I have lived in the UK long enough to know that the release of the big retailers’ Christmas adverts is awaited with excitement in large amounts of the population. Those looking forward to the ads want that Christmassy feel. The most talked-about ads tend to be emotive, but ultimately send out a hopeful message. Ideally, they present a narrative to identify with – in this, they speak largely to a white, middle-class British audience. Their launch is a sure sign that Christmas (shopping) is upon us, and goes hand in hand with the big switch-ons taking place in shopping malls and town squares all around the country.
Department store John Lewis premiered their advert in time for last weekend. Last year, fellow blog editor and PhD student CJ Leffler commented on Sainsbury’s Christmas-advert here, and in reaction to watching the John Lewis ad earlier this week, I feel a recurring feature coming on. Why did the John Lewis-clip make me go on Twitter immediately to check for others’ reactions? And why did it leave me cold?
At first watch, the advert doesn’t seem an overly political one; as an incentive to make you go shop, why should it. It seems less problematic than Sainsbury’s 2014 advert that took up the story of the Christmas Truce in a year laden with historical anniversaries. Its narrative is simple, and – so I read on Twitter – tear-jerkingly touching.
Watching the dark winter sky from the comfort of her warm home, a little girl discovers life on the moon through the lens of her telescope. More specifically, she spots a little house on the barren surface of the moon (suggesting adverse living conditions, and contrasting with her own home). In it lives a lonely elderly man who is longing for company. The little girl, herself celebrating Christmas lavishly as seems custom for her happy and young, extended family, takes pity on the old man and magically manages to send a gift his way – a smaller telescope that enables him to watch what is going on on planet Earth. With the help of it, he identifies his benefactor, and feels more connected – albeit still being many thousand miles away from those celebrating, worry-free, on Earth.
Possibly sensitised by my research into narratives of illness and dying, and the way such stories are being negotiated publicly, I have developed an interest in the cultural coding of ageing. I wasn’t able to watch the ad without becoming a little bit political about it. The critique of loneliness in old age has its point, especially for the ill and disabled among the elderly. Loneliness at old age, however, is tied up with widespread poverty among the elderly, and actual physical separation from the rest of society as we outsource care to institutions – without funding these properly, nor valuing their staff. The imagery of the old man living on the moon is, in this sense, weirdly apt. The contrast between her and his world couldn’t be greater. The imagery lets us down by its lack of critical or political potential: The reasons for this sad state of affairs is man-made; the old man lives on the moon because we, as a society, put him there. Seemingly attributing the cause for the situation to natural powers beyond our intervention, the advert somewhat excuses our inaction. We should be outraged, not touched – and certainly not accept the status quo.
If John Lewis’s balloons managed to transport a gift to the man on the moon, surely they could have brought the elderly man back to planet Earth?