It’s Christmas, and the wackaging medium is the musical message

Sad songs say (and pay) so much for marketing companies


You know the drill by now: it will be a young female singer and the song will be a cover version of an already big-selling hit. There’ll be a syrupy string arrangement and the reverb button will be turned up to 11.

It’s time for the annual John Lewis Christmas song, which has now become more important sales- wise than The X Factor winner song.

The company is keeping the singer and the song under wraps, but all informed sources point the finger at Lily Allen (above) and a suitably melodramatic cover of Keane’s 2004 hit Somewhere Only We Know.

We’re well on our way now to The Best John Lewis Christmas Ad Song in the World Ever album. The ultra-successful musical marketing strategy has thus far brought us Victoria Bergsman and Sweet Child O’Mine; Ellie Goulding and Your Song; Amelia Warner and Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want; and Gabrielle Alpin with The Power of Love.

Allen is the biggest name yet to front the £6 million-plus campaign, and the resultant (probable) No 1 tees her up nicely for her return to the music business next year.

John Lewis was thinking of dispensing with the twee tear-jerker policy this year and apparently approached PJ Harvey to be the chosen one, but got scared off by her intelligence and integrity (okay, I’m imagining).

The song and ad will be another example of a very distressing trend called “wackaging”. This was pioneered a few years ago by the Innocent smoothies’ marketing people. They put “quirky, chummy” messages on the sides of their cartons, as if to say “we’re not a big, bad corporate, we’re actually your friend”. But all you want to do is punch them in the face.

Wackaging is all over music placement now. Take any hit song from yesteryear, slow the tempo down, transpose its key, and put an “ethereal” vocal on top. The result is a piece of teary-eyed, maudlin nonsense designed to make you feel good about giving a company your money for a product you don’t need.

You can hear the “wackaging” effect at its finest by listening to a song called Heartbeats by a band called The Knife. It was a fairly standard piece of electro-pop until the Sony TV people got their hands on it, drafted in a singer called Jose Gonzalez to “soften” it down, and in the process created one of the most successful ad campaigns of the past few years.

By refining this technique, John Lewis has been behind some huge selling songs. By stripping away the rhythm section, adding soft piano tinkles and having the singer sound like she’s about to burst out crying with the emotion of it all at any second, the retailer make Hallmark card music for people who don’t normally like music.

If indeed it is to be Lily Allen with Somewhere Only We Know, you can be sure that the original song (which was hardly rockin’ to begin with) will come out the other end of the production process “lovely and sad”. But to really see the full effect of musical wackaging, what you’d need to do is take an Einsteurzende Neubauten song and make it sound like it could be used in an ad for orphaned kittens.

Not that someone of Lily Allen’s calibre cares that much about being wackaged for the sake of a Christmas No 1. These days, you take it where you find it.

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