'Pop Percy in a blanket and put him to bed' - PRWeek Christmas panel on John Lewis, M&S and Boots

The most wonderful time of the year has come a little early in 2021, as several major retailers launch their Christmas campaigns before Guy has even been lit - and, more notably, during Diwali. PRWeek's Christmas panel scrutinises the first batch.

Clockwise from top left: Kim Allain, Nick Woods, Rachel O'Malley, Greg Double, Janelle Feliciano, Jo Chappel and Charlie Coney, with Sasha Marks (centre)
Clockwise from top left: Kim Allain, Nick Woods, Rachel O'Malley, Greg Double, Janelle Feliciano, Jo Chappel and Charlie Coney, with Sasha Marks (centre)

John Lewis & Partners, 'Unexpected guest'

Splitting off from Waitrose, John Lewis & Partners is delivering joy this year, with the tale of an unlikely friendship between a young boy called Nathan and space traveller Skye.

If an alien came down to Earth at Christmas time, what would they think of our festive traditions? Would they gawp perplexed at carol singers and wonder why we create people out of snow? As the world gets more mesmerised by the potential of space, this thought is at the centre of John Lewis & Partners' Christmas campaign.

The soundtrack is a cover of Phil Oakey and Giorgio Moroder’s Together in Electric Dreams, sung by Lola Young, a 20-year-old singer-songwriter from south London. John Lewis enlisted Smuggler director Mark Molloy to lend his expertise on its Christmas ad. Created in partnership with John Lewis' long-term ad agency, Adam & Eve/DDB, the ad responds to the customer insight that people want joy this year, after a disappointing festive season in 2020.

Sasha Marks, board director, Brazen

Every. Damn. Time.

It’s 9.55am on a frosty Thursday, November morning and I’ve already shed a tear, which can only mean one thing – the John Lewis Christmas ad has landed. Coming at us a week early is a gift in itself after another pretty shit year and reflects the mood of the nation with shoppers wanting to get into the spirit and celebrate earlier than ever.

It’s safe to say the ad, unlike last year’s, does not disappoint. From a heartwarming perspective, it has all the right ingredients and hits all the right buttons. Cute characters and storyline, a cracking cover as the soundtrack and a charitable initiative.

But there’s also a part of me that thinks ‘same old’ and, in contrast to its title, it’s really very expected, isn’t it? Although it does nicely tap into that very universal truth of that guest who pops in unannounced and without invitation.

And with profits plummeting, this year probably wasn’t one for going left-field.

Much like its products and service, you can always count on John Lewis to deliver when it comes to Christmas, giving the good people what they want, exactly when they need it.

Kim Allain, creative lead, MSL UK

Normally I am a bit bah humbug about Christmas celebrations following on so soon from Halloween, but considering the misery that last year’s COVID Christmas was, I have my Santa hat on and am welcoming all the snow, sentiment and stuffing that this year’s early Christmas ads have to offer.

Ok. I’m saying it and getting it out of the way – it’s lovely to see a black lead and a black family in this campaign. Yes, there were the usual trolls that got mad on socials, but they can stay under the bridge this Christmas. The more we normalise it, the more we won’t have to even mention it.

Now on to the beauty that was the creative. It really warmed my socks to see our 'alien' character learn and experience our Christmas traditions for the first time. I almost felt like I was the alien. After such a dreary and restricted Christmas last year, I felt goosebumps seeing Nathan in his light-up jumper and thinking about how it’s been way too long since being able to wear my own shabby Christmas jumper into the office. The Christmas films, the feasts, the family, the feels. All the Fs came to mind because F’ing hell – it really got me into the Christmas spirit.

And this is why it’s brilliant – this campaign tapped into public sentiment that we really needed the early Christmas cheer and this time will almost feel warmly like our first.

Charlie Coney, creative strategy officer, UK and EMEA, Ogilvy PR

It seems the Christmas ad is so culturally ingrained they no longer need to sell products, drive people to store or do much more than imbue people with two minutes of cozy festive fuzziness.

That certainly seems to be the point of the John Lewis ad, which is about as traditional as you can get – carefully crafted to tick every Christmas box without offending anyone (apart from hitherto unknown alien rights groups).

Sweet kid, check. Cheeky kiss, check. Iconic '80s cover, check.

But before we get too disappointed with a potential lack of creative ambition, know this isn’t just a Christmas ad – but an augmented, interactive, educational Christmas experience – hidden characters come alive through AR, you can download toys and activities for kids to 'enjoy' at home, and there’s an exclusive, explorable virtual world too. Indeed, with so much to interact with, there’s no time to go shopping.

Janelle Feliciano, creative director, The Romans

Alright, the big JL is here bright and early, meaning I can officially sip this gingerbread latte without being side-eyed.

So let’s begin: the story is sweet and simple but being honest – I didn’t feel much. Other than maybe there’s a Stranger Things spin-off coming.

Was it because I watched it on the bus? Or maybe 120 seconds just wasn’t enough for me to build a character connection? Or was the story a bit too familiar? Unfortunately, not even that track could give me the heartstring-pulling I yearn for from a John Lewis Christmas ad.

Though I must say, I am so very relieved there was not a single reference to last year's close apocalypse. Maybe the Stranger Things spin-off vibe is the right thought. Let’s just pick up where 2019 left us – anticipating season 4 of Stranger Things.

And just one last thing.. I have to ask, why not a blue/purple/pink/green/polkadot alien?

Rachel O'Malley, senior creative, FleishmanHillard UK

Ah the John Lewis Christmas ad. The one time of year when even the most cynical amongst us feels feelings.

So was it a tear-jerker? No. Did it make me want to shop at John Lewis? Also no. Did it send me into a mid-morning spiral of remembering unrequited loves since primary school? Absolutely, yes.

But, since the inception of the John Lewis ad (probably), consumer expectations of brands has changed and they need to do more than flog products (which is lucky as this ad doesn’t feature any). So in a post-pandemic world that’s struggling to get to grips with global warming, and where economic disruption and a lack of tolerance for each other is resulting in a landslide of humanitarian disasters, you could read this ad as a simple reminder to help strangers and share what you have. Which I did. And I liked it.

Nick Woods, partner, Sunny Side Up

Phil Oakey getting a nice big royalty cheque this Christmas is no bad thing, I’ve always loved this song. But Steven Spielberg should probably be getting a big fat royalty cheque too because, hello ET storyline. The best thing about this, hopefully, will be every kid in the country subverting things a little and shouting #unexpectedguest every time grandad drops one. 

Jo Chappel, creative director, Fever

Those ranty bigots that have been slamming the ad for being ‘pathetically predictably woke’ make me want to love it. But sadly #unexpectedguest isn’t giving me all the Christmas feels it’s trying so hard to. 

This is a John Lewis Christmas campaign-by-numbers. Bland '80s cover? Check. Unlikely friendship between human and non-human? Check. Commendable charity partner? Check.  Merch? Check. The only unexpected thing about it is its launch date; two weeks earlier than expected, on Diwali.

The UFO that teased the ad this week in London and Newcastle crash-landed straight out of the early noughties PR playbook. 

I can’t say the narrative didn’t touch me as, at its heart, it’s a story about family, but also transience and loss – something many of us has experienced over the past two years. The '80s-inspired soundtrack and gorgeous cinematography wrap up a comfortably nostalgic ad. There’s nothing brave or bold about, it but maybe a novelty jumper, warm mince pie and the tingles of that first adolescent crush is just what we all need right now.

M&S Food, 'Percy's First Christmas'

Billed as its biggest campaign in several years, M&S Food has thrust Percy Pig into the spotlight for the first time – teasing him out to its 130,000 TikTok followers first.

Animated and voiced by actor Tom Holland, in a scene akin to Night at the Museum, the film sees Percy Pig accidentally brought to life for the first time by Christmas fairy, Dawn French. The campaign was made with support from creatives from Grey London and production company MPC.

Janelle Feliciano

This is exactly what I want from a Christmas ad: it fills me with the warm and fuzzies while actually selling something.

Hey Percy designer, pour yourself a ‘light-up snow globe gin’ & tonic for bringing to life this pig so well. We all know the transition from 2D to 3D can be a shocking one. Just a side thought, with the fiasco of Colin-gate is this M&S putting its hoof down and claiming Percy once and for all?

PS: Tom if you’re reading this, just scrap the Marvel Universe – you were born to play this pig.

Charlie Coney

Two global icons are worth £50m per year to their employers. PSG has Lionel Messi. M&S has the other: the unexpected star of this year’s Christmas ad.

Step forward twinkle-toed, fancy-footed, seasonal-signing, Percy Pig.

Gasp as Percy weaves his way between the aisles, nutmegging the panettone, swerving the smoked salmon, leaving Dawn French’s Christmas fairy in his wake.

Voiced by Tom Holland, thereby guaranteeing a few extra column inches, this is all about the food – with Good Housekeeping/BBC Good Food logos accompanying each product unveiled for added endorsement and reassurance.

I half expected to see Percy rolled up in a side of bacon by the final whistle, thereby ending his brief rivalry with Messi, but he’s worth too much to M&S for that ignominious ending. It made me hungry and keen to go food shopping, which is the goal. Well played, Percy.

Kim Allain

Percy Pig + Tom Holland... did someone say Spiderpig? Just me tickled by this?

And “oh baubles” we can’t forget our Christmas Fairy voiced by Dawn French either. It was iconic seeing Percy Pig come to life and rummage through the usual food porn-esque clips of M&S food. Was it an exciting ad? Kind of. Was it cohesive? Not really. Am I mad at it? Absolutely not.

M&S followed a well-tested recipe of taking famous products, famous food porn content, famous people to make a famous ad and I actually look forward to seeing more Percy Pig this festive season.

Nick Woods

Everyone loves Percy. And everyone loves Dawn French, especially when she’s pretending to be Jennifer Saunders in Shrek. But the script transition from Percy to food... clunkier than a pig’s trotter.

Sasha Marks

Sorry, but no.

What have I watched? A naked Percy Pig wandering around a store looking at food? Is that all you’ve got?

Not only is it unimaginative, but the food porn isn’t even making me (mouth) wet. It’s like we’ve gone from an X-rated 18 to PG and no one wants basic when it comes to your Christmas spread – that’s why we go to M&S, for goodness sake!

The food looked dry, there were no sexy sauce pouring scenes and I miss the sumptuous sounds of Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross.

Tom Holland is the best bit about this ad, and we don’t even get to see him. Giving Percy the voice of Spider-Man was a great way to engage kids and drive pester power, so props to the M&S peeps for that. But a pig fronting your ad... way to piss off the vegans!

Sorry, but it’s a big miss for me. Someone pop Percy in a blanket and put him to bed.

Rachel O'Malley

I wanted to like this more than I did but it was just a bit... stilted. Loved the hype around the voice of Percy Pig, and there were some lighthearted moments (as well as some dark ones - presumably it’s Percy’s first Christmas because supply chain issues have left abattoirs a bit low on the necessaries to supply festive pork?) but it just fell a bit flat. Moral of the story: when it come to an Xmas ad you need to do more than chuck a couple of celebrity voiceovers at it. 

Jo Chappel

I guess the first ad starring a talking Percy Pig is meant to be cute but the sight of a naked pig skipping merrily through the meat aisles of M&S Stratford is enough to turn me fully vegetarian. Maybe there’s a hidden agenda!

M&S has splashed some serious cash on this one. A-lister Tom Holland is the voice of Percy Pig (apparently he’s always been a big fan of the sweets... I can just see him and Zendaya ripping into a bag together, post-red carpet premier) and nation’s favourite Dawn French is the talking fairy.

What follows is a festive romp through M&S’s hero Christmas dishes. Strangely absent is the chestnut, bacon pork pie and bacon-wrapped venison! 

Percy Pig anyone? 

Boots, 'Bags of Joy'

Boots' Christmas campaign stars Doctor Who and The Serpent star Jenna Coleman in the titular role of Joy.

The three-minute film follows Coleman as Joy, gifted a Mary Poppins-esque bag by her gran in the run-up to Christmas. The bag seems to be host to a seemingly endless amount of gifts – all, naturally, available in Boots.

It was created by WPP’s specialist unit for Boots, The Pharm, with direction by Academy Award-winning Tom Hooper and soundtrack by Academy Award-winning composer Rachel Portman OBE.

Sasha Marks

I liked this one more than I thought I would.

I was surprised at how festive it made me feel. I’m already dreaming of Christmas parties (must buy red lippie), sipping mulled wine and having fun at Winter Wonderland and decorating the tree.

Not going to lie, there was a moment, during the long three minutes of watching, where my mind wandered and I was comparing Jenna’s role as Mary Poppins to The Serpent’s wife, but I was soon back in the middle of Christmas, wrapped up in the emotion of the story and the joy of giving.

As for the selling bit, Boots has, once again, successfully shown breadth of range and positioned itself as the gifting retailer with something for every stocking. It really is the sort of place you pop into for perfume and come out with seven packs of paracetamol, probiotics, a pack of Pampers and a pushchair.

It’s not the best Christmas ad I’ve ever seen, but it does the job.

Jo Chappel

Jenna Coleman becomes Mary Poppins in the three-minute 'Bags of Joy'. Beautifully shot and lavishly styled, the narrative follows Jenna/Joy as she digs into her special magic bag to pull out just what she needs to bring Christmas magic to that moment – from baubles to fake eyelashes.

The star power of Jenna adds some sparkle to what would have been a bit of a dull ad, though the final moment with her nan made my eyes water just a little. Thank goodness for waterproof mascara, from Boots of course.

Rachel O'Malley

Call me a conspiracy theorist but I’m convinced that someone working on the Boots ad got a sneak peek of the John Lewis ad and realised the key to commercial success this year might be to put some product in the advert. Reader, they went too far. 

It starts well. It’s got Jenna Coleman in it (likeable) and there’s a Mary Poppins-esq bag (nostalgic), but then it gets a bit wild and Jenna Coleman is literally upending thousands of products from a bottomless bag onto a bed and rolling around in them in some sort of grotesque parody of consumerism. 

Anyway, Jenna uses her bottomless bag for good and does make other people's Christmas wishes come true, which is nice. But then at the end Jenna and her nan have a really emotional exchange that was so over the top I was convinced nan was actually the ghost of Christmas past and would fade away, revealing a key message that’s something about appreciating family at Christmas. But no, it seems Jenna was just really grateful for the bottomless bag of consumer goodies. 

Kim Allain

So I started off kind of loving the nuance that grandma always gives you that something extra in your stocking or your card every year – that you expect but you’ll still act surprised anyway. And I kind of loved that it was giving me Mary Poppins/Hermione (depending on your age) magical never-ending bag vibes. And I was really with the limitless makeup on the bed that she rolled across – because I too want that life.

But a baby’s buggy? Really? Who is going and buying buggies in Boots and why do I feel like they need an intervention? It just felt so random. Why were random items, that I would not shop at Boots for, being pulled out of a bag?

Ok I get it if it was lipstick, Durex and a Gaviscon and all the joys they bring at Christmas but baubles and a buggy? I genuinely forced myself to the end and winced when I remembered they called her Joy – because #BagsOfJoy. If I was the ad agency creative, I would genuinely have taken the repercussions that #FillYourBoots would have had over this campaign any day.

Janelle Feliciano

What a great bit of storytelling. I felt there was enough time to really enjoy her journey.

My favourite bit has to be that they just let the character revel in getting stuff before she goes off to be everyone else’s Christmas fairy godmother. Sometimes as comms people we’re afraid to show a bit of selfish joy, so we jump straight into selflessness without reason. But like Yin & Yang, Gin & Juice, Fish & Chips– you can’t really have one without the other.

Thank you Boots for letting me enjoy the fact I love getting stuff as much as I love giving stuff.

Nick Woods

In aaaanother film rip-off, Jenna Coleman is Mary Poppins. An ever-lasting bag of goodies to make her the sister, auntie, flirty friend and granddaughter (sobs) you didn’t know you wanted. Wholesome, and slaps you in the face with variety (we do cameras and baubles and and and!).

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