Is this 2014’s “best Christmas ad by a country mile” or “a fucking disgrace”?


This year’s Sainsbury’s Christmas ad has been the subject of much debate and that debate was very much raging in my world on Friday afternoon. Half an hour after I’d proclaimed it “a masterpiece, the best Christmas ad this year by a country mile” my colleague, the legendary creative director, diarist and blogger Andy Flemming, turned up and announced that it was “an absolute fucking disgrace”. These diametrically opposite points of view led to a fascinating debate in which I changed my mind then changed it back again several times, flip flopping around like a tasered Havaiana.

Andy’s main issue with the ad is that it takes real events from World War One, sanitises them and uses the resultant heartstring tugs to flog tins of baked beans. Like this Guardian piece he feels that romanticising what was a horrifically violent chapter in history – a chapter in which millions of mainly young soldiers died cruel, bloody deaths – and slapping a supermarket logo on the end, is beyond the moral pale. That prettifying and repackaging WW1 is offensive to the memory of the soldiers who died and their families. He asserts that if WW1 can be used as the backdrop for an ad, why not 9-11 or Auschwitz? How about the story of Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis in a wardrobe being turned into an Ikea commercial? These are all fair and powerful points/challenges. They go to the heart of what an ad campaign can and can’t do, what it should and shouldn’t do. On the surface they seem to add weight to Bill Hicks’ infamous standpoint that advertising people are “Satan’s little helpers…the ruiner of all things good…Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage, you are fucked and fucking us…kill yourself…no, seriously, kill yourself.”

However. Let’s pause a minute before we get too depressed and take Bill’s advice. On reflection, I believe the world is a better place for this ad having been made. Yes, it uses the context of a horrific tragedy for commercial ends but, crucially, it doesn’t seem to come from a cynical place. No, it doesn’t have the grim realism or existential punch of The Deerhunter or Saving Private Ryan but what it does do is tap into a unique moment in history and pull a sliver of beauty out of the shit. Like The Farm’s classic song All Together Now, it shines a light on the incredible moments when those young troops – against their superiors’ orders – stopped the slaughter and stood side by side. For those few days the filth and shit and violence were put aside and humanity came first. As the lyrics go, “A spirit stronger than war was working that night/December 1914 cold, clear and bright/Countries’ borders were right out of sight/They joined together and decided not to fight.”

To bring this unique event to life, to remind us that even in the darkest hours of the darkest days humanity can still win out over all the shit…even if only for a moment or a day or a week, is A Good Thing. Yes, there’s a logo on the end and yes Sainsbury’s are looking to build brand affinity and make cash out of that. But that doesn’t change the fact that the ad will educate and inspire. It’s got people talking about WW1, reconsidering the context, remembering that the millions who died were real people not faceless statistics, asking themselves what it was all for and what we’ve learnt. The answer to that last question is probably ‘fuck all’ when you think about some of the other conflicts around the world over the last decade alone, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. As my old history teacher drummed into us, “We study the past to understand the present and to throw light onto the future.” Yes, we should probably get our history from books and films not ads, but for a whole array of reasons, sometimes those formats aren’t accessible or compelling.

And while the argument that some things should be left untouched by advertising is a strong one, I’d rather focus on the positive things that advertising can do than the things it shouldn’t do. Rich Silverstein of Goodby Silverstein famously described advertising as “art in service of capitalism” and if the ‘art’ part of the equation can make a difference, all the better. Some of my favourite work ever taps into this vein, from an insurance company creating an installation that drastically reduced suicides to a global creative technology company using its platform to support young gay kids dealing with bullying and a travel company raising awareness around the tragedy of kids’ cancers. And one of the campaigns that made me want to be a copywriter in the first place was Olivero Toscani’s controversial work for Benetton in the 80s which featured AIDS victims, riots, famines, political unrest, death row inmates, anorexia, war zone reportage, provocative religious and racial shots. He blended social commentary and commerce in a way that forced the world to reconsider what advertising could and should be. I remember many a pissed-up pub debate with outraged mates insisting the Benetton stuff was “cashing in on tragedy to flog jumpers.” But Toscani always came across to me as an artist, someone using ads to raise awareness. “There are no shocking pictures, only shocking reality,” he said at the time. “All I’ve done is put a news photo in the ad pages.”

For me, Sainsbury’s/Abbott Mead Vickers shining a light on this terrible period of history is a truly positive thing. And specifically honing in on an inspiring element of the conflict is really important. While everyone else is urging us to ‘win Christmas’ by getting stuck into the capitalist merry-go-round of buying piles of stuff and laying on mountains of food, they’ve used the power of great writing, direction, performances, cinematography and effects to tell us something different. To remind us that life is fragile and that the most precious thing in it isn’t amassing stuff but making a real connection with another human being. And if we have to be subjected to a Sainsbury’s logo at the end to be reminded of that, well that’s OK by me.

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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

3 Responses to Is this 2014’s “best Christmas ad by a country mile” or “a fucking disgrace”?

  1. Well considered post.
    I like the ad for all the reasons you mention, and lets not forget it’s also raising money for the Royal British Legion too.
    Frank – fellow creative and WW1 battlefield guild

  2. Ant Melder says:

    Thanks Frank. I put the post on facebook and it triggered a shitstorm of angry disagreement. The bottom line of which seemed to be that ‘soliders will be turning in their graves’ over the ad. While I’m not always the advertising industry’s biggest fan, in this case I think the pros outnumber the cons. One of the biggest pros being – as you point out – the money being raised for the Royal British Legion.

  3. I’m glad they left out the part where most soldiers who took part in this ceasefire ended up in jail or executed by treason.

    That’s why between dark historical events and adorable CGI penguins, it’s always safer to go with adorable CGI penguins.

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