There was a flurry of responses to the current John Lewis Christmas advert when it aired for the first time. This year, they have chosen to highlight their support for young people experiencing care (which means; at home, foster, residential, children’s home, secure, adoption, or kinship). The story focuses on the efforts of the male foster carer and his – often painful – attempts to learn how to use a skateboard as they wait for the arrival of a young girl. He wants to connect with the young person through a shared interest, something that will hopefully make the unnatural situation a little less daunting and uncomfortable and give their relationship a chance to grow. It’s a human story full of warmth and care. Well, it is Christmas after all.
From those people with care experience who have historically been under or misinterpreted by the media, the response (I believe) was generally positive. As one of them, I was glad to see an advert that centred around making a child feel wanted, and the effort an adult would make to see them feel more comfortable in what is an unnatural situation (just ask anyone who has made that journey). All good then? Apparently not. I read some articles in the print media that seemed only too quick to point out things that moved the focus away from the positive notes struck by a well-thought-out storyline. It saddened me but didn’t surprise me.
There were articles that concentrated on such things as the fact that it is the Government who should be taking responsibility and ergo there should be no need for charity or adverts of this kind when it comes to providing love and care for children and young people. This is true. It is the Government’s responsibility (as it is for much they often fail to do well). Most of us know this. In this instance it really can go unsaid. The efforts to pressure Government and Local Authorities to fulfill not only their statutory duties but ensure true care continue unabated from across the community and beyond. Have a look at Home – The Promise to see some of what is going on in Scotland. However, that wasn’t the point of the advert.
Focus could have remained on the demonstration of what care should be, as that is the point of the advert. Writers and commentators could have used it as a springboard to push that narrative instead of attempting to conflate issues or push an agenda. Whilst some did mention it, a quick dive into the comments showed me that these articles prompted many to comment in a way that also pushed the discussion away from what care actually is. This only served to take away from what should be a confirmation for some and an education for others.
For example, arguing – as some did – against the use of advertising when exploring such issues just takes away from the effort to educate. We who live in a well-established capitalist society are well aware that companies sell stuff. I think for most people, that is just a given. We can separate the two issues quite easily. Yes, they want us to buy their products, and no, we don’t think the advert is exploiting children to encourage us to do so. Annually, this company reminds us they exist and sell products we may want to buy as presents. They also choose to tell some kind of story. They could easily have chosen a different one, or, like many others, chosen to use a ‘celebrity’ or other such advertising method (cute kitten/catchline or jingle etc.). That they didn’t and chose instead to highlight their involvement with supporting children in need of care is a commendable choice. One which many individuals and organisations have welcomed.
The charity Who Cares Scotland? (whom John Lewis have partnered with for this campaign and more) have already produced freely available educational resources for use in School and beyond (Communities that Care – Who Cares? Scotland since the advert aired. This publicity has undoubtedly helped push forward a narrative of what care should truly mean. If you want to explore the way in which it could be internally perceived by a child, then I encourage you to look at the thread by the research scientist Suzzane Zeedyk. She points out the myriad way this story can impact a child in such a situation (link) Suzanne Zeedyk sur Twitter : “On #WorldKindnessDay, I wanted to give serious consideration to HOW @JohnLewisRetail Christmas ad #TheBeginner communicates its message of welcome & love, which has proven to mean so much to the Care Experienced Community but others have mocked. So here’s a THREAD. @whocaresscot” / Twitter.
Another criticism I heard – an understandable one – but nonetheless one that misses the point of finally having a primetime national campaign that doesn’t further stigmatize or other care experienced people, relates to the families left behind in such a situation. Those parents, brothers, sisters, friends, and extended family members left out of this story. Who, in many instances, will be grieving the loss and absence of a child in their lives. I know that such an advert may well bring feelings to the fore and that can be difficult. In some cases, it is extremely painful. However, the point of the advert is about what care should be like for a child removed – through no fault of their own – to be placed with a set of strangers in a foster situation. I know this journey from personal experience and can tell you that any positive connection to kickstart the relationship would have gone a long way to making me feel that the stranger I was meeting for the first time was potentially worth getting to know. So, the advert is a good start, both for developing understanding and as a platform to change the narrative from what has passed before. And believe me, what has passed before has often been pretty hellish.
However, let it be said, that If in the future, there is some advert that shows a fostered child going home for Christmas to spend time with their blood family, one that is made in a way that shows the true care and love needed for that situation, then I (and I hold that the vast majority of the community) would support and celebrate that too. Because those who say that the families left behind deserve understanding are correct in doing so. Many children are taken away due to a lack of support at home, and do not spend time with their families on such occasions for the exact same reason. I suggest a book I recently reviewed Behind Closed Doors by Polly Curtis. She explains all the failings (and successes) of the English Child Protections system in greater – and often heartbreaking – detail. In saying all that, we should not conflate the two issues. We can understand that the two situations may exist simultaneously whilst also being emotionally invested in one of the situations going well, so why not just focus on that in this instance.
The hope is that this is a watershed moment for the advertising industry and that maybe now more people throughout wider society will get it. There is a long history of representation within the media of care experienced people being ‘damaged’ or ‘in need of sympathy’. A narrative of ‘that’s what happens to/if/because a person is/has been in care. Worse still, there are the usual tropes that someone who has experienced care will go on to be an abuser/Murderer/Cheat/Liar/Unable to care for their own children/Insert other false narrative here. Only last year we had to point out to a well-known Scottish charity that using a photo of a young child with an empty plate in their hand wasn’t acceptable. There are many in the community who do much to challenge this pervasive narrative. Dr Dee Michell and Rosie Caning have created a care experienced culture digital archive (careexperienceandculture.com) that shows the talents of those who have been in care and gone on to produce some cultural legacy within the arts and academic fields. Their work depicts the care community for what they are. Full of talent and possibility, assets to society. Many of those who went on to succeed in various fields done so despite the so-called care they received. Just imagine what would happen if every child gets the support and loving care they need.
So, from this care experienced person to all those who watch the John Lewis advert this year. Please do so with a mind open to what the story truly represents. This is about care, not bought or contingent, just the genuine care of someone wanting to make a child feel welcome and less alone in a world that has brought her – through no fault of her own – to a strangers door. Isn’t that the true spirit of Christmas?