Credit: John Lewis

Does the John Lewis Christmas advert actually work?

Get your hanky (or bucket) ready - the John Lewis Christmas advert has arrived.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 04 Dec 2015

Oh. Great. The John Lewis Xmas advert is here, which apparently means it’s Christmas for everyone. Even though Christmas is actually seven weeks away. Or 13.4% of the entire year. Anyway, if you’re ready for a breathless, raspy cover of an old hit and something cute involving children and/or animals (we wouldn't want to spoil it, naturally), here it is:

From what I can gather, it’s about a little girl who spies on an alien disguised as an old man living on the moon, using an implausibly powerful telescope that her parents bought her from John Lewis. The girl tries to reach out to him, eventually succeeding with magic, self-targeting delivery balloons (presumably also from John Lewis, unless that’s Amazon’s next trick) that bring the alien/old man a telescope of his own. Cue tears and shopping sprees.

John Lewis has joined Coca-Cola in achieving one of marketing’s holy grails, a psychological association with the season of goodwill and joyful profits. But do these heart-string pulling, premature-Christmas adverts actually deliver a sales boost to John Lewis’s stocking every year? Let’s introduce a little hard analysis to cut through all this festive schmaltz.

While of course it’s impossible to figure out exactly how effective ad campaigns actually are, we can look at sales figures from different times of the year.


The first chart shows the progress of John Lewis’ first half (February to July inclusive) and second half gross sales (August to January) from 2010 to 2014. The second shows the comparative figures for rival Debenhams, which doesn’t have this recent history of high profile Christmas ads. Note that Christmas and its build-up fall within Debenhams’ first half (September to February) rather than its second.  

Two things are immediately clear. Firstly, John Lewis has greatly outperformed Debenhams over the last five years, and secondly both firms do indeed experience a significant boost to sales during the half that contains Christmas. Nothing too surprising there.

Where it gets interesting is in exactly how much difference the holiday season makes. Debenhams’ gross transactional value was 27.5% higher in its last Christmas half compared to the preceding non-Christmas half.  The difference at John Lewis was 37.7%, which does seem to imply that John Lewis’ Christmas strategy (including the adverts) pays off.

Or does it? Sales at John Lewis over its Christmas half have increased an impressive 39% since 2010, but sales in its non-Christmas half weren’t actually far behind, at 34%. At Debenhams, Christmas half sales grew 13% over the same period, while non-Christmas half sales were up 9.5%. Essentially, the size of John Lewis’ annual Christmas boost hasn’t increased relative to Debenhams’ annual boost over the last five years.

The implication is that all these ingenious Christmas campaigns didn’t cause John Lewis’ big festive sales boost, though they might have sustained it. Either it was the result of the partnership's first advert in 2009 (the data only goes back to 2010), or it already existed before John Lewis came up with the idea of the ads. It’s not proof - but it is food for thought.

Of course, we wouldn’t want to sour John Lewis’ mince pies or anything. As ever, this advert was actually quite good - even if it is November.  

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