A commercial that dares to show a woman ageing has had people sniffing into their sofas, moved to tears by its portrayal of modern life. The 90-second television ad for John Lewis has been watched by more than 100,000 people in a week on YouTube, and has been the subject of newspaper commentary and the Thought For The Day slot on the Today programme on Radio 4.
For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the ad follows a woman through the course of her life, accompanied by the schmaltzy strains of Billy Joel’s Always A Woman as rendered by Fyfe Dangerfield of the Guillemots. A mother picks up a baby; when she puts it down it’s a toddler. The child crawls through a tunnel and emerges as a girl; she blows out the candles on her birthday cake and suddenly she’s 18. She’s married, she’s pregnant, she’s doing something with her laptop…well, you probably have seen it (and if you haven’t you can here,) so suffice to say she ages 70 years in a minute and a half.
One reason this brief film has had such a big impact (it is also credited with having lifted the department store’s sales by 37%) is that we are so rarely invited by commercial organisations – or indeed anyone much at all – to conceive of a life from beginning to end, or even to contemplate the possibility that we will one day grow old. Aside from ads targeted specifically at the ‘grey pound’, which envisage everyone over 60 as permanently on a golf course or a cruise, there are no old people in ads at all. It is not surprising that older people often complain of being invisible.
It is understandable why this happens. We live in a society in which there are deemed to be no advantages to ageing. Growing old is understood purely as a process of decline. Slower reflexes, memory loss, technophobia…old people should think themselves lucky to be parked on a golf course. They should be grateful that they can at least still do leisure.
There is nothing remotely wrong with leisure – I don’t know anyone who is keener on holidays than I am – but the idea that it’s all you are fit for is a kind of torture. It is a contemporary vision of hell, deracinated from everything that makes life rewarding, interesting, valuable. No wonder, then, that our culture shies away from confronting the Agebomb, that we are such suckers for ‘anti-ageing’ products, that people are increasingly having ‘preventative’ facelifts, that even midlife is fraught with fear of getting older. We are, most of us, in denial about our own ageing because we have learnt to believe that the passing of time brings only the loss of our skills, energies and advantages, our ability to participate and contribute; that it signals the erosion of our identity.
Commerce shares and helps promote alarm about ageing, not least because studies have shown again and again that what sustains us in later life is family and friends, rather than things. The getting and spending to which we are encouraged to devote so much of our adult lives becomes increasingly irrelevant as we get older.
Commerce shouldn’t be frightened of ageing, in fact, because there are plenty of things older people need and want and are prepared to pay for, but the paradigm of making them invisible and presenting all consumers as aged somewhere between 18 and 35 won’t work in an Agebomb world. John Lewis and their ad agency should be congratulated for taking a small step in the right direction. Their commercial has been sneered at in the press, where it has been suggested that in a hypothetical final frame, this everywoman is lowered into the ground in her ‘well-priced John Lewis coffin.’ There it is again: the usual conflation of ageing with death; the usual assumption that any narrative of a life is a story of decline rather than of the achieving of selfhood.
The John Lewis ad shows a life from beginning to end. The next step will be for commercial companies to start thinking about what life would look like if viewed from end to beginning. What would we need then? Life, to paraphrase Kierkegaard (if that’s not too ridiculous in a post about a John Lewis ad) must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards. If we could break through the denial to start thinking backwards, we’d probably see a lot more old people in ads, perhaps get better products, and certainly be a lot more at ease with ourselves.