U.K. John Lewis Ad Will Move You to Tears -- or Send You to the Sick Bucket

Many Are Finding Department Store's Sentimental Spot too Sappy, While Others Raise Questions of Plagiarism

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LONDON (AdAge.com) -- It's not only the general election that is dividing the British nation this week. A commercial for the middle England, middle-class department store John Lewis has some Brits swooning, moist-eyed, at the representation of a life well-lived, while others are reaching for the sick bucket.

The $9 million TV campaign shows a woman's life from birth through schooldays, university, marriage, setting up home, motherhood, moving up the property ladder, grandchildren and companionable old age, all set to the Billy Joel song "She's Always a Woman," performed by Fyfe Dangerfield from the indie folk band Guillemots.

Irony-loving Brits don't usually fall for this kind of sentimental claptrap, but the ad has tugged at the heartstrings -- and wallets -- of the nation, and pushed John Lewis' online sales up by 40% in the week since its launch. In the same period, the spot had 350,000 hits on YouTube and 100,000 watched it on johnlewis.com.

Some love the ad, but almost as many are appalled by its reactionary message and depressing reminder that life is short.

James Murphy, founder of John Lewis' agency, Adam & Eve, thinks that the spot's impact is due to the importance of the store in many people's lives. He said, "We showed it to an American yesterday, and it definitely works better when you know the John Lewis brand. We've had a lot of comments along the lines of, 'I can't live without John Lewis.'"

The department-store chain, where all staff are partners, is a place where people expect and find faultless customer service and good value. There are millions of people in the U.K. who probably do believe that the perfect life would be furnished, clothed and nourished by John Lewis. Some of the Twitter comments have been along the lines of, "Why can't John Lewis run the country instead of these ghastly politicians?"

Here's a real-life example. In December 2009, stranded by a freak heavy snowstorm, more than 100 customers, staff and children spent the night in a John Lewis department store. The managing director made up beds for everyone and also provided food and toys for the children to play with. It's just that kind of a place.

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The brief for the commercial was to communicate that the store's famous "never knowingly undersold" slogan applies not just to prices but also to quality and a lifelong service commitment. The clothes worn by the woman and the people surrounding her, and the many home-decor items shown in the long tracking shots leading from one stage of her life to the next, are all presumably from John Lewis. The department store isn't mentioned until the closing words on screen: "Never knowingly undersold on quality, price and service. Our lifelong commitment to you. John Lewis."

Mr. Murphy said, "We need to be careful about the level of emotion this has caused -- we shouldn't make a habit of it. Part of the John Lewis magic is not to overstate messages or give the hard sell. We took it this far but no further."

Adam & Eve is a 2-year-old London startup opened by three former partners from Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/ Y&R.

The spot is also causing controversy because of its stark resemblance to a 2007 spot for Italian lingerie brand Calzedonia, which even features the same soundtrack and a girl growing up, but a lot more lingerie.

Both John Lewis and Adam & Eve deny plagiarism. Mr. Murphy said, "We looked at 140 music tracks before we made our final choice." They also point to the fact that the idea in itself is hardly original. Dove and Ogilvy launched its men's range with a similar approach earlier this year, but with a funnier tone and featuring a man and a peppy soundtrack, and a Hovis ad is also in the same mold. The opening sequence of Carl and Ellie's life in Pixar's "Up" could also be cited as an inspiration.

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