Christmas is sort of in the Bible, or at least based on Matthew and Luke. Like constructions of ‘religion’ and ‘Bible’, it has, as everyone knows, now become another consumerist fantasy. Take any number of traditional social events and you’ll unsurprisingly now find such celebrations of capitalism, though weddings would be the obvious challenger to Christmas as the number one commodity and status fest.
Of course, this all requires some agreement from consumers. And this agreement between advertiser and consumer has been entertaingly discussed recently in the Guardian by Stuart Jeffries. Concerning the much hyped John Lewis Christmas ad, he argues,
Christmas ads are the great lie at the heart of British culture, heralding the annual ritual of expensive titillation, futile fix, followed by months of debt and regret. Schopenhauer wrote of humans being trapped in “the penal servitude of willing”, an endless cycle or “wheel of Ixion” during which desires are repeatedly stimulated and succeeded by regret. And that regret can only be obliterated by stimulating more desires. He understood the psychology of Christmas advertising.
All that said, five seconds into watching this year’s John Lewis Christmas ad, there was a lump in my throat…
The rest is a little more ironic than the quotation might imply but the idea is clear enough. Now I know it is self-critical and all that to show how we all, including the interpreter, participate in the capitalist game etc. but what’s really so wrong with some outright cynical critique? We seem to have got to the stage, to misquote Half Man Half Biscuit, where is it now clichéd to be non-cynical at Christmas. The John Lewis ad is simply repackaging traditional Christmas consumerism through its apparent ‘subversion’ of greed and maybe even more so Jeffries as he comes close to epitomizing one famous definition of ideology: ‘they know very well what they are doing, but still they are doing it…’ (Žižek).
Before we get there, let’s look at the most explicit examples mentioned by Jeffries.
Probably the most nakedly brutal is the Littlewoods ad which has a Christmas schools play with cute children singing and, so help us God, rapping about various named products everyone really wants for Christmas and will in fact get thanks to mum. No attempt to hide the consumerism, just like the Iceland ad where food with great savings is plastered across the screen throughout the kitsch Christmassy scenes and Stacey Solomon pretending she is singing as she drives home for Christmas presumably giddy at the thought of 16 prawn cocktails.
But saintly John Lewis would never be so crass, right? The austerity (in a ‘squeezed middle‘ sort of way), the little boy, the 1970s feel, giving is better than receiving (gifts), the badly wrapped present, and even a Smiths song (covered in that pious style) about wanting to get what I really, really want and then…subverting the longing! Etc. and so on. But it is still trying to make us buy things, the ad still (somehow) cost £5million, and apparently all done in a way that denies or downplays the very thing it presumably wants us to do: shop at John Lewis. Yet, part of the ‘subversion’ is a repackaging in the sense that the child presumably couldn’t have secretly popped out to John Lewis to buy the gift (and surely this little angel wouldn’t have stolen his parents’ credit card to go online) so it must be…and yet…the child still gets masses of presents, as shown simply in passing. While no doubt selling us a John Lewis lifestyle, Jeffries additionally claims that the ad ‘isn’t about funnelling rubbish into acquisitive little herberts’ stockings’. But actually the child has a massive Christmas stocking full of gifts. Understated, certainly, second place to the giving, yes, but definitely there and the gifts have a clear focused shot at 1:10.
As for repackaging, or Sex in the City 2-lite, why not look (or better: why bother looking?) at the Boots’ Christmas ad which simply replays traditional gender roles, as well as the usual consumerism, but now with added attitude and stupid men!
Then again, it could have been last year’s John Lewis ad which seems to be telling us us that we are born, we live, we die, so embrace the crushing monotony of a certain kind of/John Lewis lifestyle. John Lewis is the best we can hope for in life so why not just give in? The YouTube version manages to undermine all the niceness by having the beginning of cackling Lenny Henry ad appear at the end in a manner which suggests that the John Lewis ad might actually be a warning that you’re going to go to hell for embracing all this.
And to continue the argument about the perpetuation of ideology, how about all the above for free advertising dressed in more subversion…? Should’ve just ignored it and shouldn’t have inflicted it on you…
PPS The 2009 John Lewis ad manages to do the apparantly undoable: stir up feelings of pity for Guns ‘n’ Roses