How John Lewis’ Christmas story got a Lidl lost in the telling

“Have you seen the John Lewis Christmas ad yet? There’s nothing Christmas about it!”

This was the first I knew of the new John Lewis ad, an annual part of the build-up to the festive season in the UK. Previous years’ ads have brought viewers to tears. This year… well it hasn’t been universally well received.

If you haven’t seen it yet, to avoid me writing **spoiler alert** repeatedly, here it is:

Christmas is a time for stories. In the depths of winter we share stories around food and home. We come together to share our stories. Our Christmas traditions. Precious moments of community. Christmas, of course, has a story at its heart. A story of a baby, generosity, and adversity. It reveals truths about the human spirit. We all aspire to be good, wise and kind.

The John Lewis advert is part of our shared Christmas stories and this year’s offering has all the right elements: a child, a gift, someone familiar. We know Elton John. And it reveals a truth at the end: “some gifts are more than just a gift”. We want to give presents people value rather than a gift set we’ve bought because, well, we need to buy something and it seems a safe option.

And yet… this year’s story doesn’t quite work. Stories need to create an emotional connection and they need to be relatable. We do know Elton John. But it’s quite hard to relate to him as he is presented in this story. Most of us are not multi-millionaire successful popstars playing huge arenas.? He has millions of fans of course. And if you like Elton, whether as someone who has seen him perform live 600 times or you just like The Lion King, this advert will appeal.

However as a story designed to create an emotional pull, one which will make us keep watching, waiting to find out what happens next, it lacks a compelling plot. I often say to people that the start of your story doesn’t have to be the beginning and the end doesn’t have to be the end. However how you plan out your narrative can make or break its success. Few people remember Reginald Dwight. The boy in a council house in Pinner, north London, who had a precocious musical talent.

A childhood hobby could turn into a glittering career. Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash
A childhood hobby could turn into a glittering career. Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

The message in the advert is good. There will be children receiving musical instruments or science kits or art supplies which will kickstart a lifelong interest and lead to brilliant careers. John Lewis must have been overjoyed to secure Elton John for their ad campaign.

But the story falls down in its telling. It is called The Boy and The Piano. We’re given the man. Not only that but the highly successful man with a life out of reach of most of us. Had they told it the other way around, starting with the boy who was given a piano, then showing Christmas performances to friends and family, how Christmas changed through the decades, people would have been able relate to the experience and then would have got the twist that the boy was Elton.

By framing the story chronologically backwards, there’s nowhere to go.

I saw Lidl’s tweet before I saw the John Lewis advert and didn’t get it at first. But as soon as I saw John Lewis’s ad I knew what Lidl had done was a stroke of genius.

Elton John’s lyrics gave Lidl a gift of a pun. If he had performed a different song it wouldn’t have worked but it’s there in the opening line. Now whenever you hear it, you hear “Lidl”, not “little”. It enabled them to steal the message immediately.

We all like a quick riposte. That moment when someone fires back a play on what the person before has just said. We like to see people get the upper hand. And we like to give the establishment a bloody nose.

John Lewis is a workers’ cooperative. Not many people know that. But to the general public, regardless of its tagline of Never Knowingly Undersold, it is seen as a posh shop. Lidl plays the part of the plucky young upstart, despite the company’s history going back to 1930 and its first discount store opening in 1973.

Ironically, Lidl’s Christmas adverts this year are tagged ‘upgrade your Christmas’ but they’ve won the upper hand by telling a funny story about John Lewis’s prices.

Who do you think has told the best story in their Christmas ad this year?

Rachel Extance (photo by Jemima Willcox)

Rachel Extance helps businesses tell their story. A professional journalist, she knows how to write stories people find relevant and engaging. Rachel now helps businesses create communications strategies and write content which helps their customers and lets them see behind the scenes. She is also available for 1:1 consultations, training and public speaking opportunities. If you would like to know more email her rachel@extance.co.uk or contact her on social media.

4 thoughts on “How John Lewis’ Christmas story got a Lidl lost in the telling

  1. Well done Lidl! I think the story-telling isn’t too bad, and this might have worked 15 years ago. But now it falls a bit flat for the reasons you mention and also because you’d need to be at least a teenager in the 70s to really connect with Elton’s story, to have really followed him as he went from a bloke in funny glasses on top of the pops to showbiz royalty. In other words over 55, which excludes a lot of people. And anyone (including Lidl) can make fun of it on social media now if it doesn’t hit the spot.

    Plus it feels a bit like an ad for Elton John who has plenty of money already.

    Iceland will be a tough act for any store to follow this year because that Rang Tang video was very good, banned (giving it strong appeal), had a strong message other than ‘buy our stuff’ and went viral on social media.

    I think John Lewis being a workers’ cooperative is story they should make better use of. With the current distrust of corporations this could be really good.

    • Yes I completely agree Helen. Lots of people commenting on Twitter were not old enough to have followed Elton’s story.

      I think Iceland have done very well to raise awareness of a social issue, one which didn’t get much traction when Greenpeace shared the film originally. Iceland added an additional story on top: we don’t like being told what we can and can’t say.

      If I was John Lewis I would absolutely be talking more about how their company is structured.

  2. Fantastic analysis Rachel. The art of telling the story is every bit as important as the story itself. Its why ancient rulers employed storytellers to tell the story of their lives!

    • You can tell stories in lots of ways. Sometimes the chronology doesn’t matter. But in this case I think it did because people didn’t get that emotional connection, intrigue or feel it was relevant to them.

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