Having a parent working in retail has had one definite effect: up until recently, TV advertisements held little allure for me. No matter how many big-name celebs were wheeled out, or how many numbers flashed across the screen; I was always left distinctly unmoved. I was around nine or ten when the lid was lifted off the Pandora’s box of advertiser’s tricks. My mum starred in an advert with a B-list actor. She came home after several days shooting with tales of the pre-prepped “candid” customers and bystanders who appeared onscreen; of the scripted “spontaneous” jokes, and the extremely hefty salary the B-lister had commanded.
Since then my reaction to advertising has been conflicted, to say the least. On the one hand, I’m a complete sucker for emotional adverts. Take, for example, the Wrigley’s chewing gum ad, which recently became an Internet phenomenon. As a romantic, it’s hard not to warm to a story about two childhood sweethearts – even if all the milestones in their relationship are represented by stick figure drawings on crumples chewing gum wrappers. At the end of the ad, the boy asks the girl to marry him, and your heart swells when she says ‘yes’ (things could have gotten sticky…) The trouble is that, even as I catch myself smiling at an advert like Wrigley’s, I understand that everything possible has been done to induce my soppy grin.
Advertisers take the old adage ‘bring out the violins’ to a whole new level. The music is chosen to quite literally play on your heartstrings. Every aesthetic element possible is manipulated to get us, the viewer, to experience an endorphin kick, and then associate it with the product that is being –however subtly – old. For example, I now get a warm, fuzzy feeling every time I think about car insurance. Of course, this could have something to do with my toy meerkat, Sergei, currently sat on my lap (a present I’d been lusting after for over a year) (I’m 21 years old).
Whether cooing over minty fresh courtships or meerkats sporting burgundy dressing gowns and inexplicable Russian accents, the effect is the exact same.
The standing ovation for the best national heartstring symphony is, of course, the John Lewis Christmas ad. From Monty the Penguin, to the kid who loves giving presents, to this years man in the moon, every year John Lewis fills us with a warm, fuzzy feeling. The ads are now engrained into British culture, as traditional as mince pies, as predictable as the showing of It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve.
The John Lewis ads are a master-class in obtaining national treasure status. The songs are chosen for their place in British cultural heritage – for example, Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ – and are usually sung by up-and-coming crooners like Tom Odell. The use of simple piano accompaniment is intended to evoke memories of childhood piano lessons. The visuals and story telling deliberately shy away from “obviously” featuring any John Lewis products, instead focusing on universal messages and childhood messages. It’s something Sainsbury’s in particular have picked up on; their new Christmas ad is based on Judith Kerr’s children’s books about Mog the cat.
With all this calculation that takes place, are the Sainsbury’s and John Lewis ads simple propaganda? Perhaps. But this year’s John Lewis advert seems to mark a change. The company has harnessed its position within the British psyche in order to promote a charity, Age UK, and an affecting message about small acts of kindness at Christmas towards those most vulnerable. Sainsbury’s advert similarly promotes child literacy. One could view these endorsements with a cynical eye. However, and maybe it’s the romantic in me, but whilst these adverts may have initially been calculated to promote peace and goodwill, it seems that these adverts, once manufactured to be “genuine”, are now truly the real thing.