Let’s stop looking for meaning in the John Lewis Christmas advert. It just is

Every year, we try to extract a wider meaning from the famous advert, but this year’s offering is as straightforward as it is sweet. It’s not cynical to be happy about that

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By Emily Baker on

In the past week we’ve watched Paddington help Father Christmas deliver presents, Kevin the Carrot fall in love, futuristic elves rush through a toy factory and a giant Christmas pudding mixer run by a reindeer. It could only be Christmas-ad season and today sees the release of the Holy Grail of them all – John Lewis.

The ad has become the unofficial beginning of Christmas since its inception in 2007 and we have increasingly looked to it for a higher meaning, an allegory for our anxieties and wishes for the festive season. In 2009, the company wanted us to “remember how Christmas used to feel” as we watched children open presents like a coffee machine and a laptop – adults were reminded of their age and the loss of their childhood excitement for Christmas. 2011’s offering – the one which really got me sobbing – saw a young boy meticulously counting down the days to Christmas, so he could present his parents with a makeshift gift he’d been saving for weeks. That year, I bought my parents proper, expensive Christmas presents for the first time to thank them for all they had done for me. And no one can forget the devastating old man on the moon of 2015, who reminded us how lonely Christmas can be for older people.

Last year, we were introduced to Buster the Boxer mere days after Donald Trump was elected as president of the United States and his boundless joy became a welcome distraction and respite from the news. Although it seems like a lifetime, that was only one year ago and, since then, the news has been full of Nazi rallies, political turmoil, terrorist attacks and sexual-harassment scandals. It may seem like we need a classic John Lewis tearjerker now more than ever, but 2017’s film isn’t that. And it’s lovely.

It’s simple to the extreme, it’s not emotional, it’s not especially funny. It just is. In a world where everything is representative of something else, it’s refreshing

In it, we meet Joe, a little boy who is kept awake night after night by Moz, the 7ft imaginary monster who lives under his bed. It’s not that Joe is scared of Moz – quite the opposite; Joe and Moz are best friends. They spend their nights playing Scalextric, giving each other piggyback rides and generally having the time of their lives. But little boys need their sleep, so Joe begins to doze off during the day. When he falls asleep in the middle of a game of battleships against Moz, the monster knows he must do something to help Joe go to sleep.

When Joe wakes up on Christmas morning (presumably from a very short night’s sleep), he finds a badly wrapped present under the tree. His mum shrugs when he asks who it’s from, though, judging from the string and higgledy-piggledy brown wrapping paper, we know it must be from Moz. It’s a night light, one that projects stars and moons on to Joe’s ceiling, but also one that makes Moz disappear – when we see under the bed again, he’s nowhere to be found. Joe’s much-needed sleep comes at the cost of nights spent with his best friend. But all is not lost – as soon as the night light goes off, we can hear Moz’s deep giggle from under the bed.

This director behind Moz the Monster is Michel Gondry, the man who brought us Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and has worked on other major campaigns for Coca-Cola, Nike and Apple. “When I told my ex-girlfriend I was doing the next John Lewis Christmas film, she said, 'You have big shoes to fill – this John Lewis commercial must make people cry, don’t forget,'” Gondry said of the task. “Last week, I showed it to her and she cried. Phew.” I didn’t cry; I didn’t really laugh out loud. But I smiled – and that is more than enough for me. It also successfully fulfilled its primary goal as an advert – it made me want a night light, despite being an adult woman with a job.

Following last year’s Buster the Boxer ad, John Lewis saw a 5.1 per cent sales increase across the Christmas period and, post-festivities, total sales stood at £1.8bn. It seems outrageous that the making of the advert was estimated at £7m, but this is pittance compared with the amount of products it shifts.

If you really try, you can extrapolate meaning from Moz the Monster – there are subtle messages about growing up, about friendship, maybe even about more sinister monsters under the bed. But, honestly, it’s just a beautifully shot film about a boy, a monster and a night light. It’s simple to the extreme, it’s not emotional, it’s not especially funny. It just is. In a world where everything is representative of something else, it’s refreshing. The John Lewis ad is a throwback to when adverts were unashamed of their purpose – to sell – and didn’t guilt viewers into spending more money than they actually have. Because, at the end of the day, it is just an advert.


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