Why Lily Allen wants a Christmas ad

A British store’s Christmas ads have a habit of spawning chart-topping pop hits
Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

With its controversial lyrics and twerking-heavy video (meant as a parody of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines), Lily Allen’s song Hard Out Here may be getting all the media attention this season. But the singer, who left the music scene four years ago to start a family, hedged her bets for a comeback by first releasing a very different musical number: a lilting cover of a decade-old song for a British department store chain’s Christmas commercial. It worked. She rocketed up the charts with Somewhere Only We Know, again a social media darling, with the production garnering nearly 90,000 mentions on Twitter during its first weekend. It’s no wonder; Allen isn’t featured in any old holiday ad, but an annual marketing phenomenon that turns everything it touches to gold.

For the last half-dozen years, the British department store John Lewis has dominated holiday advertising in that country with commercials so shamelessly sentimental that they warrant hanky ratings. This year’s offering, which they call The Bear and the Hare, features a hand-drawn bear who’s never experienced the joy of Christmas because he has to hibernate. So hare gives his BFF the perfect present: an alarm clock to rouse him on Dec. 25.

The two-minute, $1.7-million commercial got its own glitzy premiere, a debut in November on Britain’s top-rated X Factor, and reviews in all the major London newspapers. In its first week, more than seven million viewers watched it on YouTube as word spread around the world that another John Lewis creation had hit the Internet. (It’s now passed nine million.) Even its “making of” video was a hit. And Lily Allen’s rendition of a 2004 song by Keane debuted on the British charts at No. 2, claiming the top spot the following week.

Allen’s success follows a well-trodden path. John Lewis’s Christmas ads have a tradition of spawning chart-topping hits. Last year, Mr. Snowman trudged over mountains and into the city to buy a hat, scarf and mitten set for his wife to the sound of Gabrielle Aplin belting out The Power of Love (originally by Frankie Goes to Hollywood). It too reached No. 1.

And in 2011, relative unknown Slow Moving Millie struck gold with Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want (originally by the Smiths) in a heart-tugging story of a little boy impatiently counting down the days until Christmas morning, when he bounded out of bed to give his parents their gift. When Prince William and his bride, Kate, took to the floor for the first dance at their wedding reception, it was to Ellie Goulding singing Elton John’s Your Song, which she’d performed in the 2010 ad for John Lewis.

So it’s no surprise Lily Allen had to beat out competition from the likes of Annie Lennox for the coveted spot. Gigs like this are an increasingly important source of income for musicians, explains Jessica Hopper, a Chicago-based music critic. By breaking out of her usual pop repertoire, Allen can reach a whole new listening audience. “She does a delicate, sweet winsome tune. The rest of her stuff is so brash, doing something different like this could cross her over,” says Hopper. Capitalizing on the attention, Allen dropped the single from her upcoming album a few days later.

It’s not just about the music, explains James Nester, creative director of the We Are Social agency in London. “The reason John Lewis does so well is because it makes people feel strong emotions about Christmas. They’re beautifully conceived and executed. The ideas are the gift. The music is the wrapping paper.”

It helps that John Lewis itself is a bit of a fairytale. The chain has been owned by its employees ever since its founder’s son gifted it to them in 1929. This year, each employee received a dividend equal to 18 per cent of his or her salary. That Everyman ethos is seen on screen. “We don’t like to do things glossily,” says marketing brand manager Rachel Swift. There are no famous actors in the ads, no expensive presents. Bear’s alarm clock is just $25, but already sold out. “Since 2007, the sentiment of the advertising hasn’t changed,” Swift notes. “It’s about going that extra mile for a thoughtful gift.”

But even for audiences a long way from John Lewis stores, in a season dominated by commands to buy, buy, buy, and banal Christmas tunes, it’s a nice break to hum along with a sweet tale of two friends and a Christmas they’ll never forget.