It’s November 14th and you can’t move for Christmas. The Oxford Street lights are on, supermarket shelves are stacked with mince pies and crackers and I spent Sunday’s Downton Abbey finale in a premature winter wonderland of back-to-back Christmas adverts.
It’s a tradition in itself nowadays. Each year it starts with John Lewis’s now-fabled Christmas advert followed by the big guns rolling out their festive call to arms that some advertising agency has busted a gut (and no doubt spent a small fortune) creating. Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, Boots, Coca-Cola – they’re all at it, and each Christmas they get more lavish. Give it ten years and Waitrose will be punting out a feature-length ode to Santa and his nine reindeer.
But threatening to outstrip dear Monty the Penguin this year is supermarket chain Sainsbury’s who released their effort earlier this week, creating quite the buzz online.
Set among the trenches during the First World War, the three minute 40 second promotion depicts a Christmas Day truce and fabled football match between Germans and Allied Forces fighting on the Western Front. It’s been hailed as “heart-breaking”, “gut-wrenching”, “the Christmas advert to end all Christmas adverts” – but following a week where we commemorated those who fell, is it really OK to use them to flog groceries?
No. The story is touching – and according to a couple of historians in a supporting Sainsbury’s video, may have actually happened – but watching the ad didn’t leave me weepy. Instead it left a sour taste in my mouth because this beautifully-shot, high-budget montage (with added violin strings) wasn’t created to educate us or even help us sense the realities of those soldiers’ hardship.
It was produced for commercial purposes and romanticising the horrors of the First World War with the intent of compelling us through Sainsburys’ doors is wrong. Ask yourself this: how might those soldiers have felt had they known how their story was being told 100 years on? It’s a sobering thought.
Now, it would be unfair not to mention that the advert was made in partnership with The Royal British Legion, and that the chocolate bar gifted from an English soldier to a German is available to buy with all profits (50p per bar) going to the charity to benefit armed forces and their families, past and present.
According to a Sainsbury’s spokesman, the advert was meant to “raise awareness and funds during this centenary year.” The latter I’m sure they will achieve and I’m glad money is being raised – how important it is that those soldiers remain in our minds both on 11th November and the rest of the year – but hashtagging #ChristmasisforSharing seems exploitative and terribly at odds with the grave subject matter.
And as for awareness, I don’t think this sentimentalised story of the front does the job. It’s a moving watch – and very clever – but is it right? I’m not so sure.