With the arrival of the new John Lewis ad, Arch Creative Executive Joe Briggs was on BBC Radio Leicester chatting to Ben “Jackson-In-The-Morning” about Christmas ads and their impact.

Every year, in the first few weeks of November, Christmas begins. Since 2007, typically on the first or second Friday, it’s marked by what has become a genuine British tradition: the revelation of the new John Lewis ad. In early November, we were contacted by the team at BBC Radio Leicester to come into the studio and talk to Ben Jackson about this advertising phenomenon.

To listen to Joe’s full interview – click here.

Off the back of our successful radio debut, we’ve compiled some of our research into this history of the John Lewis Christmas advert! (Plus the real reason you’re here – to find out about the Arch Christmas video!)

BBC Radio Leicester christmas adverts

The first John Lewis ad in the modern era of high production value Christmas advertisements was Shadows – released ten years ago. It depicted a bunch of people piling John Lewis gifts in front of a bright light to create an image in the shadow projected on the wall. The image in the shadow was a lady walking her dog and peering into the distance. The strapline finishes the ad: “Whoever you’re looking for.”

A relatively innocuous ad – Shadows had a fraction of the impact that modern John Lewis ads have – but it was the first ad of this modern era and laid out a partial blueprint for all of the ads to come. The start of Shadows features a young boy moving into shot with a lamp – which immediately conjures up the Pixar lamp. This instant association with a nostalgic, emotionally charged brand sets the tone for the vast majority of future John Lewis ads.

John Lewis Shadows

2008’s From Me To You featured the first of the now-classic Christmas covers. Typically, these songs are from the 60s, 70s or 80s (to play into the nostalgia factor again) and are almost invariably slowed down, accompanied by plinking piano notes and sung in breathy, minimalistic tones by someone like Lily Allen.

These tracks are merchandising powerhouses in themselves – 2012 ad The Journey featured a cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s The Power of Love by Gabrielle Aplin, the first John Lewis single to reach number one in the UK charts.

John Lewis The Journey

The first TV ad was aired during Gogglebox on Nov 7th with the second airing during the X Factor on the following day – two shows with gigantic viewerships that attract massive social media engagement. John Lewis stores featured Monty’s Dens which included 3D experiences. Monty’s hardback book sold 25,000 copies, and 48,000 Monty and Mabel (the penguin’s love interest) soft toys were sold in stores across the UK. The campaign was a truly integrated one, and outperformed all of its competitors that year.

John lewis Penguin
John Lewis Christmas Advert

This year’s ad – Moz The Monster – has a similarly buyable character at its centre in the shape of the titular Moz. The ad, released at 8AM GMT on 10th November, saw over 34,000 Facebook shares in its first hour, and was sitting at 11,000 retweets four hours in. After four hours on Youtube, the video had been viewed just under 378,000 times. The ad has divided fans with a main criticism coming from the fact the ad isn’t Christmassy enough – but hey, it features another Beatles cover, this time by Elbow, so we’re happy at Arch.

The seven steps to a magical Christmas ad

After all this research, we think we’ve come up with a magic formula for Christmas Ads. We’re basing this on John Lewis ads, so really it’s the formula for the perfect John Lewis spot, but they’re the “original” and the focus of this post, so we’re sticking to what we know.

Christmas ads boil down to the following – a list of seven magical points that’ll have customers buying and viewers crying. In a good way:

  1. Nostalgia – from the use of children as key figures, to the postmodern references to pop culture and the use of 60s, 70s or 80s music, Christmas ads are infused with a reverence for the past. It’s a psychological phenomenon to take you back to your childhood Christmases. After all, they were the best ones, right?
  2. Music – yep, we’ve mentioned it already, but music is a key element of the Christmas spot. Often utilising a song from a bygone decade covered by a modern artist at a slower pace, you can immediately recognise a Christmas ad song. These songs are well received – frequently topping the UK charts. Oh, and they’re usually written by The Beatles. This year we’ve got Golden Slumbers, and of course we’ve had Real Love and From Me To You as well.
  3. Emotional Impact – Buster The Boxer bucked the trend last year with a humorous ad where all that had gone before went for the frisson-inducing, tear-jerking emotional punch! Moz The Monster sees a return to form with a more heart-twanging story about a boy finding and losing his imaginary friend in order to get some much needed shut eye. The emotional side worked at first because we weren’t expecting it (adverts are cynical tools to make us buy stuff aren’t they!?) and work now because they have become a much-loved Christmas fixture. Who wouldn’t cry over a penguin trying to find a girlfriend?
  4. A sale-able central character – from the thousands of Monty the Penguins sold to the further thousands of Buster the Boxers (and the likely thousands of Moz the Monsters), John Lewis have cottoned on to the fact that a cute, cuddly and easily reproduced central character can make a Christmas ad.
  5. Story-telling – a good ad is like a good joke. You start with the set up, you build gradually and you have a pay-off/punchline at the end. The John Lewis spots do this really well, and the pay off is typically, if not always, a conflict being solved through a Christmas present. Which is bought from John Lewis. Very smart.
  6. Production value – these ads cost a fair old bit to create. £7 million is the figure bandied about as the budget for the entire campaign, and you can bet your bottom dollar that a good portion of that goes on TV advertising. The high production value that make these ads look great is a hallmark of the Christmas spot these days – it’s the peak of advertising for most of these retailers and what the money goes into.
  7. Charity – Christmas ads aren’t just well wishing and good spirit on the face of it – they genuinely provide money to charities. Buster The Boxer saw 10% of its revenue donated to The Wildlife Trust. Moz the Monster is raising money for long term John Lewis partner Barnardo’s.

There you have it – rinse and repeat and you’ll be on your way to creating your very own Christmas spot!

Anyway, that’s enough about John Lewis. We know what you’re all here for really – and that’s news of the Arch Creative Christmas video! After the success of our videos for the last two years, we’re at it again and are hard at work in the pre-production stage. The content of the video is a closely guarded secret, but we’ll give you a little hint of what to expect:

We recently received a Request For Proposal from a certain Christmas related person to give him an Arch Creative rebrand. Sleighs and Reindeer just don’t cut it anymore…

We’ve already said too much! Keep your eyes peeled for the Arch Christmas video, which will be out in December.

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