Christmas is big business. Festive TV commercials and seasonal ads from major brands have gained remarkable popularity, turning boring product ads into stories we have come to enjoy and even look forward to.
For many, tuning in to the latest John Lewis advert has become a tradition that marks the start of Christmas, like choosing a tree or putting up the lights.
It all changed when John Lewis (and their advertising agency, Adam & Eve) moved into storytelling. Instead of a product-orientated display, it was an invitation to sit comfortably whilst being shown how people feel when you give a gift.
M&S, though, have entered the fray, bearing blow torches, shredders and baseball bats. Their offering this year is a direct challenge, not only to John Lewis, but even to Christmas and storytelling itself. It’s a battle of the heavyweights – M&S in the red corner, John Lewis in the blue.
What do their ads tell us about Christmas and what it’s for. Most importantly, in the battle of the Christmas ads, who will win?
In the red corner: M&S – Let your traditions GO!
The M&S Christmas ad 2023 for their clothing and home department starts with visible exasperation. Making a cotton bud snowman is a chore. There’s an eye roll and sigh at the thought of decorating the tree. Christmas is overwhelming. There is just so much to do. Is it really worth making a snowman out of glue and cotton wool?
The ad quickly cuts to Sophie Ellis-Bextor doing arts and crafts… before she takes a flamethrower to Christmas. We see Christmas cards with the word Noel being torched. (I’m pretty sure they’re referring to the French word for Christmas, rather than aiming a death threat at Noel Edmunds, but given the destructive mood of the ad I can’t be 100% sure.)
What is the meaning of this spontaneous arson? We’re being told that Christmas is full of onerous tasks (like connecting with people, catching them up on your news and hearing from loved ones near and far). Sounds like hassle. It’s got to go.
Next on the hit list are the board games. You know, those warm centres of festive fun, connecting young and old. They are upturned, like Jesus flipping the tables of the money changers, but instead of religious hypocrisy being trashed, it’s family bonds!
At the end, Christmas crowns are thrown into the shredder and the glitter showers down in what’s meant to be a dazzling festive finale. But think about it: what is glitter? Fragmentary, tiny, shimmering glitz. No substance. Everything atomised, but at least it dazzles.
And that, if you ask me, is what the M&S ad does to Christmas. It deconstructs the whole thing until all that’s left is glitter. No traditions. No connections. Not even any relationships. And the slogan at the end says it all: ‘This Christmas: do only what you love!’
It’s the incarnation of ‘you do you’ as a Christmas sentiment. Doing only what you love is the death of Christmas. And it’s the death of society too. As we fragment and withdraw into our own conception of life and its goals, we lose the sense of tradition but, more importantly, we lose the sense that we live for others. For their desires.
If Jesus followed the M&S slogan, we wouldn’t have Christmas at all. He’d have shouted, ‘You do you!” from heaven as we enslave ourselves in sin and stupidity. Thank God he didn’t follow such a selfish, individualistic philosophy.
So, how about John Lewis? How does our other posh retailer fare this Christmas?
In the blue corner: John Lewis – Let your traditions GROW!
The John Lewis Christmas ad 2023 is a mashup of ET and Little Shop of Horrors. It’s the opposite of the M&S Christmas ad which encouraged viewers to ‘let traditions go’. John Lewis says, essentially, ‘let your traditions grow’.
It starts with a boy, a box and a promise — a seed that claims to grow into the perfect Christmas tree. Against all expectations it fast grows into a mischievous Venus flytrap.
The Venus flytrap seems like an intruder into Christmas. It gets exiled from the family and yet, by the end, that intruder becomes the centrepiece of Christmas itself. As strange as this may sound, the John Lewis story has incredibly strong Christian resonances.
First the ad introduces us to ‘the seed’. That is, perhaps, the first title for the Christmas child , coming in Genesis 3:15. Jesus is the seed who gets rejected and yet becomes the centrepiece of Christmas.
By the end of the film the whole family is united around the stranger. Having rejected him, they then bring their gifts. He takes their paltry offerings inside himself and responds with far more grace than they could have ever imagined or deserved. And he becomes the centrepiece of a new family dynamic.
To repurpose a Christmas prophecy from Psalm 118:22–23: The seed the family rejected has become the centrepiece. The Lord has done this and it is marvellous in our eyes!
If M&S tried to smash all traditions, John Lewis tried to update them. To begin with, the updates seem alien and dangerous. We might shrink back. But Jesus too seemed alien and dangerous to those who revered the ‘tradition of men’ over the ‘word of God’ (Mark 7:7–13). In the end the stranger proves to be the one who truly fits, and those who fit around him find themselves coming home.
They say that if you take the Christ out of Christmas all you’re left with is M&S. That would be a shallow Christmas indeed. The John Lewis ad hints towards the true meaning of Christmas – the outsider exiled for you and me, that we might be drawn in. So, for me, the John Lewis ad is to be preferred.
But if you want to see how I’d do a Christmas film, we at Speak Life have done a charming animation called Christmas Countdown. We’d love you to check it out. Best of all, we’re not selling anything. Instead, we put Jesus at the centre. He’s the heart of it all.
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