Stephen McGinty: The issue with Christmas adverts

John Lewis's advert tells of a friendship between Sam and his penguin friend Monty. Picture: Contributed
John Lewis's advert tells of a friendship between Sam and his penguin friend Monty. Picture: Contributed
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DONNING his Scrooge outfit, Stephen McGinty pours scorn on this year’s attempts to part us from our hard-earned cash – with the possible exception of a certain soft drinks company.

When did John Lewis become the new Dickensian herald of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come?

For if the great Victorian novelist was alive today and toiling in the glue factory of the advertising industry, I know which department store his social conscience would favour. Most people would date the dawn of John Lewis’s reign over this lucrative market of ice, snow and festive lights to 2011, when they released their innovative advert in which a young boy couldn’t wait for Christmas Day to dawn, not as we viewers first assumed because he wished to shred the wrapping on his own presents into a colourful confetti, but because he literally couldn’t wait to give his parents their present.

Accompanied by a mournful Morrisey crooning: “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” did not so much as tug at the heartstrings as reconfigure them into a bitter-sweet lute that had parents sobbing into hankies three times a night.

The following year the store’s advertising agency embraced that awkward “second album” syndrome with the ballad of the indomitable snowman who embarks on a Lord of the Rings-style quest from his rural garden to the bright lights of the big city in order to purchase Mrs Snowman a fetching set of hat, scarf and mitts and, yet again, never did the gift of knitwear elicit such emotional turmoil as kids were enraptured by Mr Freeze while adults – well, my wife and I – couldn’t help pondering the imminence of the couple’s thaw-y demise.

Last year’s festive offering lent too heavily on the wistful vocals of Lilly Allen in its tale of a rabbit anxious to spend Christmas Day with his friend, the bear, who always missed it, due to his unfortunate habit of winter hibernation. A problem solved by the purchase of an alarm clock that promptly wakes him up in time to enjoy the big day.

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And so to this year, in which Monty the Penguin waddles around the world in the company of his young friend and sees love wherever he goes, on a park bench, on a street corner, everyone seems to have a loving partner but him. Come Christmas, his young friend recognises that the perfect gift for him is the penguin equivalent of a mail order bride and so, presumably, goes online and, hey presto, waiting under the tree is an avian sex slave shipped in from the Antarctic to cater to his chum’s frisky needs.

Is John Lewis stating that love can be bought? Of course not, for the penguin, it turns out, isn’t real and has been animated into life by the little boy’s imagination, and, in time Mr Penguin will go the same way as Puff the Magic Dragon. What is it with John Lewis and their obsession with the transience of life and its little pleasures?

Or am I alone in recognising their true argument? It seems not: Mark Millar, the comic book writer tweeted this week: “John Lewis’s tear-jerking advert next year is just going to be someone you love passing away under a Christmas tree.”

Still, you have to doff your winter bunnet to John Lewis and their sneaky ability to have their marzipan-topped Christmas cake and eat it. For what they are doing is informing viewers that Christmas isn’t about receiving presents, that Christmas is about love, and what better way to express that love than to purchase presents and, look folks, it doesn’t matter what those presents are, look at us, we’ve designed entire multi-million pound campaigns around persuading people to buy only three of our cheapest items: a knitted hat and glove set, an alarm clock and a stuffed penguin.

Yet as a commercial company it matters not a jot to them who is receiving the presents as long as everyone is buying them, and if you’re going to be doing the shopping anyway why not spend your savings with us, the warm, fuzzy, ethical shop that knows what’s important.

Yet this year John Lewis’s social conscience has been outdone by Boots, whose advert heralds not Christmas Day but Boxing Day, in whose early hours a hard-working nurse, who has spent the baby Jesus’s actual birthday caring for the sick and dying, finally returns home weary and depressed to her suburban semi to discover that her loving family have gathered to re-create this special day.

Now the reason Boots can make an advert such as this is because nobody – not one single person in Britain – would actually, if they are honest, thank you for receiving a Christmas present from Boots the Chemist.

It is the festive equivalent of a bunch of flowers from a petrol station forecourt – the odour of thoughtless desperation is unescapable.

So if Boots is unlikely to earn any extra sales at Christmas, they may as well store up some goodwill Brownie points for the rest of the year.

In stark contrast to John Lewis and Boots’ festive adverts which are full of numinous inner light is this year’s Littlewoods Christmas advert, which pulses with gaudy treats and certainly wins the award for the brashest, most honest hymn to commercialism currently playing thrice nightly on the glass teat.

Mylenne Klass plays a siren tempting viewers into the deep, dark waters of festive debt by leading a family through a bazaar stuffed with electronic toys – “toy range from £22-£110, batteries not included” – expensive perfumes and fabulous clothes while the voice-over explains that they can have everything they wanted simply by putting it all on the never-never: “Get all the latest gifts interest-free and everyone’s Christmas wishes can come true.” The advert articulates the argument that what sets Littlewoods apart is the quality of their festive debt.

Marks & Spencer’s advert is slightly more subtle, with its fairies clocking in for another nocturnal shift in which they fly across London urging consumers to spend a little bit more by turning their crappy Christmas presents into something their loved one might actually want.

One lazy chap has bought his wife an alarm clock – is this a shot across John Lewis’s bow? – and then before his eyes the fairies zap it into a matching lingerie set which ignites his face so much that one is left wondering if by the time she unwraps it on Christmas morning it will already be second-hand.

They do seem rather mischievous, especially when they turn off the electricity – and presumably the heating – in the terraced house and so drive the family out into the cold – OK, it is for a snowball fight – but what if they’ve got a chesty cough? It could be the death of them.

Yet I do appreciate that I – in writing this column – am part of the new problem created by the current vogue for blockbuster Christmas adverts. By making their appearance “news” we’re giving each one a free advert and, in the process, extending the commercial Christmas season for a few extra weeks from the beginning of December to the beginning of November.

If I had to choose a favourite advert this season it would be, perhaps, the most unpopular, which is Tesco’s ode to community values and the joy of lights in the darkness, which is pretty apt considering the firm appears to have mislaid £290 million, has seen a 90 per cent slump in their profits and may yet by inviting the serious fraud squad to their Christmas Party, because, let’s be honest, nothing says Christmas like a little money worry.

Then again, I am a sucker for Coca-Cola’s “holidays are coming” advert, in which a small rural American town is lit up by the arrival of a fleet of soft drink-laden lorries.

The drink’s company revitalised the image of Santa with their adverts in the 1930s and they may have rested on their laurels ever since, but I still think it wouldn’t be Christmas without a few of their ice-cold bottles dressed up with a red festive bow; well, such is the dreary life of a teetotaller.

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