Man on the Moon: How John Lewis won our hearts, minds… and money

Man on the Moon, the new John Lewis Christmas advert, may have made you cry sentimental tears. It may have annoyed you with its scientific inaccuracies. It may have irritated you because there is very little in it that you can actually buy – the telescope the man receives isn’t even available for purchase –  and it appears to have little to do with a department store. It may even have made you angry by using apparent concern for lonely elderly folk at Christmas as a marketing ploy. Whatever it made you feel, it is unlikely to have escaped your attention.

John Lewis have pulled off the same trick as Coca Cola and the unveiling of the Fenwick window display in Newcastle; their advert has become synonymous with the start of the Christmas season. Once you have seen one of these things, in your mind, it is Christmastime. And once the annual festival of consumerism is underway, there is an impetus to buy presents for your family and friends.

Coca Cola have been featuring Santa Claus in their adverts since the 1920s and they argue that they have helped to shape his image.

The Coca Cola trucks were launched in 1995. They bring the message that Coca Cola is almost literally delivering Christmas, and the appearances of the enchanting trucks across the world at Christmastime helps to reinforce this message.

John Lewis have achieved synonymity with Christmas in just a few years. This year’s advert, Man on the Moon, took months to make and reportedly cost around seven million pounds in filming costs and advertising space. That is a lot of investment for an advert that does not appear to be advertising much in the way of actual products. The connection between the Coca Cola advert and sales is even more elusive. People don’t buy Coca Cola for Christmas. People generally don’t even want cold, fizzy drinks in Winter. These adverts are not directly selling products; they are meta-adverts for Christmas itself. They are launching Christmas, and providing an impetus to start Christmas shopping. They deliberately avoid crass scenes of the excesses of consumerism that characterise most Christmas adverts, yet in avoiding this, they are a far more effective advert for consumerism, and all companies trying to get us to buy presents are likely to benefit from their emotional and magical launch of Christmas.

John Lewis are not likely to be acting entirely out of altruism, however. Their adverts are not primarily designed to make us hop straight into town to buy a telescope from John Lewis. Although that kind of strategy might make them quite a bit of money in the short-term, they seem to have a longer-term game plan in mind, based on forging a strong emotional connection with the brand and making it synonymous with Christmas.

Typically, the John Lewis Christmas adverts of the past few years have ignited our evolved desires to give gifts to family, partners and friends in order to get us shopping. In recent years, we have seen a little boy counting down the days to Christmas so that he can give his parents a present, a snowman on a mission to acquire a hat, scarf and gloves for his cold beloved, a sleepy bear who usually hibernates through Christmas receiving his first Christmas present from his friend the hare (an alarm clock, to wake him just in time for the unwrapping of presents), and a little boy who finds a girlfriend for his best friend, Monty the penguin.

John Lewis Christmas 2014 advert – Monty the Penguin

This emphasis on family, partners and friends reflects the fact that gift-giving is typically an extension of three evolutionary mechanisms: kin selection, sexual selection and reciprocal altruism. Gift-giving amongst our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have predominantly taken the form of food-sharing. We evolved the tendency to share with family members because they share copies of our genes; therefore helping them helps us to pass on more copies of our genes (this is kin selection). Children are particularly heavily featured in John Lewis adverts. We give most to our children because they are our reproductive future. Although we share the same proportion of genes with our parents as with our offspring (approximately 50 per cent) we invest more in children because they have greater reproductive potential and can pass on our genes. Sharing with potential partners would indicate the ability and willingness to invest by men and commitment from both sexes. Sharing with current partners is investment in shared reproductive goals. These tendencies have evolved as a result of sexual selection to help us acquire and retain mates. Sharing with friends when food was plentiful was also beneficial, because it made it likely that they would return the favour (reciprocal altruism). In our modern consumerist society, evolved tendencies to share with family, partners and friends are exploited for profit, and that is why Christmas adverts typically evoke the desire to give gifts to these people; this is precisely what encourages you to start shopping.

John Lewis adverts evoke these emotional bonds and in doing so, not only encourage you to start shopping, but to associate their brand with these evolved desires to give things to the people we love. They do this expertly, playing on nostalgia, sentimentalism and magic, and pairing these feel-good visual stories with familiar emotional songs, slowed down and accompanied by soft piano notes. The central message is about the joy of giving to those we love – and they make us want to experience that joy.

Although this year’s advert faithfully follows the winning formula of the past few years in setting an emotional visual story about the joy of giving to piano music, there is also a departure from that formula; the gift recipient is a stranger. Looking through her telescope, the little girl at the centre of the story spies a forlorn-looking old man sitting alone on a bench, far, far away on the moon. Unable to attract his attention, she somehow manages to send him a present; the bright, gift-wrapped package festooned with colourful balloons arrives on the grey surface of the moon. The man’s aged face, as creviced as the surface of the moon itself,  lights up with joy, and he uses the telescope that he finds inside to see the little girl looking back up at him, tears in his eyes. This man could be your grandfather, your father, even you.

The company behind the advert, adam&eveDDB, have played two master-strokes here. John Lewis is portrayed as a company in touch with and concerned about a current social issue, the alienation and loneliness of older people in a society where kin bonds have been fragmented by geographical dispersion, an individualistic culture, and the fast pace of life and cultural change. This advert encourages us to associate John Lewis with empathy and morality, and we are more likely to trust a company that appears to care. There is an implicit message here too: shopping at John Lewis means that we share those attributes and this makes us feel better about ourselves.

The second master-stroke is the expansion of the gift-giving message beyond immediate friends and family. The suggestion in the advert is that in being solely focussed on our friends and family at Christmas (as the rest of the girl’s family appear to be), we are forgetting about other people who are lonely and sad, and perhaps we should spend some time (and money) on those people too. Expect to see more of this message as other advertisers follow suit in their attempts to expand the Christmas market.

Advertising is not always so effective. This week I have seen an advert trying to sell a car based on its ability to call the emergency services if you have an accident. Whilst this does play on our survival instincts, associating a new car with the thought of a serious crash is possibly not the best strategy. I saw another advert which tried to sell tea on the basis that it is not posh coffee, perhaps not the most effective strategy for expanding your customer base.

The John Lewis advert is brilliant in its effective use of psychological principles. Whether this has been done consciously or not I don’t know. Marketing companies have frequently drawn on psychology to sell products, but their approaches have often been misguided. When the advertising industry was taking off in the 1950s and 60s, a lot of students of Freud and Adler went to the US to work in advertising. This is parodied in the first episode of Man Men, where a Freudian psychologist suggests marketing Lucky Strike cigarettes by appealing to the idea that people have a death wish. This suggestion is dismissed. Advertising genius Don Draper retorts: “Freud you say. What agency is he with?”.

Although advertising may have moved on from taking Freud seriously some time ago, in his book Spent, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues that business and marketing degrees still rely on outdated models of human consumer behaviour such as Maslow’s hierarchy. Maslow’s hierarchy views ‘lower level’ needs such as survival as taking priority, and needing to be satisfied before any other needs. Yet this is not always what happens in reality. Miller points out that male elephant seals will starve to death to defend their harems. Likewise, male humans will take survival risks to secure reproductive success. This is because our motivation to reproduce is stronger than our motivation to survive – survival in itself does not help us to pass on our genes. From a Darwinian perspective, this is obvious, and advertisers who apply these principles of evolutionary psychology are likely to design far more effective adverts – that don’t rely on a car’s ability to call the emergency services as the key selling point.

Brilliant as the John Lewis advert is, the ultimate goal is likely to be profit. However, Man on the Moon does deliver an important message. The advert was made with input from the charity Age UK to raise awareness of the plight of older people alone at Christmas. Age UK report that many old people living alone have not spoken to friends, family or neighbours in over a month. Stop for a minute and just try to imagine what that must be like. For a social species such as humans, loneliness is a form of psychological torture and it is associated with significant psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, unhappiness and pessimism. Loneliness is something that many of us fear, and many of us will eventually have to face ourselves. You don’t have to shop at John Lewis, but you can still act on the message of Man on the Moon and do what you can to eliminate loneliness in old age.

One day in the not too distant future, you might be sitting on that bench.

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