John Lewis Christmas Ad Outrage Won’t Halt Progress in On-Screen Diversity

The increased inclusion of minorities in adverts must continue to grow because it works

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To most people, it’s a cute and heartwarming tale of a boy and his friendship with a crash-landed alien who he introduces to Christmas traditions, before she blasts off back to her home planet. To read the anti-woke online sentiment, however, you’d think the John Lewis festive ad was a physical assault on viewers’ eyes.

Those preoccupied with the grift of far-right culture wars took to Twitter to denounce “Unexpected Guest” as “ridiculously right-on”, “political correctness gone mad”, “virtue signalling”, “woke box-ticking” and “too woke” for having the nerve to star a mostly Black cast.

The views of these commentators were, as usual, below-the-line comments amplified across social media—with some even threatening to boycott the store. The irony that their anger is aimed at a spot, which is actually all about acceptance of difference and inclusivity, is certainly lost on these keyboard warriors. But more importantly, while they rage that there’s an over-representation of Black and ethnic minorities in ads, their reaction is further proof that we need more representation on screen, not less.

John Lewis

When they claim an ad featuring a mostly Black family is “going too far” and racially abuse its 14-year-old star, the talented Jordan Nash, it shows that we haven’t gone anywhere near far enough.

Sadly, it’s not the first ad to be attacked for featuring people of colour. Sainsbury’s “Christmas Gravy Song” ad last year attracted abuse from racist viewers, while John Lewis’s “Moz The Monster” from its Christmas 2017 ad saw some disgusting reactions for starring a mixed race family.

This was also the case with Ikea’s “Wonderful Everyday” ad from 2017 and the Argos ad last year featuring a same-sex Black couple and their kids. Despite provoking a tirade of racial abuse from a vocal, narrow-minded and ignorant minority, for the most part they received plaudits.

For years, we’ve been hard-pressed to even see a non-white family represented in a commercial. Now, thankfully, we have ads that are more representative of British society, but there are always going to be some small-minded people pushing back on it. What they’re struggling to accept is that 19.5%—or around 11 million British residents in England and Wales—are from a non-white British background and the Black and ethnic population is expected to double again by 2045. 

For brands that have concerns, it’s worth noting Kantar’s recent research, which evaluated advertising around the world to assess behavioural elements. Considering a database of more than 8,000 ads, the research suggests that greater diversity in advertising increases effectiveness—likelihood of short-term sales rises and involvement with the advert also increases. Overall, brands that portray a more diverse cast in advertising are more likely to be perceived as progressive.

The proof is often assessed in the bottom line of course. When Nike ran its campaign featuring American football quarterback and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick, it was seen as a risky move to bring politics into advertising. But the results of that campaign turned out to be worth more than $163 million. Online sales jumped 31 percent from September 2 to 4 that year, nearly doubling the company’s sales during the same period the prior year. Nike’s share price also hit an all time high.

Yet minority communities still don’t feel represented enough on screen. A survey last year by British broadcaster Channel 4 found that 51% of Black, Asian and other minority ethnic people felt U.K. television advertising does not represent different cultures, with this figure rising to 62% when asked whether Black and Brown cultures were misrepresented. This is in comparison to just 38% of white people agreeing with this second question.

Plus, we know that the vast majority of British consumers welcome seeing diversity in all advertising—last month’s Unstereotype Alliance report found that advertising that represents people from across society resonates with all consumers. It also found that advertising still does not depict reality—more than half of British consumers surveyed said rarely see themselves in advertising, particularly amongst those who identify as a minority (72% minority women, 71% minority men), as LGBTIQ+ men (73%), those living with a disability (72%), non-white men (65%) and non-white women (68%). 

Underrepresented people need to see themselves reflected in advertising as part of society.

Rania Robinson

Underrepresented people need to see themselves reflected in advertising as part of society—as regular folk going about their everyday lives. Or, you know, meeting up with aliens in the woods behind their homes. And most people from all walks of British society welcome this.

Until we get to the stage where it becomes completely unremarkable to feature a mostly Black family on a John Lewis festive slot, we need more not less representation of the wide array of races, religions and ethnicities that call modern Britain their home and we must not pander to the hateful minority—we cannot let them be the voice of our country just because they shout the loudest. 

We already know what happens when we let them have any say in the discourse about race in Britain—figures released last month showed race hate crimes in the U.K. are at an all time high, with 92,052 recorded by the police in the year to March 2021, painting a bleak picture around race equality in our country.

We need to keep increasing the amount of diverse, inclusive and representative work we do in an authentic way to educate and drown out the noise from the ugly, vocal minority—until they simply see British people on screen.