This week’s social media talking point has been the new John Lewis Home Insurance ad. The 60 second TV spot sees a child dancing around their home, exploring a world of gender fluid performance art. With great confidence, creative mess and destruction trail in their wake, as family members watch on. Debates are raging over the wokeness or non-wokeness of it. Why?
I decided to have a good think about it. Firstly, I was agreeing with Tweets asking 'where's the dad/man?'. As a single mum, that's an odd thing for me to align with. Why another partner at all? Why a man? Why not someone gender neutral? Let alone a lesbian couple? Or more than one parent or caregiver?
At first I wondered if it's the home that feels unrepresentative of single mothers. None of the single mums (or dads) I know live in houses furnished like that. We don't have stuff that's so luxe. Our rooms aren't that neat. There’s usually cheerios scattered on the floor. We don't look as calm as that 'mum'. But she could be a nanny, or a friend. Who is really to say, after all, seeing as it’s a fictional realm? Do I have no imagination? What's my problem with this ad?
Is my issue that she's a single mum living in a house furnished richly from John Lewis? But there are stupendously wealthy single parents out there (I've walked past their houses in Hampstead). Why am I assuming someone else made the money for this family? Where is this strange feeling of heteronormative conservatism coming from? What gives?
I dug deeper. Am I jealous of the characters' material wealth? Their home insurance? Their leisure time? Their bravery in playing with gender? Am I a big square? I pondered and mulled.
Something interesting about most TV ads, I'm beginning to think, is that they largely exist in the realm of Jungian archetypes. They rarely step out of 'the strong dad', 'the kind granny', 'the warm mum', 'the super hero'. Products invariably help them transition back into their core archetype where they feel much happier ('You're not you when you're hungry, Snickers' being a prime example). When they do, it is the process of stepping out of the archetype that illustrates the product's cultural world. Now in this ad, the boy dresses like… not a girl, but the mum. Then, rather than being warm and maternal, he throws stuff, so he breaks her archetype as well. This is all very interesting. So why does the ad feel stuck within the male paradigm to me?
Can an audience be assumed to be an archetype as well? Parents who want to keep their homes safe and also let their children play? But the intended discomfort of the material destruction, showcased by slow-mo product shots of vases smashing, is resolved by the opportunity for home insurance. We feel safe. Thus we return to our archetypes. Parents who want to see homes safe and children play, but not too much. Except this TV spot still didn't quite sit right.
Playfulness and creativity are naturally always a tiny bit destructive as they challenge society's rules and conventions. Rules get broken, gently and without anger. An odd aspect of the ad for me was that this kid is playing with norms but in the context of home insurance. As if it can all be swept away and replaced. We can pretend it never happened. He didn't break the vase. He didn't put on his mum's dress. It's as if you can replace it with new stuff, like it never happened.
That's the undercurrent that made me feel particularly uncomfortable in this ad. On 11th May 2021 the Queen's speech announced the intention of this government to bring a law "protecting people from the coercive and abhorrent practice of conversion therapy in the UK". It has not yet happened. This might feel like a serious issue to read into an entertaining TV ad, but I feel like the issue politically is present in this piece of film. Intentionally or otherwise. The question in relation to this ad is, does the home insurance make it safe to play or safe to play because you can restore the previous status quo? That's the serious question I find myself asking about this ad.
Finally, something else occurred to me. In critical theory and semiotics, there are lots of essays on 'the gaze'. The gaze is the line of vision from the model (or the subject of the camera). The empowered gaze shows the model breaking the fourth wall and looking at the audience directly. At Falmouth Uni we studied how often women and children are depicted as looking at a product, and men looking to the fourth wall. As if they are not contained by the product's world. In this ad, the boy breaks the fourth wall but the girl and the woman do not. This empowers the boy with a status beyond the girl and the mum. I think this is why it feels uneven to me as a piece of gender fluid advertising. It feels like it sits in the middle of the patriarchal paradigm despite its brave and brilliant attempts not to.
I'd like to see the mum break her archetype, and the sister, and maybe even the audience. I'd like to see the parents being creative in their clothes and behaviour, and watch that sister break out of her mould. Sure she paints. But what happens when the women also get to splatter paint all over their faces and home in a gender non-conformist manner? What does freedom look like to everyone in that home? Maybe the whole ad just didn't take it far enough for me? Maybe I'm after something more like this
But to be reasonable and calm for one moment: if the purpose of an ad in 2021 is to create topical open-minded conversation then this piece of film definitely does that. I hope they make a John Lewis Home Insurance 2 and everyone gets to be playful.