John Lewis Christmas advert: a welcome change to narratives on children in care
18 November 2022
The launch of the John Lewis Christmas advert has become a holiday tradition for many since its launch in 2007. But why does the approach in this year’s advert matter?
This piece was written by MA Education (Online) course leader Esther Cummins
The simple narrative follows a middle-aged man attempting to skateboard, interspersed with Christmas preparations such as a Christmas party and tree decorating. His partner is shown making a phone call, saying that they are, “really excited” and “can’t wait”. Except they aren’t anticipating Christmas; they are waiting for their foster child, Ellie, to arrive. Sharing the statistic that over 108,000 children are in the care system, John Lewis states it is committed to supporting “the futures of young people from care”.
Media representations of adopted children and those in care have slowly changed over the years. Pollyanna and Oliver, both released in the 1960s, are adaptations that show the necessity for a wealthy benefactor, perhaps reflective of the times they were written. In 1982 came Annie which continued this narrative, showing a child adopted by a billionaire after she was chosen at her orphanage.
More recently, the narratives have broadened their scope to include a villain turned hero becoming a caregiver (Despicable Me, 2010), a selection of animals (Tarzan, 1999; Kung Fu Panda, 2008) and an older sister (Lilo & Stitch, 2002). Most of these stories focus on adoption, which isn’t always an option for many children in care because of their age or circumstances.
This year’s John Lewis Christmas advert changes the narrative. It does not focus on why the child is in care - many of the films above point to bereavement rather than the more common reasons affecting families (such as abuse, incarceration or substance misuse). The story rather shows that the foster carers value Ellie’s arrival, as the man finds every opportunity to skateboard even at the risk of injury to build common ground with their new arrival. This commitment shows a change on the adults’ part, rather than the child’s; Ellie is not expected to just ‘fit in’, but instead the adults change their lives to accommodate her.
It is this change that is the most powerful part of the story. Being responsible for a child in care or a care leaver means adjusting. The advert quietly calls for action; there is a requirement for our wider society to consider a response, whether as individuals to become foster carers or as corporations - such as universities - to welcome and support more care leavers. The retired John Lewis policy ’Never Knowingly Undersold’ originally applied to price, but I suspect that it will be difficult to match the renewed commitment to supporting communities for many companies. I hope we can at least try.