Why I Hate the John Lewis Ad

19th November 2013

Right. I like Christmas as much as the next person (unless that person is Scrooge). I have also let a week elapse before writing this post in an attempt to disperse some of the anger generated in the Facebook debate I had with a total stranger. Let’s get that stranger’s comments (later insults) out of the way first: I am not trying to patronise anyone, or upset them, or belittle their existence (though it might later seem that way). I am not a killjoy / cynical / cold-hearted / narrow-minded or trying to play devil’s advocate. What follows is simply my reaction to a piece of advertising that is indicative of a far greater problem in our media.

The usually tasteful middle class chain John Lewis released their flagship Christmas advert in the UK a couple of weeks ago. Its Twitter hashtag is #hareandbear and from this you can probably guess that it features a cast of woodland animals celebrating the season of good cheer. Here is a link if you are fortunate enough to have missed it.

Now this charming (and faintly puerile) little tale about a bear who has never known Christmas is perfect for the kids. After all, I grew up watching The Animals of Farthing Wood, playing with Sylvanians, being terrified by my first viewing of the superb Watership Down (note the JL hare’s glaring similarity there). As I say, perfect for the kids. But this isn’t for kids. It’s a commercial aimed at enticing those children’s parents into John Lewis for the sole purpose of spending money.

We can’t pretend that the ways in which we celebrate Christmas throughout the western world are not capitalist. We indulge. We buy presents, we buy food (usually more than we can eat), we turn the heating up, we play games – in short we immerse ourselves in excess. I am no different. No one has to be different. Christmas is like the Pagan festival of Midwinter; indeed its position at the year’s end was probably chosen because of the Pagan festival already in existence. Midwinter and the memory of it shone like a beacon through the cold, dark days between Autumn and Spring. It was supposed to be a time of indulgence and – despite the Christian message – still is. Certainly capitalism has made it more so.

I could talk about the shameful way John Lewis manipulates our emotions for profit. But I won’t. It’s the fact we feel emotional at all that I’d like to address. And, at this point, I will probably start raising hackles if I haven’t already.

My problem with adverts of the John Lewis ilk is that they are part of a dumbing down culture foisted on us by the media. And this goes far beyond Christmas. It’s a constant in advertising. We see it on television, the internet, outside the house and even through the letterbox, just to make sure we can’t get away from it.

Almost exclusively, it is adults who purchase the things we need from day to day:  food, clothes, furniture, car insurance… But we, the adults, are talked down to by the media, as if we were children. How many recent adverts have you seen that use real people to sell their product? Instead it always seems to be animations: humans, animals, inanimate objects. Are we somehow more likely to buy said product if it’s ‘sold’ to us by an anthropomorphic meerkat?

The problem has become endemic. And adverts like John Lewis, with their colossal budgets, add fuel. They pander to sensibilities that have been worn down by a ceaseless tide of condescension. What happened to subtlety, to integrity? The media and the marketeers treat us like unthinking imbeciles with either little or no grasp of aesthetics. I have heard the JL advert described as ‘beautiful’ and it makes me want to scream, “Read the poetry of your nation, read the Romantics, read Shakespeare, read the modernist epics of the Twenties. Or at least watch some decent cinema. For god’s sake, stop wallowing in ignorant, infantile platitudes!” Most adverts are without beauty. They are crass and unbelievably patronising.

As for the escapist isn’t reality far worse argument thrust down my throat in last week’s debate, GROW UP. The reality is that cartoon bunnies and bears are for children. If you find yourself moved by these things, you are an unfortunate casualty of that de-sensitising tide, a tin can washed up on a desolate, uncomprehending beach. (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

Frankly, I despair that garbage like this can genuinely ‘move’ any adult. Why squander your tears on something that undermines your intelligence? There are countless more deserving events in the world to cry over, real tragedies happening to real people right now. Bear and Hare is sweet, it’s cute, it features fluffy animals (which most of us love including me), but that’s all it is. Dry your eyes. You’re probably embarrassing the kids.

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