I've already written once about this year's batch of Christmas adverts, and before we're even halfway through November, here I am again. My reason for picking up the subject is that I've just seen the Sainsburys ad.
It's a beautiful piece of filmmaking, depicting the 1914 Christmas ceasefire at the trenches. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, and this is pretty powerful and timely imagery. You can see just how seriously Sainsburys were committed to getting this right by the fact that they have made the advert in partnership with the Royal British Legion. It's a powerful piece of advertising.
But it makes me feel deeply uncomfortable.
Why? Because it is a piece of advertising. It's masquerading as something more significant than that, but for all of it's message about how Christmas is for sharing and why-can't-we-all-just-get-along, what it's really trying to get you to do is to spend your money in their shop rather than in another one. Yes, yes.... so you can buy the chocolate bar featured in the advert for £1 (which compares rather nicely with the £95 that John Lewis are charging for Monty the Penguin), and all of the profits from that are going to the British Legion (with precisely none of the Monty the Penguin money going to charity). Well done everyone, you've knocked John Lewis into a cocked hat. Except that John Lewis aren't really pretending to be anything more than a retailer in their advert. Yes, they're manipulating your emotions and trying to make you feel all warm and fuzzy about a little boy and his CGI penguin, but they're not trying to hide that fact, are they? We buy into that: we want to believe that Christmas is more than just a festival of greed and consumption. We sing songs about silent nights and peace every year, and it's maybe even true... for a few days, people seem a bit nicer to each other. You might get a bit ratty with your parents and your family, but basically people do try and see the people closest to them. It's all an illusion, of course. People are still cold and hungry on the streets; people are still being murdered and wars don't stop.
And that's the thing: wars don't stop and this is what makes this Sainsburys advert so awful. You remember that famous scene in Blackadder Goes Forth where they're all about to go over the top and the guns stop firing. Just for a moment, they think the war might be over:
Captain Darling: I say, listen - our guns have stopped.
Lieutenant George: You don't think...
Private Baldrick: Perhaps the war's over. Perhaps it's peace.
Captain Darling: Thank God. We lived through it. The Great War, 1914 to 1917....
There was a ceasefire in the trenches at Christmas in 1914, and troops from both sides met in No Man's Land and played football. Then, a few hours later, they were back to trying to kill each other and continued to try until the war was over in 1918. Nothing changed. Then we did the whole thing again in 1939 and in who-knows how many other wars. Yes, we are all just people and yes, it's clearly insane to try and settle our disputes through force of arms.... but that hasn't stopped us. I find it unbearably poignant watching this advert and seeing the two young soldiers from opposite sides introducing themselves. When they know each others' names, how can they possibly go back to killing each other? But they do. Whilst Sainsburys doesn't show us Otto viciously bayonetting Jim or Jim blowing the top off his chum Otto's head, it happened.
Happy Christmas, old boy.
Well done with the advert, Sainsburys, but don't you think that imagery like this should be used more carefully than just to deliver an emotional punch to a Christmas advert for a grocer? Don't you think we owe the fallen a greater respect than this?
This advert is tasteless and cynical.
MCMXIV (1964) by Phillip Larkin
Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
On a completely different note, am I the only one who watched this advert and thought of the video for Pipes of Peace?
[It seems that The Guardian doesn't much like this either:
"In helping to launch the ad today, the legion’s head of fundraising praised the film’s historical accuracy and attention to detail. How true can this be? While there were certainly varying conditions on the frontline from place to place and year to year, reading contemporary accounts from either side of the trenches, in the poetry of Owen and Sassoon or the prose of Remarque, the details that stick in the mind are horrific. Nowhere in the new advert do we see the blood and entrails, the vomit and faeces, the rats feasting on body parts. The response might be “well they can hardly put that in a Christmas advert can they?” and that would be entirely true. Which is why the scene is entirely inappropriate for a Christmas advert in the first place."]