Cinema is redefining its boundaries. Whereas in the past cinema was clearly identifiable as the big, silver screen, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to define what cinema actually is. Rather than a clear, physical divide between different media platforms as seen in the past (the movie theatre as opposed to the box telly), present day cinema has arguably become a medium that transcends the movie theatre to reach elsewhere. If a film premieres on Netflix, is it still cinema? Television is increasingly hailed as becoming more cinematic; we are in a ‘golden age’ of TV after all. Rather than the flat and static studio television of the past, the aesthetically dense imagery, complex plots and, above all, rich cinematography, are all key characteristics of defining media as ‘cinematic’. Programmes such as Game of Thrones, Hannibal, and Daredevil come to mind.
One developing form of cinema is that of the increasingly popular film-like Christmas adverts, pioneered by John Lewis. The goal of these may be strictly commercial, arguably not dissimilar to that of the film industry, but that doesn’t take away from the sheer beauty and charm of them. These aren’t just adverts; they are short films, equal to any other two minute short available online. While the visuals are often stunning, the narratives of these adverts are what make or break them. Dr Alison Peirse, a lecturer in the department of Theatre, Film and Television at York, described John Lewis adverts in particular as following a Greek archetype of storytelling – crucially, that they try to induce emotion in the spectator and ultimately make them cry.
John Lewis’ Christmas 2011 offering The Long Wait features a young boy impatiently waiting for Christmas, presumably eager for his presents, when the boy unexpectedly races past the stack of neatly wrapped presents to take his so-bad-it’s-cute present to his parents. It tugs at the heart strings in an innovative and humorous way that Christmas adverts hadn’t in the past; 2010’s A Tribute to Givers consisted of a series of vignettes portraying preparations for Christmas and 2009’s Sweet Child o’ Mine the opening of gifts.
Christmas adverts have evolved to sell the audience an image of the perfect Christmas, rather than any individual product in particular; they paint a picture of what society deems a ‘correct’ Christmas to be. Take The Long Wait, or perhaps John Lewis’ 2014 offering Monty the Penguin or even this year’s Sainsbury’s advert The Greatest Gift. They all feature a nuclear family preparing for Christmas and receiving or giving gifts, with a warm colour palette and lighting giving a homely feel. The brand communicates the idea that in order to achieve this ‘ideal’ Christmas the audience must purchase all their gifts and furnishings from John Lewis, or that the flawless Christmas dinner is only available from Sainsbury’s.
So great is the grasp they now hold on popular culture that Christmas adverts have become an institution of a British Christmas. Has the countdown to Christmas truly begun until the John Lewis Christmas advert has been aired? Rather than simply being advertisements, they have taken on the status of becoming newsworthy in themselves, with outlets ranging from The Telegraph to the BBC covering their release and ranking them against one another, so as to declare which brand has won the battle for the best Christmas advert each year. Audiences come to appreciate the adverts as they are – little snippets of cinema. Again, rather than simply trying to create an advert, the brands (and advertising agencies) are largely just trying to make a good short film that will be well-received by the public, because the better the reception an advert gets, the more the brand benefits from association and therefore sales.
John Lewis has also proven that these adverts can be further monetised. Since 2013, John Lewis have produced merchandise from soft toy penguins to man-on-the-moon pyjamas and this year is no exception. This does have to be somewhat expected due to the nature of our capitalist Christmas, designed to get the public to empty their pockets. In the spirit of Christmas however, the brands are sharing out the good will to all men and women, with some funds from each of this year’s John Lewis and Sainsbury’s campaigns going to The Wildlife Trust and Great Ormond Street Hospital respectively.
Some have pointed out the hypocrisy of Christmas ad campaigns: the campaign Stop Funding Hate has released a video stating that the ‘beautiful stories’ of ‘peace, love, and understanding’, of ‘looking out for others’ (Mog’s Christmas Calamity, Sainsbury’s 2015), ‘even if they are distant strangers’ (Man on the Moon, John Lewis 2015), ‘even if we’ve been told they’re our enemy’ (Christmas is for Sharing, Sainsbury’s 2014), are invalidated by the brands’ advertising in tabloids which publish ‘hate’ about migrants. This goes against the very message of goodwill to all that Christmas adverts peddle. These adverts have also proven controversial in the past. Monty the Penguin also has an air of misogyny to it: the male penguin is gifted a female penguin as a present. Parodies have even been made. This year, The Guardian compared the tale of Buster the Boxer, a dog who steals the thunder from a little girl who has been practising to bounce on her long awaited trampoline, to that of Donald Trump stealing the presidency from Hillary Clinton’s grasp.
Some adverts want to invoke emotion in the audience, often (particularly in John Lewis’ case) through the use of a melancholy song, such as in Man on the Moon, Christmas is for Sharing and John Lewis’ 2012 advert The Journey. Some depict an arduous journey, often for love: The Journey, Monty the Penguin and Aldi’s 2016 Kevin the Carrot come to mind. Some adverts however, are happy and joyful with Buster the Boxer, The Greatest Gift, and this year’s M&S romp of an adventurous Mrs Claus being examples. Emotional adverts may tug at the heartstrings, but maybe in the end fun is for the best: according to The Standard, viewers have declared this year’s M&S ad to be an offering “a hundred times better than John Lewis”. M