John Lewis Ad: Analysis

The new John Lewis Ad has been making the rounds. Already the legend is surging through the wifi waves that women across Middle England are crying into their John Lewis handkerchiefs and clicking the YouTube replay button incessantly, barely able to control their politely voluble sobs. Uniting The Sun, The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Telegraph in awed wonder, what is it that this ad has done to cause such a stir?

It shows the life of a white middle-class female from (literally) the cradle to old age – but not the grave, a point to which we’ll come back. The song is a cover of Billy Joel’s ‘Always a Woman to Me’ sung by Fyfe Dangerfield in a hauntingly moving rendition. But it’s a bizarre choice, since it’s about a woman whose character is dubious at best; here are the lyrics used in the advert:

She can kill with a smile
She can wound with her eyes
She can ruin your faith with her casual lies
And she only reveals what she wants you to see
She hides like a child,
But she’s always a woman to me

She can lead you to love
She can take you or leave you
She can ask for the truth
But she’ll never believe you
And she’ll take what you give her, as long as it’s free
Yeah, she steals like a thief
But she’s always a woman to me

She is frequently kind
And she’s suddenly cruel
She can do as she pleases
She’s nobody’s fool
And she can’t be convicted
She’s earned her degree
And the most she will do
Is throw shadows at you
But she’s always a woman to me

They miss out such lines as ‘Then she’ll carelessly cut you/ And laugh while you’re bleedin’. Understandably. Indeed, the literal sense of the lyrics, which is essentially that of a masochistic lover serenading a bitch whose capriciousness is such that he has to reassure us every 30 seconds that she is in fact a woman despite her transgressions of conventional expectations of femininity (passivity, politesse, consistency etc.), is transformed by the context of the mournful melancholia of the voice and the sun-bleached images. And so what was originally an odd meditation on the limits of the feminine in the form of a pop song becomes, uncannily, a pure embodiment of the middle-class woman.

I don’t want to focus too much on the content – the obvious points about the commodification of modern life, how we effectively live even the most personal, private experiences via the medium of large capitalist corporations etc. etc. (just think Fight Club Ikea scene) – but rather on the form. Firstly, those sun-bleached tones: they have about them the aura of a dream, but also of aging and authenticity. Like the enthusiasm for sepia-toned photos, which is effectively a symptom of a society with no sense of history, for whom sepia is the colour of all things past and fulfilling, this bleached feel gives it that blurred-edge lightness of nostalgia. But it is the sun that is crucial: in almost every scene of this 90 seconds, the sun is present, bathing the girl-woman in a constant maternal light. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the sun in this ad becomes coterminous with John Lewis (‘Our lifetime commitment to you’): there for us come youth or old age, in sickness and in health. Like a certain Mr Yahweh used to be back in the day.

Missing Scene

But even this doesn’t explain what has made people cry. On one level, yes, it is the content – those maternal instincts, the growing old, the family and so on. Yes, it is the memory of loved ones present and past and those carefully chosen moments (marriage, university, career, retirement). But I don’t think that this alone can account for the dramatic reaction. I suspect it has more to do with the form: the presentation of an (idealized) human life in its entirety. This is something one almost never sees in real life: normally, we die after our parents and before our children. So to envisage a whole life in a single meaningful unit is moving in itself because we are not accustomed to it. But more importantly: the rhythms of late capitalism are such that the only periods we can think in tend to be either those of fashions or of decades. Beyond that, we are unable clearly to conceptualize a total human life, we are unable to find the narrative tools to recount it. Not that this is that new a phenomenon: Walter Bejamin wrote a long time ago that such was the cause of the demise of the traditional folktale.

In the same essay, he wrote about the disappearance of death from our daily lives. How in the Middle Ages it was almost impossible to be in a room where someone hadn’t died, whereas today it’s impossible to be in one where someone has – death is confined mainly to hospitals and hospices, isolated buildings away from the high street, away from John Lewis. And the advert doesn’t show the woman’s death, which is crucial: John Lewis commits to you when you’re alive because when you’re alive your designer purse is too. But when you’re dead, the John Lewis sun cannot transform your reeking corpse into the beautiful money-trees of Middle England.

Only those cartwheeling granddaughters can do that, when they step forward to chuck dirt on Grandma’s shiny coffin in their brand new JL shoes.

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8 thoughts on “John Lewis Ad: Analysis

  1. Mark Sampson says:

    Appreciate your reflections, particularly about the absence of death from the advert. Would you be able to point me to the particular essay by Walter Benjamin you are referring to?
    I wonder if part of the emotional response in watching the advert is that the effect of the advert is to give great meaning to the key moments/passages of life that the main character goes through – 18th birthday, wedding, family etc. Charles Taylor argues that a key aspect of the modern malaise is that we don’t know how to solemnize these key moments of our lives. Now – the advert manages to do this albeit not in relation to God but in relation to family and place (however Fight Club Ikea scene that place might be!). As such, the advert portrays some semblance of coherent meaning throughout a whole life. However, as you rightly point out, the narrative stops short of death – for how (without the resurrection) can you possibly find any form of meaning in death? So the advert remains a fiction, and perhaps a dangerous one.

  2. Daniel Hartley says:

    Hi Mark, thanks for your response. The Benjamin essay is entitled ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ and can be found in Illuminations. Both Fredric Jameson (e.g. Marxism and Form) and Peter Brooks (Reading for the Plot) provide interesting readings of this essay and compare it with Sartre’s notions of freedom and narration.

    I think you’re spot on with the idea of a ‘semblance of coherent meaning throughout a whole life’ – that’s what I was getting at when I talked about the form being more important than the content. Where does Taylor say that? In Secular Age or Sources of the Self?

    And you’re right, without some communal narrative of an after-death which continues what we’ve known as life, then death can have no ‘meaning’. Though we ought to be careful when we talk about ‘meanings’ of life and death; it strikes me as a very modern question.

    Thanks again.

    1. masampson says:

      Thanks for the info and response. The Taylor observation is from A Secular Age, though i think he brings it up elsewhere as well. Cheers.

  3. John Self says:

    how we effectively live even the most personal, private experiences via the medium of large capitalist corporations

    In fairness, as capitalist corporations go, John Lewis is less capitalist than most, being wholly owned by its employees.

    I hadn’t seen this ad but read about it in the paper, whereupon I had to go YouTubing to find it (what a perfectly contemporary cross-media experience!). I must admit it did make me cry, but in the first three seconds, when the baby is lifted from the cot and comes back down as a crawling one-year-old. This made me cry, or at least choke back tears, because that’s the stage my baby son is at, and it sparked off all sorts of sentimental ‘how quickly they grow! How soon they grow away from us!’ quite typical of parents.

    1. Daniel Hartley says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks for the comment. I think that’s a fairly understandable reaction, given your situation!

      As for John Lewis, I’ve never totally bought this idea of employers ‘owning’ capitalist enterprises as being any better than them not owning them. It refers to its employees as ‘partners’, which is laughable. The workers have an annual salary of around £12,000, plus the annual famous ‘share of profits’ which is usually another £1000. The chairman, on the other hand, is on £350,000 (his salary once increased from year to year by £41,000 – which it would take a normal ‘partner’ three years to earn!) and the directors £210,000. Now, does that really sound to you like the employees benefit from this ‘co-operative’ scheme? What it basically is is a scam to make employees feel they have a say, that they’re valued, and so they increase their rate of productivity for less pay than would be required in other companies.

      Hence why I remain slightly dubious as to the emotional attachments such companies can generate.

  4. bruce says:

    Bravo Daniel… the ad is like a dramatized eulogy of everywoman for those with no time to attend the funeral

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