John Lewis Christmas ad stars children, snowmen and hip-hop pigeons

Covid edition of annual TV advert focuses on kindness rather than gift-giving

Watch the 2020 John Lewis Christmas advert – video

A hedgehog who hopes to fly, a group of hip-hop pigeons and lots of love hearts are the stars of this year’s pandemic edition of the John Lewis Christmas TV adverts.

Over the past decade the retailer’s festive ad has become a big annual TV moment that kicks off the Christmas shopping season.

Its campaigns – from the Hare and the Bear in 2013 to Monty the Penguin in 2014 and last year’s Excitable Edgar the dinosaur – have specialised in heart-warming tales of cute characters to part shoppers from their cash in the department store. And they have been viewed millions of times online.

But 2020 has been a different year. So different, according to the retailer, that they even toyed with abandoning a Christmas campaign altogether.

Instead it has come up with a pandemic theme of kindness and giving to charity, rather than giving presents, but still with appealing animals, children and snowmen.

The two-minute ad, which will be aired online from Friday morning and then debut on TV during ITV’s The Voice on Saturday, is being used to promote a Give a Little Love charity campaign. It aims to raise £5m over Christmas to help 100,000 families through food redistribution charity FareShare and Home-Start and other charities chosen locally by stores.

The retail group said it had deliberately commissioned eight animation artists as a way to provide work for the struggling creative community, which has been crippled by coronavirus restrictions.

They use a mix of live action, filmed with a small team under social distancing measures, and nine animations in a range of styles from claymation and felt to CGI. The advert is backed by A Little Love, an original song by the Brit Award winner Celeste.

A separate 30-second animated ad – promoting a text-to-donate service – was created by students from Kingston University who pitched as part of a nationwide student callout. It will run in the same ad breaks.

Funds will also be raised by John Lewis and its Waitrose supermarket chain match-funding up to £2m of customer donations and profits from the sale of special merchandise, including a heart-shaped umbrella. The group will also donate 1p every time a loyalty scheme member swipes their card.

John Lewis has had a particularly bruising year. The retailer, which is owned by its staff, was under pressure from the switch to online shopping even before the pandemic hit.

A still from the news John Lewis Christmas ad. The partnership aims to raise millions of pounds for the charities FareShare and Home-Start through the campaign.
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A still from the new John Lewis Christmas ad. The partnership aims to raise millions of pounds for the charities FareShare and Home-Start through the campaign. Photograph: John Lewis and Partners/PA

In recent months it has announced thousands of job cuts and the closure of eight of its department stores and at least seven Waitrose supermarkets. The group has cancelled the 2021 annual staff bonus and is preparing for its first ever annual loss.

The group said it had spent less money on producing the ad this year – partly because it is only the second time the advert has promoted both John Lewis and Waitrose – but it is spending about the same on buying TV slots and digital space.

The John Lewis and Waitrose campaign kicks off this weekend at the same time as the adverts for rival retailers Tesco and Sainsbury’s. McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Marks & Spencer, Argos and Morrisons have already started their festive promotions.

This week ITV said that contrary to expectations, spending on TV ads was 6% up in November, and was expected to be higher than 2019 levels, as retailers struggled to connect with home-bound shoppers but try to make up for lost sales in one of the year’s busiest trading periods.

Sarah Vizard, the managing editor of the trade journal Marketing Week, said John Lewis’s 2020 advert was a big change.

“I think it will grab attention as it looks quite different to what else is out there,” she said. “There’s always a risk in changing what you do creatively but there is also a risk in doing the same or similar every year and people had been suggesting the old formula was getting a bit tired.”

James Bailey, the boss of Waitrose, said: “The pandemic has highlighted the growing inequalities across the country, with those who are already most vulnerable disproportionately impacted.

“Each year festive adverts come and go – and some are remembered more vividly than others. But our advertising this year will leave a lasting legacy and, in that way, we hope it won’t just be for Christmas.”

“We did consider whether it was right to produce an ad this year at all. However, FareShare and Home-Start told us how much of a difference this campaign could make.”