Year on year, one of the most highly anticipated Christmas adverts is the John Lewis Christmas advert. For many this is the one of the signs that Christmas is only round the corner, and I would put money on everybody reading this having seen last years Monty the Penguin advert. What is it then about these adverts that people love so much and are persuaded by?
John Lewis’ target market is primarily families and thus they use the intimates (family, friends and lovers) altercast as a persuasive technique. This technique is based on the idea that we will put the needs of our loved ones before ourselves. If we don’t meet their needs or requests we will begin to feel guilty; this feeling of guilt then produces more motivation to comply with their requests, needs or wants. The John Lewis advert plays into this by showing us a family in the lead up to Christmas: a situation most people can relate to. Over the course of the advert we watch as the boy plays with his toy penguin, which clearly needs his own penguin friend – a gift that could be given at Christmas. The climax of the advert is the boy opening his present to find a new toy penguin and the tag line “Give someone the Christmas they’ve been dreaming of”. This then elicits the intimates altercast as it makes people feel guilty if they do not get their loved ones what they want or need for Christmas. With the underlying association being that you would be able to buy any of these things at John Lewis; they are not only selling products but also family happiness.
Vangelisti, Daly and Rudnick (1991) carried out a series of 4 studies investigating how people use guilt as a means of persuasion. In experiment 2 of their study they asked their participants to fill out a series of questionnaires examining intimacy of a relationship and the typicality of guilt inducing statements and requests during conversation. They found that the more intimate a relationship with the person in question the more likely they were to make you feel guilty as a means of persuasion, which was also found to be reciprocal, as shown in the table below.
The "Intimacy" column shows the measure of how intimate the participants rated their relationship with the given subject, with the lower the score the more intimate they related their relationship. The "Other" column shows the mean score of how typical it would be of the other person in the relationship to make the participant feel guilty as a means of persuasion. The "Self" column then shows the mean score for the rating the participants gave for how typical it would be of themselves to make the other person feel guilty. The table then shows the general trend that the more intimate you are with someone the more typical it would be for either of you to induce guilt in the other to be more persuasive. The most likely relationship to do this is the person rated as "best friend", the person rated as the second most intimate relationship. However, in this study they found that mothers, rated as being the most intimate relationship, had one of the lower correlations of use of guilt with intimacy. This could be explained in terms of the experiment as people may like to think that they wouldn't try to elicit guilt in their mothers as a means of persuasion, or that they would do so to them either. The study may have produced a social desirability bias in this respect. People may be more willing to admit that they used guilt as a means of persuasion on their best friend as this may seem more normal, and typical of such a relationship, whereas less so in a parent child relationship. Just because people rated this as less typical though doesn't mean that it is so. The theory would still predict that based on high levels of intimacy that guilt would be used more so, and this is what the John Lewis advert taps into.
The John Lewis advert then takes advantage of this indirectly, imagining the feeling of guilt if you did not give someone close to you, such as your son (a very intimate relationship) what he wanted for Christmas. It is this feeling of guilt which then persuades people to go out and shop at John Lewis. The true persuasiveness of this technique may well have been demonstrated by the fact that within 24hours of the advert being aired all 3 sizes of their Monty the Penguin toy had sold out. Parents not only felt the need to relive their sense of guilt but do so in the same way as the parents did in the advert – a lack of creative parenting one might suggest or truly magical advert.
Vangelisti, A., L., Daly, J. A., & Rudnick, J. R. (1991). Making people feel guilty in conversations: Techniques and correlates. Human Communication Research, 18, 3-39.