Elton John goes head to head with orangutans in the battle of the U.K. Christmas ads

Brexit, environmental messages and Twitter overshadow John Lewis in holiday advertising

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The unveiling of the John Lewis Christmas ad is an annual event in the U.K.—much anticipated, often speculated about and held in the utmost secrecy. (This year, journalists were taken to a top secret location masquerading as a "construction zone" within the John Lewis flagship store on Oxford Street to be shown the film—wearing headphones, so that no customers in the store could overhear.)

But this year, several factors overshadowed the launch of the film, an epic mini-biography of the singer Elton John. First, it debuted in the midst of the country's semi-annual meltdown over Brexit, with several ministers resigning from Theresa May's government over her proposed deal on leaving the European Union.

But even before that, another spot had already become the "most talked-about" Christmas ad. An animated film with an environmental message by supermarket Iceland Foods already had over 30 million online views by the time the John Lewis spot came out.

Originally created for the environmental organization Greenpeace, the film first appeared online in August. It highlights the plight of orangutans and the destruction of the rainforests to manufacture palm oil. Narrated by Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson, it's a fable that revolves around a little girl who discovers a "rang-tan" in her bedroom. It goes to depict how the animal's own habitat is being ruined by humans for the manufacture of palm oil. The little girl understands his predicament and then starts her own petition to save the orangutans.

Iceland wanted to put the ad on TV to highlight its own anti palm oil stance. However, because of strict U.K. rules about broadcast ads funded by political organizations, broadcast authority Clearcast told Iceland it was unable to clear the ad for TV due to its origins as a Greenpeace film.

However, Iceland and its ad agency, Mother London, turned this apparent negative into a plus, posting the ad online alongside the claim that it had been "banned" from British TV. This sparked an online petition to reinstate the ad that has now been signed by nearly a million people. The story went viral on social media and the ad has since been widely shared; current views are at over 67 million. While John Lewis had a very respectable 42 million views across all channels in the first four days of the ad going out, many are already declaring that Iceland has "won" Christmas.

Elsewhere, Twitter tried to beat John Lewis at its own game, snapping up a U.S. computer science lecturer named John Lewis to star in its own ad (created by PR agency The Romans, owned by Mother). Every year, the Virginia resident receives thousands of tweets destined for the British department store -- he, not the retailer, has the Twitter handle @johnlewis and has become known for his witty and well-timed responses to the tweets.

But perhaps more serious for John Lewis the retailer this year is the parlous state of the British high street. 2018 has seen its department store rivals like House of Fraser and Debenhams in serious financial difficulties, while John Lewis itself made a first-half loss of more than 19 million pounds this year. While its relationship with ad agency Adam&Eve/DDB is still strong, the golden era of the John Lewis Christmas ad may yet be coming to a close.

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