Pianos and Profit: John Lewis’s Christmas Storytelling

Google these words: “Storytelling and Marketing”.

Wait, read this first! But try it afterwards. You’ll be inundated with search results. Article after article will tell you that ‘storytelling’ should be intrinsic to the marketing process. Whether you’re selling a product or building a brand, a story can excite something elemental within your audience, and help you connect.

Never mind the science behind it, the point is that it’s widely accepted that humans have a compulsion to tell and hear stories. We crave narrative and marketeers know this. They use it. Take a look at adverts, the ‘About Us’ sections of websites, the sentences printed on the back of a package. Everywhere, companies lure us in with their stories. When we buy their product, the story continues with us. It sounds charming, doesn’t it?

But, as this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert ends, and we hurriedly wipe the tear from our eye and delve into our pockets to buy that new piano for the would-be Elton in our life, maybe we should just take a moment.

Now, I don’t want to get all wrapped up in bah-humbuggery. The department store chain’s latest ad is the usual dash-for-the-Kleenex masterpiece, a tear-jerker, a work of storytelling to warm even the coldest of hearts… But this retrospective look at the pivotal moments of Elton John’s career is not just a festive story.

The release of the annual advert has become a landmark event in our consumer calendars; it elicits public excitement on a level that a more conventional ‘storyteller’—an author, perhaps—might spend a lifetime chasing. Rarely, however, are the stories that authors write contrived to drive the purchase of a product: other than of the book itself, of course. This is what should cause alarm when it comes to John Lewis’s Christmas content.

Let me concede this: the advert is evocative, entertaining, and makes for better-than-average ad-break watching, maybe because it isn’t explicitly trying to sell something. Somehow, though, that makes it worse.

Until the advert’s release, John Lewis didn’t even sell pianos, the object that features in every scene. Then, once you realise Elton John is currently selling tickets for his ‘Farewell Tour’, the advert suddenly seems an awful lot like shameless promotion. And, isn’t the advert just a two-minute biopic of the singer’s life more than anything else? Don’t forget the feature-length film coming next year!

To make things impossibly worse, though, John Lewis are even selling Elton John’s merchandise, describing it as a range ‘Inspired by [their] Christmas advert’. At this point, you might find it hard to believe it’s not the other way around: that the sale of merchandise inspired the advert.

Behind its magical ‘storyline’ and festive veneer, the John Lewis Christmas advert is a tale of mutual gain. It’s not about telling a story to warm our hearts this Christmas, it’s about selling tour tickets, merchandise—possibly even pianos. Marketing devalues storytelling and trades its escapist possibilities for dangerously material ones.

Alex Sheriff

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