Executive summary

In a laudable attempt to vary a previously successful formula while maintaining a tone that has become a seasonal pop-culture institution, the production gives up the relatability of a contemporary setting, but gains none of the symbolic gravitas of a mythological one.

Cultural context

The series of adverts, which began in 2007, addressed rich households preferring differentiated consumer goods and tolerant of a high price point, but who retained a discomfort with wealth display. Unlike in the US, the Reagan/Thatcherite ‘greed is good’ mentality never really caught on in the UK, where status-signalling through conspicuous consumption has always been rather hang-dog or tongue-in-cheek. On the contrary, tasteful and well-educated households preferred (and still prefer) to countersignal (see Feltovitch et al. 2002) as a mark of social distinction[1], more often concealing superior quality-of-life goods (electronics, entertainment, exercise equipment, domestic appliances and furniture) behind sober but long-lasting clothing, merely functional cars, and (mostly) unremarkable addresses.

The 90s and early 2000s saw the fulfilment of earlier decades’ promises to increase tertiary education and, with it, general prosperity (see figure below). The result was a demographic that was, on the one hand, too educated to believe that buying themselves consumer goods could make them happy and, and the other, too wealthy to be put off buying them anyway. By a subtle philosophical sleight of hand, the first ‘serious’ JL Christmas advert (2007) resolved the paradox by rejecting materialism while still promoting consumerism, and absolved its middle class audiences’ secret fear that they were as vapidly materialistic as the show-offs they socially disdained, and to remind them that they were a higher class of consumer who were ‘doing it for the right reasons’.

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Vocabulary

The series following 2007 has essentially been a series of guided meditations on humanity’s relationship with inanimate objects and Christmas as a consumer-cultural (rather than religious) phenomenon that is, nevertheless, spiritual and emotional before it is materialistic. They’re highly introspective and aspirational, which underlies their essential formal features: no dialogue, solo vocal music (often quirky covers that foreground the otherwise easily-overlooked meaning of popular hits), and mostly contemporary, idealised domestic settings. The essential attitude was amply expressed in that 2007 ad, in which a pile of apparently random goods is assembled in the foreground, and casts a changing silhouette on the back wall which finally resolves itself into a person walking a dog. It’s straight out of Plato’s Republic (the Allegory of the Cave): consumer goods are produced in ideal forms that are only given actual existence in the world by fitting together as part of a human life.

Themes and variations

The early adverts explored a number of edifying answers to the question ‘If I’m so enlightened a consumer (which I am), then why do I still need to buy new things every year?’. 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 all focused on live-action, human settings that were entirely relatable, and which all urged the compatibility of a consumerist Christmas with a satisfying social, even spiritual, occasion. The difficulty of matching person with gift pays off when the match is perfect (2008); a pleasure in nice things for their own sake is innate and innocent (2009); the lengths we got to fitting Christmas preparation into real life proves its importance in practice (2010); if what we look forward to so impatiently is the giving, not the receiving, then a kind of ‘Christmas fever’ which puts real life in the shade by contrast wouldn’t be anything to disparage (2011).

2012 saw the first departure from strict realism (a snowman goes on quite an onerous series of adventures to get a gift, but the giving of it quite literally completes the recipient, so it’s worth it). 2013 completely left reality completely with a story of animated, anthropomorphic animals whose gift giving overturns settled habit and yields new, and better, experiences. 2014 chose to emphasise the role of toys (and, by extension, objects in general) as transitional objects we use to help us learn to relate to the world. 2015 depicted the breaking down of social isolation by shared tradition. Noticeably, these post-2011 iterations have all partaken of the Forsterian exhortation to ‘only connect’, while resting on and continuing the earlier equations of loving with giving and thoughtfulness with value. In other words, the start of the series established what Christmas could do for the consumer, while these later examples asked rather what consumers could do for Christmas, the shift of focus from individual to community accompanying a Recession-led nostalgia for societal participation over unbridled individualism. 2016 and 2017 built on the magic-realism of 2015 to tell similar stories in similarly idealised contemporary domestic settings, focusing particularly on differences in individual experience of a festival we also experience collectively; a satisfying philosophical synthesis of the individualistic and socialistic episodes preceding them. 2018, in a way, reprised 2008, 2012 and 2013 in emphasising the power of a well-chosen gift to change life for the better and usher in all they could potentially become, though dialled up to the scale of national treasure Elton John.

2019: loses the relatability of a contemporary setting but has gained none of the symbolic gravitas of a mythological one.

The unwritten deal with fantastical settings is that in exchange for suspending their disbelief, the viewer will be shown a universal truth in such a way that couldn’t have been done in a realistic setting. 2019 breaks this rule because the story is only a reprise of 2013 and 2015’s ‘outsider welcomed’ trope, so we know already that the message can be delivered in a contemporary setting, and that doing so makes the action relatable. The trade-off should be that this deviation from realism draws the viewer to special consideration of the nature of that deviation, and how its explanation aligns with the truths at the heart of the story that hold outside the setting, as well as within it.

Far from being a license to leave logic at the door, a fantasy setting forces an intensely logical defence of the setting in its own terms. The setting mustn’t raise a question that the story can’t answer, and in a way that the divergence from reality makes its point.

In earlier adverts, the fantastic elements conform to this rule. In 2012, the point of the snowman’s journey was the strength of the motivation to give a present that was meet an evident need. The setting transgresses against the reality that snowmen can’t move; the story answers that the impulse is so strong that even things that can’t walk somehow manage it. In 2014 and 2017, the strength of the child’s imagination is what makes the impossible possible, and that is the point of the story. In 2013, we know that animals don’t celebrate Christmas, and that bears hibernate. The story hinges on Christmas being so transcendentally wonderful that even animals want to enjoy it, including by breaking hibernation with an alarm clock.

Making it harder to imagine oneself into the setting—as is the case with 2019’s nondescriptly Teutonic medieval fantasy land plus dragon—lays the expectation of a strongly-delivered universal truth, with no questions the story can’t answer. This isn’t delivered, however. Certainly, each montage frames the question ‘why is this dragon living here?’ ever more strongly; it’s clear the whole experience is traumatic for him and his fellow villagers, and his friendship with the human protagonist seems to boil down to enforced conformity for his own good. The answer given, however, has none of the emotional power of previous years. The denouement, rather than commenting on the spiritually transformative potential of gifts that are nonetheless material, is far more parochial, and far less optimistic. The solution, by its very nature, works only on Christmas day, and isn’t, by anyone’s assessment, sufficient to compensate for 364 days of resentment and humiliation on the part of villagers and dragon, respectively.

As result, the tone is misjudged for a UK viewership by now accustomed to expect a post-religious morality tale rehearsing the power of gift-giving—and therefore consumption—as lastingly altruistic as a permanent lifestyle choice, rather than transactionally generous on Christmas day.  Worse than a complete break from the series would have been, the re-use of the same stylistic vocabulary of silence, extended solo voice, and basic narrative opens the hood on those elements as manipulative cosmetics, rather than organic compliments to a powerful central message. The result is a devaluation of the brand today, and a necessarily higher-risk advertisement tomorrow, where the choice is to relinquish a status hard-won as a cultural institution, or to innovate more completely.


[1] Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Richard Nice (trans.), Routledge, 1984, is the best book I know on this subject.


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