A top ad exec explains why John Lewis adverts actually make us cry

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  • And how they go about avoiding a Kendall Jenner Pepsi disaster…

    Words by Victoria Fell

    ‘Tis officially the season, thanks to the release of the John Lewis 2021 Christmas advert today, celebrating the magic of the holidays.

    Since 2011, the retailer has been making us laugh, cry and occasionally scratch our heads (we’re looking at you, Moon Man) with their yearly offering. And this year’s bid is no exception.

    But what’s the magic formula for a perfect festive advert? Victoria Fell spoke to Vicki Holgate, chief strategy officer at FCB Inferno (the agency behind Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign) to ask her why John Lewis is so successful with its campaigns:

    How do you go about making a great ad?

    ‘The first step is to understand your audience and their hopes, dreams and goals in life. People are driven by their goals, and once you understand those, you can work out what the product can credibly offer to help achieve them.’

    How do you avoid a Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad disaster?

    ‘It is easy to get blinkered if you persuade yourself that what you are doing is right and you don’t allow any questioning.  Often people are too scared to raise their hand to challenge a particular direction, and once money has been spent it is hard to pull the plug. Working in diverse teams can really help here because it naturally brings different points of view which acts as a checking mechanism.’

    Do you think there is a ‘magic formula’ for John Lewis Christmas ads?

    ‘There are lots of layers to people’s needs with regards to adverts, and this is particularly true at Christmas time. The pressures of gifting, bringing people together, coming home and family relationships, as well as the nation’s mood, come into play.
 It sounds simple, but it is based on the work of a number of scientists, anthropologists, psychologists and economists.’

    What can bloggers and social media influencers learn from advertisers about creating a strong personal brand?

    ‘Definitely the art of understanding what is driving that audience. Conversely, brands can learn a huge amount from the honesty and authenticity that bloggers and influencers exude.’

    How does the ad compare to previous years?

    The Long Wait (2011) was probably the first one that really started making them famous and is still my favourite. It was the first of its kind and had such a surprising twist that caught everyone out – that he was waiting so eagerly to give, not to get –  and the story and execution were an absolute masterpiece.’

    Why do John Lewis adverts make us cry?

    ‘It’s well known that advertising that capture people’s imaginations and triggers emotions is more likely to be successful, and, as previously mentioned, emotions are heightened during the Christmas period. John Lewis realised both of these things,  so they changed the nature of their advertising to specifically target this.’

    Is the mini feature film advert formula here to stay?

    ‘Christmas has become the UK equivalent of the Superbowl.  The size of the audience and the anticipation of the advertising has become a phenomenon, but this kind of build-up only works if that ad is of the highest quality.  It is a perfect value exchange – the ad is selling something, but also brings joy into the lives of the people it is selling to. Get it right and ads will bring joy to both your customers and shareholders.’

    For extra #festivefeels, we’ve rounded up some of our favourite John Lewis Christmas adverts – enjoy!

    The Long Wait – 2011

    Vicki’s favourite, this was the first time John Lewis used its Christmas ad to tell a full story.  If that wasn’t enough of a gamble, the ad doesn’t even explicitly feature their products AND the whole thing was soundtracked by a Smiths song, a band not traditionally known for being uplifting. Despite all of this, it just works.

     Monty the Penguin – 2014

    We simply had to include this gorgeous depiction of a little boy and his favourite toy. A combination of picturesque winter scenes, haunting music and unbelievable CGI makes this one of the strongest John Lewis ads to date.

    Buster the Boxer – 2016

    Dogs are great, trampolines are great – but combined? They’re seriously, seriously great. For pure Christmas joy and escapism, John Lewis‘s 2016 advert cannot be beaten.

    Edgar the Excitable Dragon – 2019

    The advert follows Edgar, a young dragon who loves Christmas so much that he can’t stop breathing fire when he sees festivities.

    Give A Little Love – 2020

    Celebrating acts of kindness and community spirit after a year in lockdown, John Lewis’ 2020 offering encouraged us all to ‘give a little love’.

    Be right back – off to watch John Lewis adverts on repeat.

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