Tis the season. Or at least it would seem so, given the multitudinous proliferation of Christmas adverts already wedging themselves like stuffing in turkey between episodes of Coronation Street and I’m A Celebrity. Christmas is over a month away and yet we’re already reaching the point where ninety percent of the adverts have mutated from irritating meerkats and family friendly cars, into sentimentalist detritus trying to convince us that a single spray of Calvin Klein will reignite the flames of our extinguished loves, and the answer to the broken relationships in our families isn’t therapy, forgiveness and reconciliation, it is Cartier. However, there is one advert that I think is particularly deserving of ire, given its deceptive marketing strategy and its dislocation of sacrosanct historical events for its own unavoidably avaricious ends.
It is the Sainsbury’s advert.
If you haven’t seen it, the advert is an attempted recreation of the Christmas Day Armistice that took place during the First World War, bringing a ceasefire to large stretches of the frontlines on either side of No Man’s Land. The ceasefire involved singing carols, the exchanging of gifts, and – most famously – football matches between the warring factions. You can see the ad here if you haven’t switched your TV on for the last week (or you’re not British):
Before I start, let me say that the first time I watched the advert I was enthralled. The cinematography and direction are excellent, as are the settings, props and attention to historical details. The production values are clearly very high and the emotive punch delivered by the score and some well-judged acting is quite an accomplishment for a moving image of such brevity. As the ad moves towards its conclusion, the soldiers depicted in it make their way forlornly back to their trenches to face the grim inevitably of the resumption of hostilities with their fleeting allies, and you’d be forgiven for getting a bit teary-eyed as you’re affected by the senselessness of war and the tragic futility of the beautiful gesture of camaraderie just witnessed.
However then, like a clown gatecrashing a funeral, or a branding iron to the soul, the Sainsbury’s logo rears its ugly head to punctuate the conclusion of the advert. An advert that is an alleged tribute to the memories of First World War heroes.
The first time this happened I was just about able to let it go; for one, I had been so impressed with the compressed piece of narrative recreation, and so intoxicated by the potency of its sentimentality that I overlooked the black heart beating at its core. And secondly, I didn’t actually realise that it was an advert until the logo popped up at the end. I had assumed that it was for a war related charity, perhaps a benevolent fund supporting permanently injured soldiers, or even the trailer for a Saving Private Ryanesque period drama. I most certainly hadn’t foreseen that it was – no matter how they dress it up – an advert promoting Christmas shopping at a supermarket.
Just take a second to let that sink in. It is the equating of the experiences and emotions of men who fought – and in most cases sacrificed their limbs, sanity or lives – during the First World War…with shopping.
At a supermarket.
The advert does what any number of odious collections of scumbags have done before them, to reattribute the heroism and sacrifice of British soldiers to their brand name. Everyone from the British National Party to the English Defence League have appropriated the poppy as part of their iconography in the hope of procuring a shred of the incalculable dignity and distinction that actually belongs to the soldiers alone. People, including Sainsbury’s, use the war believing it to be an exposition of the best of British values; they then take those values, interweave them with their manifestos or corporate identity and repackage them to the public in a distorted form that contains the face of the original message but with the heart cut out. It is meant to inspire a kind of guilt-driven nationalism and trust in them. What it actually is, is little more than smashing through the miles of humble white crosses in the military graveyards of Ypres in order to mine them for gold.
It is the worst of British values masquerading as the best of them.
The advert attempts to invoke feelings that it has no right laying claim to for a start, but they are also feelings that Sainsbury’s could have just as easily achieved with a computer-generated penguin without disturbing the ghosts of the past. There is a valid question as to why this was the best vehicle for showing that Christmas is about ‘giving’. Plumbing national sentiment over the First World War, Sainsbury’s aims firstly to evoke pity in us as the young soldier receives his meagre Christmas present of a chocolate bar and a photo of his wife/girlfriend, before transitioning into the ‘be happy with what you’ve got’ vibe as his contentedness with his gift becomes manifest. There are enough layers of cynicism in this piece of false sentiment to turn a kindergarten full of three year olds into nihilists; just go to the Sainsbury’s homepage and see how wedded to the vision of modest happiness they really are – you might realise what a bunch of mendacious charlatans they are when you see their loan repayment rates, it might be when you see the plethora of semantically antithetical ‘indulgent’ treats, or it might be when you see Gok Wan putting his name to the Winter Range of Zu fashionware. Either way, it stinks.
The ‘making of’ and ‘story behind’ are also interesting asides of this issue. They feel like they have been made for one of two reasons. The first is that Sainsbury’s were so convinced of the brilliance of their advert that they foresaw the interest in it and indulged in a little bit of pre-emptive handshaking, attempting to add a little gravitas to their idea in the process. The second reason is that Sainsbury’s were well aware of their avaricious cynicism from the start and so they amassed a collection of historians and members of the British legion to tell us that despite our sense of the overarching exploitation going on – it’s all ok, nothing to see here, all above board, because people who know war (i.e. they’ve read about it) have said so.
It feels a bit too much like Alan Partridge turning around to his audience and saying ‘Don’t bother writing in and saying that’s racist, because it’s not’ or David Brent claiming his prejudicial jokes are defensible because ‘the black guy liked them’. Unfortunately, unlike Brent and Partridge, Sainsbury’s are real.
The Christmas Day Armistice’s pathos is inherent, and doesn’t need any contextualising or explaining by patronising commentators laying claim to the thoughts and feelings of men whose circumstances they could never understand. Apparently this was lost on the director Ringan Ledwidge who said ‘It’s like one of those stories you have to be so respectful of because obviously a lot of people lost their lives. So you owe it to them to like get it right.’ In addition to using a manner of speech better suited to talking about Miley Cyrus’s nipples on the E-News channel whilst actually talking about The Great War, Mr. Ledwidge – with no apparent sense of irony – talks about being ‘respectful’. Surely, Mr Ledwidge, being ‘respectful’ would have meant not using sorrow for the dead, the pity of war and national collective mourning just after the eve of the centenary of the First World War as vehicles for selling mince pies and red velvet cream cakes. Maybe what would have been respectful would have been to depict this soaring testament to the human spirit without cheapening it with a corporate logo after it had reached its nadir, or better still – not to have done it at all and let the beauty of the story speak for itself and reach people without your interference.
The unavoidable problem with the advert is that the story relies on the context of suffering, bloodshed and torment for its narrative power. It is precisely the fact that millions of young British and German men were sent in to the slaughterhouse of No Man’s Land, to be cut down by machine guns in the prime of their lives that lends the historical episode such emotional weight and extraordinary gravity. Without the immutable truth of these brutal facts then the story is just about a bunch of blokes giving each other presents and playing football – which there is nothing really remarkable about at all. Sainsbury’s knew this; the presence of war is clearly accentuated through a series of denotations such as the cut to the barbed wire of No Man’s Land, and then later the distant thunder of shellfire that brings the men back down to earth and reality. Sainsbury’s has cynically exploited history, hoping that audiences would overlook that their compassionate responses to their advert are the by-product of one of the most appalling showcases of inhumanity that the world has ever seen.
They will use the defence that the sales of their limited edition chocolate bars – just the chocolate bars mind you – go towards supporting the Royal British Legion. That’s fine, but it doesn’t circumvent the use of war as an advertising tool. Whilst donating to the Royal British Legion is commendable – the truth remains that this could have been achieved through the use of a kid opening magical glowing presents set to a toned down cover of a classic song written by a twee musician. The representative of the Royal British Legion claimed that ‘it’s important that we remember’ on the ‘Making of’ video; perhaps he missed the Remembrance Sunday that took place two days before this video aired, or maybe none of Sainsbury’s executives had been aware of the hundreds of thousands of ceramic poppies pouring out of the side of the Tower of London in one of the most prominent national spectacles in recent years. Two high profile, dignified, non-self-serving pieces of large-scale remembrance should perhaps have negated the need for a piece of exploitative corporate greed-driven one.
The other side of it is its surreptitious nature. As I mentioned above, on a first viewing it is not clear from the outset that the advert is indeed an advert – and there is a real dishonesty in that. We are not clear from the commencement of the advert that we are ultimately being guided to buy a product and establish brand loyalty. Common tropes of advertising are conspicuous by their absence – such as branding and product placement – and the high production values of the advert make it seem incongruous in the spot that it appears – the cheap looking Aldi advert this is not. And by the time the viewers have had their heartstrings tugged by the advert, it is probably too late. They’d buy reconstituted dog meat for Christmas dinner at that stage.
Sainsbury’s knew exactly what they were doing all along; Mark Given, head of brand communications at Sainsbury’s, said ‘we hope it will help keep alive the memory of the fallen that made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country’, and he managed to say it with a straight face. Just like the corporate whores from Coca Cola and McDonalds who attempt to pass off rapacious community work as philanthropy, buying brand loyalty through throwing money at events incongruous with their products. So Sainsbury’s have done the same. Now we can ask ourselves not only if a Big Mac can fix a broken home, but also if buying Sainsbury’s Festive Favourites make us more patriotic and supportive of the war efforts.
Really, it’s all wrong. The cynicism masquerading as altruism. The greed dressed up as empathy. The immorality masked as philanthropy. The desecration of a historical event whose truths are already contained within the words of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sasson, John McCrae and Robert Frost, and whose remembrance is already recognised with an annual day of respect and mourning. I won’t be buying anything from Sainsbury’s this Christmas, least of all their bullshit.
I’m a Lidl’s man anyway.