Much discussion has been had in recent weeks, among the Internet, the national press and on this very site, about a “controversial” Christmas advertisement from Sainsburys.
In case you haven’t seen it, the ad in question is a reconstruction of the World War I Christmas Truce, an unofficial ceasefire in which British and German troops put down their weapons in the name of Christmas spirit, exchanged good will, played football, before going right back to their trenches the very next day to go back to blowing each other up. Such an event never occurred again in the remaining years of the conflict.
And so Sainsburys, one of Britain’s leading supermarket chains, has also followed the Christmas spirit, and for their big glossy Christmas ad this year, has filmed a version of these events, the only difference being that it strikes the casual viewer as a little more, shall we say, “Hollywood”.
This is understandable. Advertisers naturally don’t want to feature gritty realism and bodies being blown apart, particularly at Christmas. However it begs the question: why use this event to promote a commercial enterprise?
Is it simply following in the tradition of recent years of creating “short films” for Christmas as opposed to an “advert”? (See John Lewis for a recent, hideous example of this). Is it a celebration, a historical reminder? This year has been after all the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the “war to end all wars” (should we expect an advert depicting the Battle of the Somme for 2016? By Tesco maybe?). Or is it a cynical and cruel attempt to cash in on the recent sensitive wave of national sentimentality?
I suspect the answer is a combination of all these questions. However, this doesn't excuse what is, in this writer’s opinion, a crass and misjudged campaign.
The “short film” angle. Yes, it may look and sound pretty. But it’s an advert, the whole point, the whole exercise of advertising, is to present either an idealised reflection of reality, or to create an absurdly exaggerated reality, both of these to present the product in a good light. Looking and sounding beautiful does not let this ad off the hook. If anything, it makes it worse. The First World War was not beautiful. It was not Hollywood. It was the one of, if not the, bloodiest conflict in recent history. Doesn't sound like good material to promote a supermarket does it?
But wait you say, Sainsburys produced this ad in conjunction with the Royal British Legion, who will also be receiving hefty financial remuneration. I don’t believe this excuses the act in the first place. You can’t get away with whatever you want as long as you donate to a charity. Why not just donate as an act in itself?
I am reminded of comments made by Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, earlier this year, in which he blasted so called “Blackadder” myths about the First World War. He argued that the war should not be depicted as a “misbegotten shambles” and should be presented as “just a war”.
No war is just a war. And you could argue that the very nature of war itself is a misbegotten shambles. Not something that should be sentimentalised made comfy, safe. That is an incredibly dangerous and disrespectful act not just for previous generations, but for future ones too.
Why do I bring up Mr Gove? Because this ad to me, represents how he would like people to remember the conflict. As smiles and hand shaking and football and chocolate. I had hoped his comments would not be taken too seriously.
Albeit, someone at the Sainsburys marketing department was listening evidently. #Television