Lori Anderson: Festive advert a thin disguise for cold hard sell

John Lewis' latest festive advert. Picture: John Lewis
John Lewis' latest festive advert. Picture: John Lewis
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This year’s John Lewis offering says a lot about the consumer society we live in, writes Lori Anderson

IT’S that time of the year again – festive bonhomie, letters to Santa and the pilot light quietly igniting on the slow simmer of domestic arguments over which set of in-laws will take precedence on Christmas Day.

Now is the time that we see an increase in the cases of SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder and this year I know exactly what’s causing the outbreak. John Lewis has just spent £6 million pounds making the most mawkish advert ever broadcast. The Journey features the crystalline love affair of a snowman and snowwoman. They might be married or just standing solidly together in icy sin. The advert is ambiguous but what is perfectly transparent is that it is breaking my heart.

I have seen it in full once and, frankly, that was one time too many. But first a little background information, I have form when it comes to weeping over adverts. Have you seen those RSPCA adverts of the dogs squealing, weeping, crying, and pining in distress? Emaciated dogs who have never seen a Good Boy chocolate treat, cowering dogs who have never been showered with love and hugs and, finally, that poor bedraggled collie left chained up at low tide with only a pitiless cameraman staring steely eyed as he bravely faces his imminent death by drowning. At one point it got so bad that my husband had to sit me down and explain that each and every dog was a Rada-trained actor who seconds after the director had shouted “cut” would be whisked off to his luxury trailer to cavort with selected bitches.

John Lewis has got rather good at plucking our heartstrings but this time they have twanged them too hard and mine have snapped. Two years ago, the store’s advertising geniuses had Billy Joel croon his classic hit Always a Woman To Me whilst a young girl aged from childhood, through her teenage years, skipped through the first bloom of romance, and then onto marriage and motherhood before finally transforming into a contented grandmother wandering through country fields with her husband and all with a perfect life lavishly furnished with goodies from John Lewis’s quality stock.

Then last Christmas, the store’s advert was a cover version of The Smith’s Please, Please Please Let Me Get What I Want playing over a clever story which fooled us into believing that a young boy’s pining for Christmas Day was not just so that he could selfishly rip off the paper on his own presents, but so he could beatifically present presents to his parents. The motto: “Tis better to give than to receive” had never been so beautifully illustrated.

So where has it all gone wrong? The advert, in case you have not yet seen it, opens with Mr and Mrs Snowman gazing into each other’s eyes, his two shards of coal, hers two tawny pinecones. She has red wool for lips. She has a thatch of twigs for hair. She looks like Robert Smith from The Cure.

Like a frozen Odysseus, he then embarks on an epic journey that takes him up roads and down dales, through a posse of sheep, across a frozen river where a robin steels his faltering courage and, finally, over a vast mountain range, until he reaches his goal of a shopping nirvana, the urban sprawl, where upon he promptly turns around and fights his way back to his sweetheart.

The final scene sees the pair standing amid discarded wrapping paper and ribbons with her resplendent in a beret, red scarf and matching mittens. The soundtrack is a dulcet-toned, funereal dirge, a cover-version of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood track, The Power Of Love sung by Gabrielle Aplin.

Where do we begin in deconstructing this chilling paean to our imminent demise? To a child, a snowman can be a magical creature, capable of subtle movement once their back has been turned, but to an adult, the advert’s broad target audience, the one thing we know about a snowman is that, come the thaw, they will melt.

When Raymond Briggs published The Snowman, in 1978, he wove the theme of the transitory nature of life into a beautiful wordless children’s book, where the sadness of the ending is inseparable from the adventurous joy of the story. The point was emphasised in the animated cartoon which was Channel 4’s Christmas gift to the nation in 1982.

We, the British public, know it never ends well for snowmen which makes John Lewis’s cynical use of them rather underhand. I’m sure I’m not alone in pondering the advert’s sequel in which the children rush out to find a couple of puddles in which bob a pair of pine cones and a soggy woollen hat.

The advert was filmed in New Zealand in June, winter in the southern hemisphere, on the site of a cottage built 90 years ago by a Scot who sought a new life at the other end of the world. The rugged New Zealand landscape familiar to fans of Lord of the Rings was used to give the snowman’s quest an epic feel. As the advert’s director explained: “We never set out to make the viewers cry but we have a responsibility to create something special.”

They certainly have created something special, but while many will view the advert as a soppy ode to love, instead, at its cold heart it can be read as an encouragement to rampant, heedless consumerism.

If we accept that the lifespan of a snowman is short, then how best should that time be spent? Should it be hand in twig hand with the one he loves or embarking on a long, arduous, hair-brained quest, risking life and soft white body for festive knitwear? John Lewis whose advert last year triggered a 9 per cent spike in sales would clearly wish us all to embrace the latter: life is short, let’s go shopping.