John Lewis' Christmas Ad Stars a Sinister Hunger That Goes Unsated
The John Lewis Christmas ad is finally here, and it feels like opening the biggest box in your Advent calendar.
The U.K.-based department store's 2023 effort marks its first from Saatchi & Saatchi after 14 years with adam&eveDDB. We don't know what we were expecting, but it wasn't this. As such, we're not sure how to feel, nor whether it compares favorably to last year's tale, where a man learns to skateboard for love of his foster child.
Maybe that's as it should be. You can't pit stories against each other on a leaderboard. It seems especially egregious to do so with a retailer that's historically offered us a wide range of feels and themes in its yearly yuletide drop.
There isn't even an obnoxious giant feasting table in this! It deserves applause for that alone.
Fans of The Little Shop of Horrors—which began life as a Cold War-era B-movie way back in 1960—might especially prize this year's story, which depicts a Venus fly trap growing out of proportion year-round as its humans grow increasingly wary. The ad also winks back at the 1982 comedy-musical stage version (and the tuneful 1986 film) with a rhythm set to "La Vita è Una Festa!" ("Life Is a Feast.")
We love that anxiety-inducing double entendre.
The plot: a boy finds a "perfect Christmas tree seed" at an outdoor market and takes it home to grow. (It merits noting that while the child is oblivious to the possible threat, his guardians always cede to the plot's momentum, even when their faces suggest they know better.) The music kicks off when he sticks a finger in the baby fly trap's gaping mouth, and it nearly snaps shut on him.
Thereafter, the plant grows larger and larger, with the kid its only ally. It seems to have designs on the family dog ... and while it does cute stuff, like help with holiday decor (by viciously tearing paper), the adults grow nervous in its presence. They finally drag it outside and bring in a proper passive fir tree. (That one won't try to murder you. Rather the reverse: It will slowly die as you sing and exchange gifts—an order of domination no less violent, but one that we prefer.)
The fly trap gazes in through a window at the seasonal celebration, compelling the boy and his family to bring it presents. It gobbles them with gusto, foreshadowing what it could do with its human hosts if they ever got near enough at the right moment.
But all's well that ends well. For it spits out the gifts, perfectly intact, and vomits homemade confetti into the sky. Hooray!
Let's revisit the ad's inspiration, The Little Shop of Horrors. It's a comedic parable about a naive guy, infatuated with a woman who doesn't seem to know he's alive. The exotic people-eating plant he's cultivating stokes his innermost feelings. He eventually becomes an accessory to homicide as the plant's appetites grow.
The shop is nostalgically charming, located in an industrialized neighborhood that's falling apart. Every character has a darkness that's used to advance the comedic stakes, making viewers complicit in what we witness. We're egged on, partly by horror, partly by good-natured cajoling, just as the carnivorous plant guides the protagonist toward unthinkable acts of butchery. The narrative doesn't end well.
Saatchi's work for John Lewis has a similar dynamic. A Venus fly trap is probably the best-known carnivorous plant. The tension of allowing one to grow to epic proportions, unfettered, in your own home, becomes thick enough to cut.
The boy doesn't notice this. He's a kid and the plant is his friend. To keep from hurting his feelings, anxious adults break their own boundaries. They allow themselves to be overridden by his innocence, which keeps them all in a state of high alert. The plant appears aware of this, manipulating the boy's goodwill while cultivating a numbness to its violent nature.
The story seems to end well, but we suspect it goes on beyond the wrap. A moment will arrive when tragedy strikes ... but for now, that's beyond our horizon. (Maybe we'll worry about it after the holidays.)
We want to reiterate that we didn't know what to expect this year from John Lewis, which has triggered all kinds of emotions in us over the past decade-plus. The ones it awakens now mirror something existential and universal, a slow-growing malaise and a longing for relief. It's harder now for more people to make a living; this has been the case since pandemic confinement transferred unthinkable amounts of wealth into the hands of the already-rich.
Meanwhile, our taxes fund wars. A recession continues to spread westward like a fog. And the pandemic's specter tightens its grip as the nights stretch long. In the northern hemisphere, the weather is unseasonably warm, a chilling reminder of our strained ecosystem.
It's a lot. It's a carnivore looming ever larger, one we mostly ignore for our own good reasons. If nobody else is taking definitive action, maybe it's best to do nothing? And it's the holidays. Can't it bloody wait?
Sure. It makes no difference. This year, John Lewis captures what it feels like when an undefinable force invades our personal (and shared) space, growing larger than we expected, faster than we imagined possible. Even as we tremble, we carry on as normal, ignoring the message of our muscles, tensed for their own inevitable and violent consumption.
The plant is part of the family now. Happy holidays!