Moon’ continues John Lewis trend for creating emotional commercials that resonate strongly with viewers, but once you dig a little deeper you start to see that John Lewis have changed direction slightly. Perhaps in an attempt to make themselves a much more valuable brand.

For a brand to be defined as “valuable” it means that they offer something back to society, much like certain brands in America such as Microsoft do with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations. Although not quite on the scale of Microsoft, with the Man On the Moon advert John Lewis have tried to break the stereotype of what a Christmas advertisement is and collaborated with a charity, in Age UK, to raise awareness of older people that will be spending Christmas on their own this year.

It’s an extremely bold move by John Lewis, the nature of the world we live in today with the immediacy of social media is that people can express their opinions in a swift and critical manner. Barely a few days after the release of the advert there were already parody videos and articles criticising the advert.

Writing for The Independent, Dr Patrick Lonergan (Lecturer of Consumer Culture at Nottingham Trent University) stated;

“So for me, this ad typifies what we do as consumers. To ease our sense of vulnerability, frailty and lack when confronted with images of perfection, we peer through a lens that distorts reality and allows us to momentarily escape the sometimes bleak, cold, lonely aspects of daily life.”

It was cold, unblinking look at the commercial by Dr Lonergan and while to some degree he’s right, at the end of the day it is an advertisement meant to encourage and develop the customers’ perception of John Lewis with the ultimate goal of getting said customers through the doors but I still feel he may slightly miss the point John Lewis are trying to make it.

Criticism, such as Dr Longergan’s, is perhaps part of the reason the charity involved are not mentioned in the advertisement. Speaking to a representative of Age UK he expressed that despite there being no direct mention of Age UK in the commercial it has not done the brand any harm, if Age UK’s name had been attached some people may have spoken out about the brand in a negative way, much like people have with John Lewis.

Utilising their commercial to promote awareness of isolated people is not the only way that John Lewis are breaking the stereotype of what Christmas adverts are, for the first since John Lewis started this trend their titular character is a girl. Not only that, but if you pay attention throughout the advert you see that Lily is playing with toys not stereotypically associated with her gender, toys such as telescopes, Lego and scooters are all featured. This is perhaps not that surprising when you consider that the advert is directed by Kim Gehrig, the same Kim Gehrig who directed the Sport England ‘This Girl Can’ campaign.

At the end of the day yes, this is just a Christmas advert continuing the same style John Lewis introduced four years ago featuring the John Lewis brand and their brand only but the Man On the Moon marks a different direction for the company. Showcasing different gender norms and encouraging awareness of a charity, that in the week since the advertisement aired have already seen a dramatic upturn in the people submitting requests to spend time with people who have no one this Christmas, can only be a good and something to be applauded.

Considering how talked about John Lewis adverts have been over the years, it will be interesting to see whether the Man On the Moon has any impact on sales over the next year and even more interestingly whether John Lewis employ the same defying-the-norm tactic for their commercial in 2016.

Matthew Gibbs