Promoting misconceptions? Professor Asghar Zaidi
This year’s John Lewis commercial seeks to address an important issue in society – the isolation of the elderly at Christmas time. While it plucks at our heartstrings, what message is it really sending about older people, and is it as positive as it could be?
The advert centres on a young girl who spots an old man living on the Moon. It follows her efforts to send him presents; eventually she successfully delivers a gift of a telescope so they can connect with each other on Christmas day.
Without any doubt, the advert delivers the important message that we need to understand and address the loneliness of our older generation. Connections across generations are very valuable and can improve wellbeing for older people. So in this sense, it is a positive offering.
A powerful generation
On the other hand, it adds weight to the biggest mistake the media (and policymakers) are often guilty of: the assumption of the homogeneity of the older generation. In this, we overlook the idea that the new generation of older people are also a powerful resource for their families, communities and economies when they live in supportive, age-friendly environments. As a healthier group, with increasingly longer lifespans, they have the untapped potential to contribute not only to their own wellbeing, but to that of their families and communities.
Research carried out at Southampton for the Active Ageing Index project shows that increasing numbers of older people across the EU remain healthy and independent for longer. Many are fulfilled in jobs, with active social lives. They are engaged in civil society. And this is despite the financial crisis and austerity that have marked recent years. Active and healthy ageing is not merely a thought any more; it has become a reality for many in our societies.
But this can’t continue unless we change our perception of older people further and enhance our support for them through younger generations.
Challenging the cliché
Positive thinking and strategies are needed to prevent the loss of valuable expertise, preserve the wisdom of older people and in the process strengthen society’s human and structural resilience.
The right social policy priorities and responses, including social protection and universal social services, are needed to support the growing number of older citizens and mitigate the negative implications of population ageing. We can take solace from the progress made by the countries that, our research shows, make the most of their older people.
But what does all this mean for John Lewis’s man in the Moon? This emblematic advert runs the risk of rubber-stamping a tired cliché of all older people living alone, in desperate need of connection and support. And while it is wonderful that the old man and the young girl finally make a connection, our ragged pensioner is still stuck in isolation on the Moon.
A truly positive take on old age – emphasising actively engaged citizens with a real sense of belonging and wellbeing – might see our old man blast his way back to Earth in a rocket, become the life and soul of the Christmas party and enrich the lives of the next generation by sharing diverse experiences from his long, fulfilling and active life.
Maybe next year?
A boost for good causes. Dr Lisa Harris
In the same way that digging beneath the surface reveals that not all young people are confident with technology, and that not everyone buys into the consumerism surrounding Christmas, Asghar is right to remind us that not all older people are in need. Unlike John Lewis’ lonely Moon-dweller, many now lead active, healthy lives and play an important role in guiding or supporting younger members of their families, or in volunteering to help others less fortunate than themselves.
But while we should be wary of stereotyping, we shouldn’t ignore the value of the John Lewis advert and others like it. The publicity generated by the big retailers as they compete to produce the most popular Christmas story can do wonders not only for their own brand awareness and sales, but for the associated stakeholders. This effect is magnified by the ease of sharing on social media – the ‘Man on the Moon’ ad had over 20 million views on YouTube within four weeks of its release. By raising awareness of big social issues in this way, some consumer attention and spending can be diverted to good causes – in this case Age UK – while bringing commercial and reputational benefits to John Lewis.
John Lewis stores around the country are working directly with their local Age UK to recruit new volunteers and fund Christmas social activities. The charity, which estimates that around 340,000 of the UK’s older people will spend Christmas alone, has reported a surge of interest and offers of help extending well beyond the Christmas period. And in an innovative combination of ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds, customers at the Sheffield store can ride an exercise bike to pedal a few miles and help bring the man on the Moon back to Earth in time for Christmas, with his progress monitored on a screen.
The Man on the Moon was quick to inspire a series of spoof videos. Aldi’s cheeky re-interpretation, which emphasised its cheaper prices (and a more contemporary take on pensioner activities!) has clocked up more than eight million views so far. Another beneficiary is likely to be the relatively unknown Norwegian singer Aurora Aksnes. Her soundtrack – a cover version of Oasis’s Half the World Away – could become the third song chosen by John Lewis since 2009 to make the Christmas number one.
A growing trend
Smaller retailers are also benefiting from the trend to combine business and social enterprise activities for mutual benefit. River Island, for example, has partnered with Dog’s Trust to sell 1,200 limited edition ‘dog-equins’ from selected stores with all proceeds going to the charity. Even without a big-budget video, the hashtag #RIGiveADogAHome is being used to good effect on Twitter and Instagram to share photos and stoke demand:
Whatever your view of these Christmas campaigns, they seem set to make a difference beyond the retailers’ bottom line. Have they inspired you? What will YOU be doing this Christmas – and beyond – to support a good cause?