For John Lewis, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Marketers pay holiday homage to the U.K. retailer

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John Lewis' 'The Boy and the Piano'
John Lewis' 'The Boy and the Piano'

The world of U.K. Christmas ads is getting more meta by the year.

The run-up to the holidays is the British equivalent of the Super Bowl when it comes to advertising, and for years, John Lewis has been the undisputed winner. Heartwarming spots like 2011's "The Long Wait" and 2014's "Monty's Christmas"—all its advertising is from Adam&Eve/DDB—were such hits that rival brands began referencing the annual unveiling of the John Lewis ad in their own commercials.

This year saw a quick reaction to its new, and epic, spot, "The Boy and the Piano," featuring Elton John pounding the ivories. Brands piled on with their own spins.

But how effective is this as a tactic? "I question whether this approach benefits the brands or further promotes John Lewis. I bet the latter," says Guy Hayward, global CEO at Forsman & Bodenfors (and a Brit himself).

"Self-deprecation is huge in British humor, " says U.K. retail consultant Richard Hyman. "However, it's surprising that retailers are still spending so much on their Christmas ads here given the retail climate and the uncertain position of the U.K." Hyman makes a Grinch-like prediction that next year's U.K. Christmas ads will be less glitzy and more tactical. Ho, ho, hum.

Here, some examples of the John Lewis effect.

Getting some bounce: In 2014, several marketers released online ads parodying John Lewis' "Buster the Boxer" spot, in which a dog jumps on a trampoline. Retailer Argos released a version featuring a purple yeti bouncing to help sell an actual trampoline.

Carrot and shtick: In 2016, discount retailer Aldi tweeted a video, created by McCann, in which its mascot, Kevin the Carrot, gears up for the big event of Christmas: not Santa, but watching the John Lewis ad. The carrot is so excited he—it—hyperventilates and has to breathe into a paper bag.

How tweet: This year, Twitter's PR agency The Romans created an ad featuring an American professor named John Lewis, whose Twitter handle is, you guessed it, @johnlewis, and who has been good-naturedly composing witty replies to tweets aimed at the British retailer.

Not so black and white: This year, several brands were quick to pile on John Lewis' "The Boy and the Piano" spot starring Elton John. A tweet from discount grocer Lidl featured a keyboard it sells with the message: "Just because you don't have £872 to spend on a piano doesn't mean you can't be the next Elton."

All she wants for Christmas: Comedy website Joe Politics took the piano spot and went after the U.K.'s botched Brexit negotiations. The doctored video depicts tabloid headlines featuring U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May mournfully playing "Your Song" on her "gift": a piano emblazoned with the word "Brexit."

Metabizarre: John Lewis is even referencing its own work: In a spot for Waitrose, the grocery chain it owns, a family excitedly watches the John Lewis Elton John ad, only to fast forward it (and giving a tip of a hat to John Lewis' 2014 ad with a penguin). Seems they can't wait to chow down on a cake.

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