The John Lewis Christmas Ad Is Here. Does It Ease the Pain of 2016, or Add to It?

Buster the boxer just wants to have fun

It's not easy making a lighthearted commercial to cap off 2016.

Not with Brexit and President-elect Trump leaving a path of scorched earth behind them—or more to the point, ahead of them—and putting lots of consumers in the grimmest of moods this holiday. How do you find joy after such an annus horribilis?

For John Lewis, the retailer that's become the standard bearer of holiday cheer in Britain—and helped turn Christmas into an advertising showcase, the U.K.'s Super Bowl—the task has fallen to a dog. He's a boxer named Buster, and he just wants to jump.

Yes, the retailer's much-awaited two-minute 2016 Christmas commercial, created by London agency adam&eveDDB, broke early Thursday. Check it out here: 

Let's agree, first off, that this is one brilliantly crafted spot.

Dougal Wilson, who's directed a lot of the John Lewis Christmas ads (including the two best ones—2011's groundbreaking "The Long Wait" and 2014's world-beating "Monty's Christmas"), creates a lovely, enchanting world. The lighting is gorgeous. The animals are charming and believable. It's perfectly paced, and admirably cast.

The song—a cover of "One Day I'll Fly Away" by the British band Vaults—probably won't hit the top of the charts, but it sets the elevated mood well enough.

And yet, even in its early hours online, the ad has its detractors.

Some parents are upset that it shows Dad setting up the trampoline, complaining that this suggests to kids that Santa Claus isn't real. This is an understandable concern, though John Lewis has shrugged off this criticism, saying: "We're sure Father Christmas has also visited Bridget and Buster the night before. This is just an extra special gift from her parents because she loves to bounce."

Then there are more outlandish critiques, including a Guardian columnist who suggested the ad is a failure because it feels like an allegory for Trump and Clinton—with an animal pushing his way in and getting to jump on the trampoline instead of the heroine. (This is an amusing reading, if nothing else, though the writer admits: "Perhaps I'm reading too much into this.") 

On the other hand, the spot has plenty of enthusiastic supporters who are thanking the retailer for crafting a simple, fun, uplifting story that brings a smile and a laugh—things that have been in short supply lately. 

In the end, the mixed reviews aren't surprising. The spot is well intentioned (the larger campaign will benefit The Wildlife Trusts), beautifully made and does bring some welcome levity. And it's smart to try some comedy after last year's somber "Man on the Moon" campaign—which, while also well crafted and charity-minded, was "a bit sad," as John Lewis admitted recently.

Then again, #BusterTheBoxer doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's just harder to make uplifting, sentimental advertising that connects when there's a widespread feeling of gloom. It's a problem many Christmas advertisers, not just John Lewis, will be grappling with this season. The bar on making people feel good is just higher right now.

John Lewis seems to want it both ways—to make a heartfelt, sentimental piece that undercuts its own sentiment with a comic ending. That approach has its problems—when the dog wins, the girl loses—but it's charming enough in the end. And honestly, when it comes to storytelling, every John Lewis ad will have a hard time competing with "Monty's Christmas" and its truly magical ending.

Maybe, for a while, we can't have nice things. But kudos to John Lewis for trying anyway.

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