(Image courtesy of John Lewis)

Dr Elle Boag, senior lecturer in Social Psychology at Birmingham City University.

So, this morning saw the release of the John Lewis Christmas advert and once again social media is alive with people’s emotional responses to it.

Comments such as “…emosh or what?” and “Thanks John Lewis for making me cry first thing this morning” are just two examples that I came across in my own feed. But why do retailers such as John Lewis trigger such responses in viewers and why do they elicit increased purchasing behaviour? (the fundamental motivation for all adverts).

It seems counterintuitive that using highly emotionally charged mini-movies will actually lead to more people spending money with such retailers – yet it is well evidenced that making us ‘care’ about the advert’s ‘story’  drives psychological mechanisms that lead to brand preference and a need to increase positive emotions and demonstrate caring by buying material goods.

So in the case of the 2015 Christmas advert from John Lewis we see the impact that buying someone who is elderly and isolated the means to re-engage and feel included has; and to consolidate the emotional message embedded in the advert it ends with – ‘show someone they’re loved this Christmas’.

You aren’t really thinking about the man in the moon when you watch this, you are thinking about elderly relatives, neighbours who live alone and even that old man down the street who looks so lonely. You aren’t really thinking about buying them a telescope when you watch this, you are thinking about what you can buy to make their life better, and you might even take five minutes or so out of your day simply to stop and chat or pick up the phone and call your elderly relative.

We are seeing more of these ‘special’ adverts around Christmas from the bigger retailers and to be frank they do appear to address some important social issues such as inclusion, isolation, diversity, poverty and so on…so despite their emotive message aimed to get you to spend more money, they also make you stop and think about important issues and in many cases lead to increased social awareness and/or donations to charity.

This year’s advert appears to be about loneliness and isolation in older adulthood; but why is this an issue of importance? Well, other than being buried alive, one of the greatest fears that humans have is to be alone in their later years – to outlive all of their loved ones and friends. Indeed, the innate social nature of humankind is something that drives this fear… like it or not, we need to be sociable, whether this be meeting friends or family once a week, chatting to neighbours or even using online social media. It is documented that the UK is recognised as one of the loneliest places to live in Europe because of our lack of family ties, community and failure of our social networks.

Fundamentally, in Britain we often do not even know our neighbours and other than our spouse/partner, we do not have very strong friendships… and, as we age our partners and friends may pass away, children might move away and be focused on their own families, neighbours come and go, and often mobility and funds do not permit a social life, so we become more and more isolated. In turn loneliness can lead to negative psychological wellbeing and it has been found that in approximately 14% of cases isolation can lead to premature death.

So, well done John Lewis for highlighting this important social issue. Well done John Lewis for making people think about older adults who without your advert might well continue to live in isolation and loneliness. It will be interesting to note whether the social message from other advertisers will differ this year, or whether there will be a unified approach from large merchandisers this year… we will have to wait and see. But, in the meantime take five minutes to phone your parents, your grandparents or your great aunt Maud. Just five minutes of your time can lead to a boost of positivity in their life that can last for days. You don’t have to buy them the world, just find them a little time.

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