John Lewis, a dog and a snowstorm

John Lewis has upset a few people, it seems. The final scene of its Christmas ad shows a dog left out in the snow, while a small boy pins a Christmas stocking to its kennel. To say this hasn’t gone down well with dog lovers and animal welfare campaigners would be understating the case.

Dogcast Radio, an ‘internet radio show and podcast for dog lovers’, has started a Facebook page to campaign to stop the ad:

Campaigners are encouraging dog lovers to complain to the Advertising Standards authority to get the ad pulled; but there are dissenting voices, too (one example: “It’s an advert for goodness sake. You get Christmas cards from animal rescues with dogs in kennels on! There are far more important things to protest over than a tv advert!”).

I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of the ad. What I’m interested in is how John Lewis is dealing with this vociferous minority (for now, at least) and responding.

Here’s an extract from the John Lewis Facebook page, yesterday afternoon:

There’s no rule book, sadly, when dealing with these sorts of issues. It is particularly difficult to get it right when the group you’re dealing with are as committed and passionate – and as resistant to argument – as animal rights and issue campaigners.

John Lewis has done what should have been the right thing, in trying to take the discussion off Facebook, by inviting people to talk to customer service direct about their concerns. But in this instance, the retailer may have underestimated its audience. There’s a camaraderie between people with a shared passion. What’s ended up happening is that campaigners are sharing the responses they’re getting, and pulling them apart on the site.

These same campaigners seem to be concerned primarily with promoting their cause as widely as possible, to bring pressure to John Lewis, rather than taking up individual points of view with the retailer. They are putting pressure on animal charities to come out against the ad (which none have done, at the time of writing) [UPDATE 18 NOV – I’VE BEEN TOLD THAT AN ANIMAL CHARITY IS NOW INVOLVED.]

The other thing John Lewis has done well is to contain the issue on the channels where the comments are appearing, rather than over-reacting. It is responding to Facebook campaigners on Facebook; it hasn’t contributed to the issue by posting statements everywhere and giving the issue more publicity. [This has rather changed since the time of writing. There appear to be mixed messages among campaigners about whether John Lewis has listened to criticism or not, and whether that crticism has contributed to the ad being changed. Perhaps decisive action earlier on would have prevented today’s publicity achieved by campaigners around the ad].

What I think it hasn’t quite got right is to send out identical responses to each campaigner on Facebook – so everyone can see that they’re not getting personal responses, bar a namecheck at the beginning of the message. I can see that if an issue gets to a huge scale, personalising each response would be problematic, but at the moment, it’s still just a handful of people (more than 1000 at the time of writing) complaining about the ad, and individual responses would be possible.

The issue here is, I suspect, that the ‘official’ response has been through corporate communications approval, and is not coming from a team of experience community managers. A more human face would show that John Lewis was listening and responding with a personal touch, rather than trying to ‘contain’ an issue as part of a PR exercise.

I spoke briefly to Tamara Littleton, CEO of social media management and moderation company, eModeration (disclosure: eModeration is a client of Carrot’s), about the handling of the Facebook community. Here’s what she said:

“We’re going to see more of this happening as people use a brand’s Facebook page as a customer service portal and it’s great to see John Lewis responding. They could make the response even more human by addressing people’s concerns. One thing they could consider is saying clearly that the dog was not harmed and it was just part of the story. They could even link to the person who provides the dog, to look behind the scenes of the ad, which would make it clear that this is part of a story, and not advocacy of keeping dogs outside. In these situations, the brand must listen to concerns and address them clearly, but then steer the conversation away in a different direction. If you get it right, other people will help answer comments and complaints on behalf of the brand and spread the word.”

So, the lessons here are:
– Understand your audience
– Communicate with them in the most appropriate way, and individually when possible
– Listen to concerns, and respond appropriately
– Don’t create a firestorm where there isn’t one. Sometimes, the best thing is simply to move away from the debate.

Will it affect John Lewis? The retailer posted an increase in sales last week of 6.8 per cent over the same period last year the week of 15 November (76.93 bn up from 71.99 bn) over the same period last year, so I doubt it.

crisis management, John Lewis,
Social isn’t just about media
2010: the year of protest?

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  • An interesting blog post, thank you.

    I started the Facebook page to provide a focus for what people were feeling and saying. When we contacted John Lewis individually we got fobbed off – when we got together they knew they were dealing with strong feeling.

    I have never run a “campaign” before, but there was so much strong feeling about this that I wa moved to do so.

    I only set the group up on Monday evening – & on Wednesday afternnon John Lewis decided to alter the ad. The ad sent out a wrong & dangerous message, we objected – Facebook and Twitter allowed us to keep in touch and spread the word.

    I have emailed John Lewis to thank them on behalf of the Facebook group. United we had a strong, effective voice and we spoke up for dogs.

  • I’m from Australia and saw the tv commerical, I think it is unfair to display a dog left out in the cold snow. Dogs are suppose to be apart of the family and not only that it is cruel to leave a dog out in such cold temperatures. The part displayed doesn’t show us the true spirit of Christmas.

  • Julie and Krista – thanks for visiting the blog and commenting. It’s been a really interesting campaign to watch from a communications point of view, and shows the power of Facebook and Twitter in communicating a single message from a number of people.

  • The latest communication from John Lewis has indeed undone any of the Christmas cheer they restored yesterday when it was announced they were showing an edited version (minus the dog) of the advert from the weekend onwards. They are now saying they haven’t listened to the growing complaints, that they were going to do this anyway!
    As a normally ethical, customer-friendly company they would have got massive reward points from the 10.5 million dog owners and the bigger group of dog lovers had they listened. Yesterday the voice of Britain’s biggest dog charity Dogs Trust joined the battle, so it isn’t just a few people on facebook. Every day they don’t deal with this appropriately, say sorry and acknowledge there was an error of judgment is another day when this snowball picks up even more pace and becomes an avalanche!
    It isn’t just facebook – it’s Twitter, blogs – we’ll be putting it in our magazine next issue, too.
    There are already people threatening to cut up their JL cards. One in four people in Britain own a dog. They are alienating a massive sector of their market by not listening and reacting appropriately.
    Underestimating their customer’s love of dogs is a massive mistake. Their advert glamourises and validates neglect.
    Yes, it’s only an advert. But we all know the power of this medium. This advert sells a lifestyle and puts animal welfare back 50 years.

    • Hi Beverley
      I notice that on your blog you say that I have a commercial link to John Lewis. I want to make it really clear that I do not; John Lewis is not a client of Carrot Communications.

  • It’s great that people are commenting here, but I do want to be really clear about something (stated in the blog post). My interest here is communications and PR, and not whether the ad was right or wrong. There are plenty of other vehicles discussing that already, very successfully. I’m interested in how John Lewis handled the response, as opposed to whether the ad should have been shown in the first place.

    • Exactly, my post is all about how they are dealing with it! Implying they have listened and reacted to complaints in one response then admitting in another that they have not changed their plans is a huge PR mistake.

  • The dog in the advert is much loved, lives on a sofa and is the apple of the owners eye.
    The idiotic media people that gave the advert that ending are the ones that should be sacked by John Lewis

    How stupid of them to think people would not like that ending, why did they not let the little boy take the dog into the house

    Whoever put that advert together obviously does not keep pets

  • I think John Lewis have yet to grasp the real point that dissenters are making. Yes, of course the dog is well treated in real life and of course he wasn’t harmed during filming. The problems that people have with the advert are:

    1 – the dog is shown as being outside in the snow in an extremely exposed location (next to open water with no walls to stop the wins) inadequate shelter and no source of heat or comfort.

    2 – the dog in question is a Deerhound, a breed able to deal with lower temps than most, but would the great British public really be able to discriminate between breeds if they chose to emulate JLs example?

    The point that John Lewis are completely failing to grasp in their communication with people is that their adverts are designed to sell a lifestyle and the one that they are proposing for dogs is pretty grim.

  • The communications here don’t seem very consistent. First they didn’t seem to have spotted this issue as a risk in advance :OK, anyone can miss a trick. But then they posted identikit responses. Then they sent out a message that seemed to be saying they had changed tack. Then they said that wasn’t what they were doing at all. Doesn’t seem very confident handling of the complaints…

    Out of interest, if a facebook group with 1200+ members in less than 3 days and a petition with similar numbers is in your professional view not a particularly popular one, what sort of numbers do you feel would indicate a significant groundswell of opinion?

    I’m not sure the figure you give for JL profits for last week is very relevant here, as the campaign against it wasn’t running then: what will be interesting will be to see if there is a change over the next fortnight, I would have thought. Assuming JL don’t pull the ad, of course.

  • Purely from the viewpoint of how John Lewis handled the response, there seems little doubt that they have been very badly advised in the first place (this should never have happened) – and now continue to dig themselves a deeper hole.

    Their statements of yesterday and today were very artfully worded to mislead people into thinking they had been listened to, that they had had an effect, and that John Lewis were reacting to their concerns.

    It becomes very clear today that it was nothing more that a ‘corporate PR sleight of hand’ designed to divert people from complaining until after the main campaign is over.

    People rightly or wrongly now feel deceived – and that is almost worse than the storm over the original advert – which, if JL had just thrown their hands up, claimed honest mistake, and agreed to withdraw the advert with the offending ending, would have blown over, and they would even have got brownie points for listening to their customers.

    This one will run and run I feel.

  • Michelle (Ruby Scrumptious)
    November 18, 2010 1:18 pm

    I applaud Julie Hill for her campaign!
    Facebook, Twitter, dog-related websites, emails & various blogs had enabled us to ‘spread the word’ effectively in less than a day – on a wider scale Beverley’s magazine Dogs Today (which is read by millions and in their 20th year!) will enable us to communicate to many more responsible dog owners.
    John Lewis have (in my opinion) been less than communicative – a cut & pasted response 2 days later doesn’t really make me feel that they were listening to my personal email complaint!!!! and from the various responses I’ve seen & heard about the ‘edited’ version which may or may not be put out instead of or as well as the original advert, they still seem to be trying to fob us off.
    I think they are seriously misjudging the strength of feeling this advert has caused and if all of us vote with our feet and refuse to shop there maybe they will take us a bit more seriously once they see their profits taking a nose-dive.
    Thankyou Kate/Carrotcomms for raising the issue here, whatever your reasons 😉
    RubyScrumptious Chihuahua & Toydog Meetups
    Educating toydog owners everywhere.

  • Victoria – in answer to your question, the point I was making about the numbers was that 1000 is still small enough for John Lewis to be able to respond individually, rather than with a mass email. Since the time of writing, that may have changed. I made – and will make – no judgement on the power of those 1000 people. I’ll say once again, that I won’t make any judgement on the advert itself.

  • Just a few points which I will make sure are PR related! 🙂
    I have been in constant touch with the PR dept at John Lewis and they have not been easy to be in constant touch with – they are always not at their desk, in a meeting, or just popped out. They have not communicated with me very well.
    Yes, they sent out standard emails to everyone, which just infuriated people and did not address the concerns that were being rasied. They assure me this was because they had so many complaints they could not otherwise have coped – so either 1000 (now over 1500) was a lot to them, or there were a lot of other complainers.
    But there biggest mistake and it was a big one was to send out a cleverly worded email on Wednesday that led us to believe they were changing the ad in response to our complaints. This has led to even more bad feeling among dog lovers objecting to the ad than there was before.
    John Lewis has ignored, fobbed off and misled those who objected to their ad and those of us in the media who tried to get at the truth. They have handled this appallingly, and as a result their own Facebook page is now suffering from dreadful spamming and “trolling”.
    At the end of the day they are a big enough firm to stick to thier guns and ride it out. Or at least they hope they are! 🙂
    Kate I don’t understand that last point in your blog – how exactly could John Lewis have “moved away” from this?

  • Hi Julie – thanks for your comment, interesting points. First of all, I think you’ve done an amazing job of rallying people round this issue.

    My point about moving away from the debate is to do whatever it takes to stop an issue escalating unecessarily; and to address the issues on the appropriate platforms (in this case, Facebook and YouTube). The ultimate action in this case would have been to take the decision sooner to change the ad, which would have avoided much of the problem. Alternatively, they could have stuck to their guns, but be clear from the start about why(and risk the consequences).

    I was critical in the original post about issuing standard email replies to people over a public channel (Facebook). You make a good point that the message is confused – are they listening, or not? – and this has fanned the flames rather than put them out. But I’m also very aware that PR and marketing departments have a difficult line to tread, and often are learning how to deal with these issues as they go, so they should take some credit for trying to communicate with everyone, and eventually taking a difficult decision about the ad.

    But the over-riding interest for me is the power of Facebook, Twitter and other social media in bringing groups of people together to lobby brands for change.

  • Latest blog now amended to show that Carrot is not linked to John Lewis, apologies. Had assumed eModeration where somehow involved as they were quoted in your original blog.

    The story has grown outside of facebook now. Would seem the PR handling of this issue hasn’t ‘contained’ the story on this media.

    • Hi Beverley – thanks for doing that, I appreciate it.

      I agree about the containment (a lot has changed since this original post on Wednesday). Quicker, more decisive action by JL might have helped this.


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