It’s not the lights, nor is it the Christmas markets, nor is it the ever-present cinnamon aroma. The beginning of the festive season is usually marked by the annual release of the John Lewis-Waitrose partnership’s Christmas advert. The advert usually involves some sort of ‘highly awaited’ short story that gets everyone talking. Last month, after a long period of speculation, we finally met ‘Excitable Edgar’, a lovable dragon who becomes repeatedly over-excited when ‘participating’ in the Christmas activities, managing to melt the snowman, set fire to the holly, and burn down the Christmas tree. He is accompanied throughout by a little girl, his best friend, who stays by his side through thick and thin. When Edgar becomes dispirited and locks himself away in his house, she drops by with a Christmas present for him. This is revealed to be a Christmas pudding which he delights in presenting at the village Christmas dinner, providing the all-important flame to set the brandy alight.
What makes Christmas adverts such as this so distinctive? Why is it that if we met Edgar in a different context, he would come across as strange and out of season? In the same way as bells provide songs with a distinctive Christmas feel, Christmas advertisements also have their unique set of ingredients. Christmas tales often find friends sticking together through adversity, and a sense that we are better together. Here, the fact that Edgar finally has his moment of glory thus finding the acceptance he has long deserved, is part of our shared knowledge of what Christmas is all about. But research from the fields of linguistics and psychology has more to say about what makes us love irremediable, excitable Edgar.
Let the viewer connect the dots
We first meet Edgar when he inadvertently melts the snowman built by other children in the village. We, as viewers, do not see the full disaster unfold. We see Edgar enthusiastically wielding the carrot, which he is going to use to create the snowman’s nose, whilst fire flickers from his own nostrils, and in the next shot we see the disgruntled faces of the children and the melted snowman. While we put two-and-two together to guess what has just happened, we also evoke similar situations when we happened to have good intentions but saw a bad outcome. In line with the phrase ‘less is more’: the director makes use of metonymy here, a figurative trope where only the first and final parts of the story are shown. Metonymy provides shorthand for the whole story where the viewer is invited to fill in the gaps for themselves. This is a powerful technique in any kind of persuasive communication, as it allows the viewer to complete the picture on their own, thus developing a degree of ownership over the message and attachment to the emotions evoked. People don’t like to be told what to think, and this is why messages that are too explicit messages tend to be seen as patronising and boring. Providing just a few initial and final details helps people experience what Edgar is going through and to start experiencing a number of emotions that will continue throughout the advert.
Don’t take things too seriously
Humour and irony serve to diffuse the serious undertones of the piece, such that the moral message is conveyed in an entertaining way. Research shows that the creative use of tropes, such as metaphor and metonymy, significantly improves the likelihood of an advertisement’s success. People are better at remembering, appreciating, and perceiving as more convincing adverts that use these tropes creatively. And, surprisingly, if one needs to make a bit of effort to understand the advert – like we have to infer what Edgar did to melt the snowman - the result is more rewarding. This is one of the reasons why stories that involve contrasts and deviations from the expected work so well in advertising. The typical script here would involve Edgar and his friend approaching a snowman that their friends are just finishing, admiring it, and perhaps helping them to add the finishing touches. Here the script is subverted by Edgar accidentally melting the snowman completely with his fire. According to the ‘semantic script theory of humour’ (Raskin, 2017), comedy derives from the setting up of a typical series of events or ‘script’ and then subverting the script to do something entirely unexpected. This increases the level of attention and engagement towards the advert: everything is now possible and we want to know how this story will end. This brings in another element that has been shown to lead to effective advertising: hyperbole. The instant and complete devastation of the snowman contrasts dramatically with the previous scene of happy children admiring their work; but the situation is so over the top that helps to lighten the suffering that we think poor Edgar is experiencing.
Giving the viewer exclusive access to story events generates expectations…
Once we have seen the devastating effect of Edgar’s fire on the snowman we know that if Edgar does not control his power, things are not going to play out well for him. As viewers, we have more information than the rest of characters in the video: we have been the sole witness of a rather “intimate” and undisclosed disaster that the other characters absent from that scene did not experience. This dramatic irony is key for the story that unfolds in the rest of the video. Dramatic irony involves situations where the viewer is aware of something of which the protagonists in the story are blissfully unaware. It allows the viewer to predict what will happen next and, more importantly, to awaken a number of feelings and expectations in the viewer during (instead of at the end) of the video. When Edgar approaches the children skating on the ice or the happy group of villagers admiring the newly decorated, enormous village Christmas tree, we know exactly what is going to happen but they don’t - delicious dramatic irony - and we can love/hate knowing what will happen.
We know that a Christmas advert must, by definition, have a happy ending – but how might this one end? Here, the drama escalates with each scene and the stakes get higher and higher. Come the middle part of the advert, it is not that funny anymore, and we may begin to feel hopeless about the prospect of any positive resolution for Edgar.
In the final scene, Edgar and his friend approach the Christmas feast, and on their arrival everyone dives for cover as they now know what to expect (this is the official end of the dramatic irony). Our, as well as their, sense of expectation of yet a new disaster is suddenly challenged by an unexpected turn of the events: Edgar produces a Christmas pudding (another very culturally-entrenched symbol or metonymy for Christmas and the festive spirit), which he sets fire to using his flames. Finally he has found a purpose for his fire. This shifts our understanding of fire as a destructive force towards a unifying and community-building entity.
Who exactly is Edgar? The limitless power of metaphor
Dragons are imaginary. So exactly who or what does Edgar represent? The metaphor here is limitless: Edgar could be any outsider, anyone who looks different, anyone misunderstood or simply anyone feeling lonely during the festive period (or indeed any time of the year). In that sense, we could say that the friendship between the girl and the outsider has multiple meanings: we are better together, and we can all contribute in different ways to make the group better. There are multiple alternative readings for this advert. The film closes with an image of the two logos: one for John Lewis and one for Waitrose, sitting side by side. This conveys the idea of friendship and a metaphorical meaning that hints at the close relationship that John Lewis and Waitrose have with one another, and ultimately with their staff and customers.
What makes the Edgar film particularly engaging is that it contains many other metaphorical links that go beyond Edgar’s story, or even beyond the Christmas fantasy. The advert appeals more generally to the need on friendship in life, building strong bonds in the community, the need to bring people in from the cold and ‘literally’ warm them up in the context of the migration crisis. The film challenges stories based on hate and intolerance, the lack of sense of belonging, and the exclusiveness of long-standing communities that results in discrimination of minority groups or individuals. Of course, none of these metaphors are made explicit in the film, and that’s the most attractive feature of metaphorical stories: that we can reconstruct them in ways that are most appealing to ourselves and that are still compatible with interpretations that will be made by others. It is left to us to make the links for ourselves.
- Raskin, V. (2017). Script-based semantic and ontological semantic theories of humour. In S. Attardo (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of language and humor (pp. 109-125). New York: Routledge.