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Monty the Penguin: anatomy of an ad

11 Nov 2014
By atom42

The success of the John Lewis Christmas ad campaign ‘Monty the Penguin’, which has 12 million YouTube views and counting, as well as 25,000 Twitter followers, leads us to ask the question: ‘why’? What’s so special about this ad that it’s caught the hearts of the nation and become the standard talking point in pubs, offices and dinner parties across the country?

Well, if you look really closely, it becomes clear to see how the company has conjured up this level of success. Behind the cuddly, cosy image there’s a meticulous eye for detail, combined with a clinical awareness of current consumer predispositions.


Embodying the ‘perfect family Christmas’

Chartered psychologist Dr Sheila Keegan believes we’re drawn to this advert because it is both nostalgic and contemporary, as well as being very middle class, embodying the perfect Christmas we’re all pining for. She told the Mirror: “Every angle is covered and you are left longing for this perfect Christmas, a ‘John Lewis’ Christmas.”

Keegan points out the carefully crafted details which all come together to make us feel all warm and fuzzy. There are no arguments and no sign of overindulgence. The boy is clearly well brought up as, when he gives the penguin a sneaky fishfinger, you can see the guilty expression on his face.

There’s no sign of technology, instead the family plays outside on sledges and playing hide and seek. “Even the music is carefully selected,” adds Keegan, with Tom Odell, a young artist, “singing a John Lennon song about love.”

Harnessing ‘penguin positivity’

But there’s more to Monty than his placement in a harmonious, middle-class Christmas. Penguins have shown themselves to be a great crowd-pleaser in recent times. It all began with the 2005 documentary March of the Penguins, which showed the annual journey of Emperor penguins as they marched, single file, to their breeding ground. It left us distinctly chilly but utterly in love with our flightless friends.

In the world of fiction, with the exception of Feathers McGraw, the nefarious villain of Wallace and Gromit, penguins tend to be happy characters. Think of Bert’s penguins in Mary Poppins, the penguins of Madagascar and Happy Feet and the singularly upbeat Pingu. We tend to associate penguins with feelings of positivity, and this predisposition helps to makes us feel happy when we watch the ‘Monty the Penguin’ ad.

But there’s something else about penguins. It’s that peculiarly awkward waddle they have. It mimics the first steps of a child learning to walk, bringing out that parental instinct in us to care and protect. Perhaps that’s why some viewers felt the idea of the penguin looking for love was where the plot started to unravel for them, cuteness-wise – it just doesn’t fit with the ‘toddlerish’ side of penguin-ness.

Utilising ‘animal magic’

Alongside the power of the penguin comes the winning effect of cute animals in general, which will have played its part in this ad’s success. Marketers have long been aware of how engaging these can be in both on and offline advertising.

Our new web designer, Sian, tells a common story: “I used to do a lot of work for a vegetarian food company back in South Africa. Their marketing guy used to tell me that every time they saw a dip in their Facebook or website activity, they would post a picture of a cute animal and see a massive spike of interest and activity. Their actual informative posts or posts not containing cute animals were far less popular.

“So, the marketing guy had this image library of cute animal picture ammunition at the ready. I found it quite fascinating that they actually used posting cute animals strategically to attract traffic!

“I think Monty is popular because he is an adorable and memorable little penguin. Kind of like the cute Facebook animals.”

Brand loyalty & expectation

Finally, even with all these elements of success covered, would Monty really be as popular if it weren’t for the effect of brand loyalty and collective expectation?

John Lewis has really capitalised on the legacy of three of its previous Christmas adverts. they’ve taken the ‘cute boy’ element from this tear-jerking 2011 ad, the ‘love’ element of its 2012 ‘snowman’ one, and the cute animal element  from last year’s “The Bear and the Hare” – all are conspicuously present in Monty the Penguin.

The company also used the brand loyalty those three ads created to generate a sense of expectation and excitement before this year’s creation was released.

The phenomenon of brand loyalty can have a pre-conditioning effect on those who’ve had a positive experience with the brand and it’s advertising in the past. People were expecting to love the new advert, and that’s led to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

To ramp up this sense of expectation, John Lewis, quite brilliantly, ‘advertised the advert’ before it came out. They had penguins running around on some of the screens in tube stations, which is very unique, as well as showing clips of Monty and the hashtag #MontyThePenguin on TV to hint at what was to come and help extend the campaign’s online reach.

All of these clever moves have helped John Lewis create the advertising kryptonite that is ‘Monty’.

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