It’s Christmas season again. You can tell this not by the fact that advent has begun, which it hasn’t yet, but because every major retailer in the country has released their Christmas advert. The reality TV shows are also everywhere, counting down to a Christmas finale of no doubt epic proportions, where an idiotic Irishman will declare that someone who is tone deaf is the greatest singer since Arion, two little Geordie’s will crown a non-celebrity king or queen of the five star jungle and some moody blokes in black ties will say that a dance that none of us have heard of was sequin-tastic.
And whilst I am trying to control my undoubted excitement and hoping that Santa Claus doesn’t fall out of his sleigh, I will change the channel in the hope of finding something more educational for my daughters to watch. My hope will be to find something that is more stimulating than the mind-numbing anti-entertainment that now makes up weekend prime time programming. Of course my daughters won’t care, they will only have eyes for the iPads, browsing for the toys we haven’t bought them for Christmas and then not talking to us for a week because we clearly don’t love them.
Every year is the same. Whilst the rational people use advent as the earliest opportunity to even start thinking about Christmas, the rest of the world starts to get ready just after Halloween. This is the reason I can now read my book at night by the light of my neighbour’s Christmas lights, which could also double as the approach lights for Heathrow. I can hear the whirring of the electrical meter from down the street. But on the plus side Southern Electric shares are going up in price by the hour. We’ve got to get out of this recession somehow. I’m fairly sure though that he has paid for the lights with a Wonga loan!
Don’t get me wrong, I really like Christmas, I like to ‘do’ Christmas and have a merry old time. I like my children to think Christmas is magical and all that, because those memories will stay with them forever. But what I don’t like is that it seems to last for three months now, it is shoved down our throats from all angles and that underneath all this false merriment everyone is basically miserable and moans about everything.
Take TV adverts. John Lewis has for years now been producing high end adverts especially for Christmas. It has become a spectacle that people wait for with baited breath. And on the day the advert appears social media goes mad for it. Last year’s was a touching animation about a bear, accompanied by a mediocre Lily Allen cover of a well loved Keane song. The year before was an equally heart wrenching tale of a snow man and snow woman. The nation universally shed a tear for a wonderful piece of storytelling. This year’s is no different. Monty the Penguin is a visual masterpiece that cost them £1 million to produce and tells the lovely story of a boy’s lonely Penguin in desperate need of more penguin companionship.
But this year John Lewis doesn’t have the monopoly, almost every major brand has cottoned on to the ‘Christmas Epic Advert’. They want a piece of the action and so the marketing boffins have been scratching their heads since Easter to work out what story they can tell that’ll get us all crying. No doubt they’ve been out experimenting, taking candy from babies and poking dogs with sticks to see what is most touching. Well maybe not, but it would seem that Sainsburys probably should have done that, as they wouldn’t have got as much backlash as their Christmas advert seems to have stirred up.
This year, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, they have produced an advert that dramatizes the legendary Christmas Truce that took place in 1914. Their treatment is a sensitive, understated and yet very thought provoking tale of two soldiers, one German and one British, who venture out into no mans land and meet in the middle to offer seasons greetings. A football match ensues and there is much merriment, until the idyllic scene is shattered by distant gun fire. The advert ends with the German having a blue wrapped chocolate bar from the Brit, and the Brit a biscuit from the German. But barely had the advert finished than social media was going mad with complaints of outrage. How dare Sainsburys exploit a conflict where millions died in order to make profit? OFCOM say they have received hundreds of complaints about the advert.
So let’s put this into context for a moment. Sainsburys has worked with the Royal British Legion for over 20 years, and made this advert in conjunction with them. Bearing in mind the significance of the anniversary on which this has been released, it is unlikely this wasn’t discussed in some detail on more than one occasion over the last year or so. During that period of planning, which would have been quite in depth for a production of this level, one presumes that some of the members of that organisation, who are uniquely qualified to have a view on such things, might have mentioned if they thought this advert was in bad taste. Presumably no one did because Sainsburys went ahead with it and have also released additional footage about the making of the film as well.
And yet they are apparently exploiting the memory of the war. And yet funnily enough I don’t remember seeing British soldiers strolling across no mans land with hands full of supermarket products. Or the hun coming in the other direction armed to the teeth with toiletries and wearing orange overalls. One assumes the same people who are throwing these accusations around on social media were quite happily chuckling away when they were watching Blackadder, or taking their photos of the poppy display at the Tower of London, which has no doubt enjoyed increased revenues as a result. Exploitation? No. The only product Sainsburys actually displays in its advert is a retro styled chocolate bar in a blue wrapper and, whilst plastering the advert with “Live Well for Less”, their motto, would have been a gigantic an error of judgement, all I remember is simple logo on black of equal weighting to that of the Royal British Legion. Those who are mortally offended that they are peddling their retro chocolate bar in this manner may like to know that the proceeds of the sales of those particular bars are going to the Royal British Legion as well and not into the pockets of Sainsburys executives. No wonder everyone is so annoyed, they really do have a nerve don’t they? How dare they donate money to a veterans charity at Christmas!
The problem is that at Christmas these sorts of stories come out because this is the time of year when we start to take stock of what we have. Lets get one thing straight and do away with the naivety here, all adverts are exploitative. They are designed specifically to make you do something that you would otherwise probably not consider doing, that is the point. This is the reason that in Sweden advertisers are banned from showing adverts during childrens programming. So what is worse, emotionally manipulating someone year on year and dressing it up as a sweet little story about penguins, or showing a well put together and rather touching dedication to those brave men and women 100 years ago, whilst raising money for that charity? If that is exploitation then exploit away because those charities need all the help they can get.
And for those who feel the need to sling accusations at the morally corrupt big wigs at these companies, I ask you to do this. Drag yourself off the crumb encrusted sofa for more than a few seconds, block out the sounds of the morally extinct, obese wastes of oxygen on I’m An X Factor Get Me Dancing and look a little deeper at what is going on. The reason you consider this exploitative is because you feel the need to defend something that you only have a passing attachment to, so that you can take a moral high ground. Your complaint is that a company has produced something for profit, using imagery of something abhorrent. But what they actually did was show a moment of compassion that highlights an extremely important and under discussed moral issue of the war. That both sides were human. They did this as a dedication to those who fought, on the 100th anniversary of a war that we all pledge we will never forget. And they did it to sell the only product they actually feature, for which the proceeds go to help a military charity. Of course they are trying to make profits but so are all businesses. I’m sure if this had been produced as a short drama you’d all love it, but that production company didn’t do it for free either! Or of course you could just sit back on the sofa and smile at the little boy playing with the toy penguins and forget all that morally important stuff. Now where are my ten million watt Christmas lights, I want to be seen from space!