When is an Advert Not an Advert?

December 18, 2022

I have to admit, apart from the odd England games, I don’t really watch TV. Not because of some philosophical objection, I just don’t have the time. Between being the Mayor and spending time with my family, there’s little room left to watch failed politicians eating parts of animals that really shouldn’t be eaten…

However, I did catch this year’s John Lewis advert.  Beamed into homes across the country, it’s an annual cultural event that’s woven itself into the tapestry of modern Christmas traditions. In previous years this 90 second clip is rumoured to have cost north of £1 million to make.  The Blair Witch Project cost around £50k, although it is not quite as heart-warming.

The advert is a simply told story about one middle-aged man’s attempt to connect with his incoming foster child, via the medium of skateboarding. As the advert finishes, a graphic on screen tells us there are over 108,000 children in the UK care system, and that John Lewis is making a long-term commitment to support them. Like most people, I’m left thinking about the challenges those young people will face as they grow up. My thoughts then turn to all the wonderful foster parents who’ll support them on their journey. Strangely, the last thing on my mind at this point is whether I need a new toaster.

So what are John Lewis up to? Have they given up on trying to sell us matching duvet and pillow sets and turned their attention to sorting out society’s problems instead? (Full disclosure: our matching duvet and pillow cases are from John Lewis.) 

They wouldn’t be the first company to make a bold statement in this space. On Black Friday 2011, outdoor clothing company Patagonia famously took out an advert in the New York Times instructing people – “Don’t buy this jacket”.  Going on to explain the environmental costs of clothing production and needless consumption.

For the record I think both Patagonia and John Lewis should be applauded for highlighting important social issues. Sadly, in the world of big global brands, they are the exception, not the rule. This Christmas, adverts will constantly tell us that ‘we’re worth it’ and we should ‘treat ourselves’ to that shiny new thing.

Worse still, marketeers will subliminally remind us that when it comes to family and friends, more money spent = more love shown.  These messages feel even more jarring when you’re struggling to pay for the basics.

This Christmas will be the toughest part of an already tough year for many people. The North East has overtaken London with the highest rate of child poverty in the UK.  In-work poverty contributes to this rise.  Caught in the jaws of a cost-of-living crisis, we are getting squeezed from all angles. With the added pressure of presents to buy, big meals to cook and homes to heat, many of us definitely don’t wish it could be Christmas every day.

At the North of Tyne, we’re doing what we can to address this, including our Child Poverty Prevention Programme.  We’re working with schools to deliver welfare advice to parents at the school gates. Because of this intervention one parent in North Tyneside was able to access a further £414 per month of welfare support that was owed to them.  Other families have had £8,000 and £11,000 in backdated money they didn’t realise they were owed.  That amount of money is life changing when you’re on the knife-edge of poverty, choosing between heating and eating.

But the truth is we can only do so much. We need Government to stop sitting on their hands and step-up with a bold plan to bring down energy bills, pay public sector workers properly and kick start our economy by investing in green jobs. 

For all the good that responsible corporations do, we cannot rely on private sector philanthropy.  The Victorians tried this.  Spoiler alert: it didn’t work!  Eventually we realised the only way to support and nourish our society was through a modern welfare state.  Then, as now, it required working people to come together and organise for fair pay and safe work. 

This Christmas we don’t just need corporate social responsibility, we need government social responsibility.