After six-million-pounds-worth of creative effort, the John Lewis Christmas television commercial was launched last Saturday. Even by the normal standards of Christmas TV commercials, which have arguably become a distinctive postmodern art form, The Long Wait has produced an extraordinary reaction. Within twenty-four hours, the one-and-half-minute film had been viewed 400,000 times on the internet and had produced a paratextual hinterland of tweets, bleats and repeats, along with string of spoofs which in turn attract further layers of comment. And of course it is accompanied by the obligatory if rather uninformative ‘Making of …’ film. Untelevisioned as I am, even I noticed the ripples.
Just in case you haven’t seen it yet, here it is for reference.
OK, even if this is the UK’s favourite ethical, not-for-the-benefit of corporate shareholders company, it’s still advertising and it’s still trying to sell stuff. And apparently it works. According to the post-ad press release, “sales at the retailer John Lewis climbed 6 per cent week on week to £76.3m as its Christmas television campaign launched last week”. This news was followed by the intriguing detail that “strong performances came from home furnishing services, particularly floor coverings and the express curtains service.” Not ordinary curtains, mind you, but express curtains. Presumably so you can be confident of being fully hung by Christmas. Leaving the irresistible image of the performing floor coverings to one side, this does makes me wonder what people are actually looking at and thinking about when they watch these things. I can see all sorts of interesting aspects of the ad that you might want to dwell on, but, oh I don’t why, the floor coverings just didn’t stand out for me.
Anyway, sales or no sales, this short film seems to have touched something deep in the national psyche. A good deal of the reaction is from people genuinely touched by what they see as a heartwarming story that restores our faith in stores, subverts the advertising convention of the insatiable child, and somehow gets back to the ‘real message’ of Christmas: that it is more blessed to give than receive. Some, however, see it as mawkish manipulation, often with the complaint that it shows an unrealistic view of children. Said one commentator: “There are no children who would actually look forward to giving a gift rather than receiving one. Again, these people have no idea about actual children.” It’s interesting how this group appear to have a view of childhood as unrealistic as the one they criticise. If you know a child, or maybe just happen to have been one yourself at one time or other, you will know that children can get very excited about the prospect of giving a gift. For giving, for all its consumerist wrappings, is still a symbolic expression of our love for another person, and children feel this. To give is also empowering. Yet another group are up in arms about about what they see as abusive treatment of a favourite song by The Smiths.
Interestingly, one possible response I have not seen is that far from simply subverting the stereotypical view of the child, the ad is actually taking the child out of the child’s traditional position of being a receiver (of love, care, provision) and requiring them to become active within the commercial sphere, quite literally to buy into it all.
So what can we take this response to mean? Is it a straightforward case of nostalgia, or something more specific? What child is this?
This little film is in fact one that fits comfortably into the category of children’s literature, having many of the features we expect to find in children’s books: dual address to adult and to child, a child protagonist, and a child’s point of view. This depiction of a child’s perspective is, I think, artfully done. The slow passing of time is marked out by the rhythms of a bouncing ball, the ticking of clocks, a pendulum-like swing, and tapping of hands and feet. The child tries to exert his power over time by using magic to make it pass more quickly, but is ultimately subjected to the Long Wait – for Christmas and, we might infer, for adulthood. There are also intertextual references to other children’s books, and adults portrayed as peripheral colourless beings who have largely lost the plot of what life is really about.
The film is essentially nostalgic, and constructs the child as adults want him to be – as Jacqueline Rose famously has it, the impossible child of children’s fiction. Thus, the little boy is a silent child, a clean and tidy child, a child whose worst defect is fidgeting when his father is trying to read the business pages. These children play at ball games and dressing up, and paint peacefully at the kitchen table while their mother cooks the dinner (presumably from Waitrose). Not a computer game in sight. Connoisseurs of 1980s picturebooks will realise instantly that this is, in fact, Lucy and Tom, the movie, adapted from the bestselling series by Shirley Hughes. Most obviously, then, this is a straightforward rendering of the Romantic child, a person innocent and untainted by worldly things, yet imbued with a spiritual wisdom that adults have lost.
But this is also a layered text. Just as in picturebooks, where text and image work together in a variety of different ways, so here the verbal text in the form of a song interacts with the images. The song may well have been chosen for the way the line ‘let me get what I want’ reinforces the assumption that the child is waiting for his own presents, but in other places it forms a distinct counterpoint. Whereas the images depict the world from the child’s perspective, the song is very much about the longing and desire of a dillusioned adult, with lines such as:
Haven’t had a dream in a long time See, the life I’ve had Can make a good man bad
So for once in my life Let me get what I want
Lord knows, it would be the first time
The adults in the film certainly look as if they haven’t had a dream in a long time. They are evidently shackled by the cares of life, and the mother has a look that clearly says she has a niggling worry about her firstborn son. At this level the film speaks to adults to remind them what is was like to acknowledge desires, to give rein to unselfconscious delight, to be simply in a state where you feel so passionately about something that all else seems unimportant. And if that’s the case, then perhaps the remarkable response is at least in part to do with adult desire to reclaim a very particular freedom that was lost in childhood. There again, maybe it’s just some subliminal messages from the floor coverings and window treatments.