A top ad exec explains why the John Lewis Christmas adverts actually make us cry

Ready for the next one?

John Lewis Christmas advert
(Image credit: John Lewis)

'Tis officially the season, thanks to Mariah Carey quite literally thawing herself out on Instagram. With Halloween behind us, many are preparing for the festive season ahead - after all, people who put up their Christmas decorations early are the happiest.

And while Mariah is usually a good bookmark for when we can start watching Love Actually, there's something else that signifies all things festive - the John Lewis Christmas advert. Since 2011, the retailer has been making us laugh, cry and occasionally scratch our heads (we're looking at you, Moon Man) with their yearly offering. And while we're still waiting for the John Lewis Christmas 2023 advert, we're all looking forward to seeing what they've come up with this year.

But what's the magic formula for a perfect festive advert? Victoria Fell spoke to Vicki Holgate, chief strategy officer at FCB Inferno (the agency behind Sport England's This Girl Can campaign) to ask her why John Lewis is so successful with its campaigns.

How do you go about making a great ad?

"The first step is to understand your audience and their hopes, dreams and goals in life. People are driven by their goals, and once you understand those, you can work out what the product can credibly offer to help achieve them."

How do you avoid a Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad disaster?

"It is easy to get blinkered if you persuade yourself that what you are doing is right and you don’t allow any questioning. Often people are too scared to raise their hand to challenge a particular direction, and once money has been spent it is hard to pull the plug. Working in diverse teams can really help here because it naturally brings different points of view which acts as a checking mechanism."

Do you think there is a "magic formula" for John Lewis Christmas ads?

"There are lots of layers to people's needs with regards to adverts, and this is particularly true at Christmas time. The pressures of gifting, bringing people together, coming home and family relationships, as well as the nation's mood, come into play. It sounds simple, but it is based on the work of a number of scientists, anthropologists, psychologists and economists."

What can bloggers and social media influencers learn from advertisers about creating a strong personal brand?

"Definitely the art of understanding what is driving that audience. Conversely, brands can learn a huge amount from the honesty and authenticity that bloggers and influencers exude."

Why do John Lewis adverts make us cry?

"It’s well known that advertising that capture people's imaginations and triggers emotions is more likely to be successful, and, as previously mentioned, emotions are heightened during the Christmas period. John Lewis realised both of these things, so they changed the nature of their advertising to specifically target this."

Is the mini feature film advert formula here to stay?

"Christmas has become the UK equivalent of the Superbowl. The size of the audience and the anticipation of the advertising has become a phenomenon, but this kind of build-up only works if that ad is of the highest quality. It is a perfect value exchange – the ad is selling something, but also brings joy into the lives of the people it is selling to. Get it right and ads will bring joy to both your customers and shareholders."

For extra #festivefeels, we've rounded up some of our favourite John Lewis Christmas adverts - enjoy!

The Long Wait - 2011

Vicki's favourite, this was the first time John Lewis used its Christmas ad to tell a full story. If that wasn't enough of a gamble, the ad doesn't even explicitly feature their products AND the whole thing was soundtracked by a Smiths song, a band not traditionally known for being uplifting. Despite all of this, it just works.

 Monty the Penguin - 2014

We simply had to include this gorgeous depiction of a little boy and his favourite toy. A combination of picturesque winter scenes, haunting music and unbelievable CGI makes this one of the strongest John Lewis ads to date.

Buster the Boxer - 2016

Dogs are great, trampolines are great - but combined? They're seriously, seriously great. For pure Christmas joy and escapism, John Lewis's 2016 advert cannot be beaten.

Edgar the Excitable Dragon - 2019

The advert follows Edgar, a young dragon who loves Christmas so much that he can't stop breathing fire when he sees festivities.

Be right back - off to watch John Lewis adverts on repeat.

Jenny Proudfoot
Features Editor

Jenny Proudfoot is an award-winning journalist, specialising in lifestyle, culture, entertainment, international development and politics. She has worked at Marie Claire UK for seven years, rising from intern to Features Editor and is now the most published Marie Claire writer of all time. She was made a 30 under 30 award-winner last year and named a rising star in journalism by the Professional Publishers Association.

With contributions from