Why Buster the Boxer is not a winner

This article was first published by Retail Week on 11th November 2016

John Lewis’ festive ads have become a national institution and yesterday’s reveal of the new #BusterTheBoxer commercial heralded the start of the Christmas retail frenzy. These campaigns have also had a significant influence on the John Lewis brand and business, something you’re reminded of each time you watch somebody from John Lewis in a presentation or on a speaker platform.


The success of the advertising has been achieved largely by sticking to a safe formula. And this approach is present again in the new two-minute film that depicts the triangular relationship between a little girl, Bridget, her family dog Buster, and a trampoline.


So, yes, we have the classic song, this time Randy Crawford’s One Day I’ll Fly Away re-created by English electronica band Vaults, and a cast of cute animals just begging to be turned into a neat range of merchandise.


It’s all very comforting, sweet, and vanilla and is unlikely to ignite the emotions in the way  last year’s ‘The Man on the Moon’ did. This is a deliberate attempt to make people smile after a difficult year, but, given the hype around every John Lewis ad, this one doesn’t quite live up to expectation.


This is the same old safe stuff, calculated not to upset anybody. But then the narrative doesn’t really fit the buoyant tone of the ad. The dog, Buster, appears to steal the girl’s present at the end of the film, conjuring headlines like  “Dog trumps little girl on Christmas Day”. Hardly the stuff of happy endings.


The big add on this time around is the virtual reality experience (building on a toe-in-the-water attempt with 2014’s ‘Monty the Penguin’). Shoppers at John Lewis’ flagship London store can slip on the Oculus Rift headset and experience what it’s like to jump around on the trampoline with the animals in the TV ad.


This is where I’d start to question the basis of the advertising. Has the need to use technology and do something new with VR driven the creativity in the ad? It would certainly explain why we’re faced with a bunch of furry creatures bouncing around on the trampoline. And it’s also a story that seems to be jerry-built around the need to flog themed cuddly toys. Go to the website and you are encouraged to “Shop Buster and friends”. The dog, Sid the Squirrel, Betsy the Badger, and Olivia the Fox can be yours for £12 each.


Beyond the attempt at virtual reality in stores, perhaps the most interesting thing about the campaign is the casting. To continue to be successful and drive growth John Lewis must broaden their demographic appeal and shake off any last remnants of perception that it is a store for the established wealthy middle classes. In my view they do that well here, with a happy family in a comfortable house that’s, nonetheless, a far remove from the sprawling mansions of the Home Counties.


John Lewis successfully uses the ad to get this message across but, at a time when the UK’s Christmas ads provide a showcase of creativity that’s close to our equivalent of the US  SuperBowl, #BusterTheBoxer isn’t an out and out winner.



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