The Brand Who Fell To Earth

John Lewis’ new ad goes back to basics with a take on their classic formula – but this time, audiences aren’t quite as moved.

John Lewis invented the modern Christmas ad, and their annual spot is still the most hotly anticipated every year. The core John Lewis formula hasn’t changed much since 2013’s “The Bear And The Hare”: show an unusual friendship and capture its essence through thoughtful gifting. They’ve made departures from it, like last year’s sequence of animated vignettes, but they keep returning to that core idea.

At its best, these stories of friendship feel like modern fairytales, and they’ve resulted in the brand’s finest moments. 2014’s Monty the Penguin and 2019’s Excitable Edgar both hit 5-Stars on our Test Your Ad platform and easily topped those years’ Christmas ad rankings with brilliant executions. But it doesn’t always work – in 2015’s Man In The Moon, audiences couldn’t relate to the lonely old moon dweller and his Earthling friend, and found the ending ambiguous and sad.

This year’s ad, Unexpected Guest, also has an outer-space vibe. It plays like a miniature version of ET The Extra Terrestrial, with teenage boy Nathan finding alien visitor Skye in the woods and teaching her about Christmas. The ad breaks new ground for John Lewis with a hint of extraterrestrial romance, and as usual brings us an acoustic cover of a pop classic (80s’ New Romantic weepie “Together In Electric Dreams”). How did audiences rate it?

Sadly, Unexpected Guest only manages a 3.1-Star score. By the standards of all the ads on the platform, that’s not bad. But it’s John Lewis’ lowest Star rating since – you guessed it – Man In The Moon. Once again, a trip into space has meant a somewhat earthbound response.

The Star Rating is based on emotional response to ads – it predicts the potential each ad has for long-term brand growth. 3-Stars is good, but we’ve already seen other Christmas ads this year which perform better, like the work from Boots and M&S. Looking at the emotional response in more detail lets us see where John Lewis has gone wrong.

The short version: the story – like Skye’s ship – didn’t land properly.

John Lewis ads work best when the storytelling is strong. Each ad has an emotional journey – the second by second shifts in emotion viewers feel as they watch. Here’s the one for Excitable Edgar. That light green wave is Happiness, which quickly rises then falls as Edgar becomes an outcast, to be replaced with the blue of Sadness. As Edgar redeems himself, Happiness surges back and Sadness fades.

Excitable Edgar FaceTrace

This pattern of creating then resolving sadness is what John Lewis do so well. Their ads have a classic story structure – introduce a problem, show its bad consequences, resolve it. And that resolution kicks the ad into emotional overdrive and leaves the viewer loving it.

Now look at the journey for 2021’s Unexpected Guest.

Unexpected Guest FaceTrace

There’s a slow build of happiness, then it hits a plateau, not much negative emotion, no real sadness, and no peak of happiness near the end. The story is literally flat. It’s not boring – the intensity of emotion is quite high – but it’s not at all dynamic.

This may seem odd, as the acting from the young leads is excellent and the ingredients for drama are all there. It’s an ad with great individual scenes and a lot happening. It’s possible that the story is just too far out – but aliens are no weirder than dragons. If you believe Twitter trolls, the ad is too ‘woke’ – but 2016’s Buster The Boxer starred a Black family and got a strong 4-Star response.

What seems more likely is simply that the new ad tries to do too much in too short a time. It’s telling three stories at once – alien lands on earth and has to hide then leave; boy and alien fall in love; alien learns about Christmas. None of them get the space they need to really develop – so none of the emotional beats create much response. When the alient leaves, it should be a big moment – but there’s no audience sadness, which suggests the bond between Skye and Nathan just hasn’t grabbed viewers.

It’s a different Christmas ad landscape now than it was 10 years ago when the John Lewis ad became a seasonal fixture. We’ve had Brexit, a pandemic, and the unstoppable rise of online shopping. While it would be foolish to count John Lewis out, the Christmas ads which people like best right now tend to be more fun than moving – like Amazon’s all-dancing parcels, or Aldi’s Kevin The Carrot, who gets more popular each year. Like Skye’s damaged spaceship, the John Lewis formula is in need of repairs.

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