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Where has the Black Family Gone from the John Lewis Christmas advert?

By Kirsty Osei-Bempong at MisBeee Writes

Wednesday, December 7, 2016.

There was a time – not too long ago - when the airing of the Coca Cola advert in the UK heralded the start of the Christmas season. But in my opinion, UK high street supermarket adverts are slowly but surely stealing Coke’s thunder. Anticipating what our retail chains are going to come out with annually has become a big talking point that even deserves column inches in our top newspapers.

Young actress Summer is aged six, while Olayinka plays her father  © John Lewis

This year, the supermarkets did not disappoint. They provided us with liberal helpings of the stock Christmas ad ingredients: snow; Father Christmas; Turkey with all the trimmings, presents, the Christmas tree and animals – in recognition of the UK’s pet-loving culture. So when UK retailer John Lewis unveiled its 2016 contribution on 10 November, I was pleasantly surprised and pleased to see an all-Black cast. The ad is one of two in the history of UK Christmas adverts to feature an all-Black family. The other advert is from electrical high street retailer Currys.

For those who have not seen the John Lewis 2.10-minute long ad, it features a dad-mum-and-young daughter set up; has a Randy Crawford soundalike singing ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’ in the background and a party of unlikely animal ‘friends’ (a badger, fox, hedgehog and squirrel). These animals are depicted having some midnight fun on Christmas Eve on a trampoline meant for the six-year-old child (Summer). Random? Yes but instead of the usual ‘aahs’ and ‘how sweet’ which usually accompany these Christmas ads, this one left me with a wry smile on my face.

The brand new trampoline © John Lewis

You see, while the wild animals were busy jumping on the trampoline, the family’s dog Buster was watching. As soon as it was Christmas morning, both Buster and Summer bounded out of the house. But Buster got there first and happily bounced on the trampoline, leaving Summer’s parents reeling in shock... slack-jawed and wide-eyed.

This is the first all-Black family Christmas retail advert © John Lewis

Refreshingly different – I thought. But not everyone agreed. A written complaint allegedly sent to John Lewis – made the rounds on social media on 16 November. The letter suggested that the presence of the Black family, accompanying music by a Black person was an affront on the tenets of Christmas, British culture and the country. The alleged author is named as Katie (@K69atie) on Twitter. Clearly, in this post-Brexit, post-Trump post-truth period, Black people cannot be British nor can they represent Britishness on TV!!!

Fast forward to the early hours of 2 December and for the first time, I noticed that this funny ad has been heavily edited and only the trampoline-loving animals remained. Even Buster was gone. Was this simply an abridged version of the longer advert? I am well aware that companies do this but this edit seemed to render the advert rather meaningless. Was it merely a coincidence that some days earlier there had been a complaint – maybe more than one?

The public’s reaction to the advert has been mixed. Animal lovers have come out in full force with many pet lovers applauding Buster’s central role. Others have railed against the lack of strong Christmas symbols. One person is reported to have questioned why the dad and not Father Christmas was not shown to be delivering the trampoline. But there has been very little acknowledgement of this historic first – the all-Black family. And then we have the alleged complaint by @Ka69tie that gives an outright dismissal of the Black family as a legitimate member of British society.

It is not clear if the alleged complaint is authentic but I approached John Lewis to see if they would clarify the reason for the ‘strange’ edit. The customer service reply I got early on Friday morning (2 December) outlined that due to the high volumes of emails they were receiving; it would take them longer than 24 hours to reply.

On Monday 5 December, I contacted the retailer's press office and was told that it is common practise in advertising to air shorter versions of a fuller length advert once the story has been introduced. In this case, the original unedited advert attracted 53 million viewers in the first week alone, the John Lewis spokeswoman said.

I was told the edit was in no way linked to complaints or the aforementioned tweet as advertising edits would have been planned months in advance. The spokeswoman confirmed that she was aware of the tweet but added in an emailed statement: "We haven't been contacted directly by the person and we would not engage with the tweet."

On the issue of why the edit focuses only on the animals on the trampoline and does not feature Buster or the family, she explained that the advert has to be edited to fit into shorter slots and the aim was to focus on a message that everyone would enjoy. She later said on email that there are two 20-second versions of the advert being aired and one of them features the family in it. 

There have been no complaints about the edits, the spokeswoman said. 

The advert taps into  the UK's love affair with animals © John Lewis

In the run up to publishing this blogpost, the shorter animal-only advert was the version I regularly saw on the TV. But today (6 December), I have not seen this version. Instead the 20-second all-Black family has been more frequently aired today.

Check out the full, unabridged version of the advert below. I would be interested to know what state of edit you see the advert on your TV screens.... 


Kirsty Osei-Bempong is the Thenewblackmagazine.com’s Arts Editor and a London-based writer. She blogs regularly at www.misbeee.blogspot.co.uk

Where has the Black Family Gone from the John Lewis Christmas advert?

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