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Why Advertising Needs an Honest Debate About Sainsbury’s Christmas Ad


Laura Swinton on the controversial WW1-inspired commercial and why we can’t ignore the debate

Why Advertising Needs an Honest Debate About Sainsbury’s Christmas Ad

Christmas ads, by and large, are fairly uncontroversial fayre. Yes there’s always the odd armchair cynic or embittered creative director grumbling in the background that the hare was being passive aggressive (John Lewis 2013), that the 70s didn’t look like that (Tesco 2013) or that it’s pretty poor show to start broadcasting your Christmas campaign in September (K-Mart, I’m looking at you), but it’s usually pretty easy to ignore the odd Ebenezer and get to the business of enjoying a gooey, televisual, capitalist brand-hug. This year’s grumbling has been a little harder to brush off – Sainsbury’s beautifully shot ad that depicts the famous true story of a WW1 Christmas Day football match between Allied and German forces has drawn praise and criticism in equal measure. Whichever side of the trench you sit on, it’s a debate worth getting involved in.

The gorgeous and emotive Ringan Ledwidge-directed spot from AMV BBDO has sparked controversy because, as some have claimed, it exploits war for profit as well as beautifying and glorifying war with its good-looking actors and rich colours. On the other hand the ad has been created in conjunction with the Royal British Legion (a charity for UK veterans), and chocolate bars featured in the spot will be sold in stores to raise money for the charity.

So is it a worthwhile use of Sainsbury’s advertising budget to support a good cause or a disingenuous smokescreen? I’ll admit I feel really conflicted about the spot. As someone who admires good storytelling and film craft I can’t deny that it’s brilliantly made. The story of the 1914 truce is as emotional as you get, so from a strategic point of view it’s smart thinking – plus it’s a story that most in the UK are familiar with so it’s easy to grasp. 

On the other hand it just feels… a bit off. Every school child in the UK has the words of war poet Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ drummed into them at some point during their education. It warns of glorifying war and the lies that are spun to young idealistic children. Also, while I can’t knock the efforts made to raise money for the Royal British Legion, the idea that a sad and emotional story is suddenly undercut by a quick call-to-action feels jarring. ‘Like what you see? You too can buy this chocco bar in shops NOW!!!’  

Then again... well, if the old Wildean cliché is true and the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, well I can't help but have some admiration for the sheer balls/gall/brass neck of it. No other supermarket Christmas ad has had a look-in this year.

Wherever you stand on it, it’s worth talking about. It highlights a wider issue around Christmas advertising. In the UK in particular, Christmas TV ads have been embraced by the general public with an enthusiasm only paralleled by the Super Bowl in the US. This wasn’t always the case and it’s a phenomenon that’s grown in recent years, thanks largely to the success of John Lewis’ efforts, which have grown in popularity since 2007 when the department store decided to start getting really creative with its festive advertising. 2007 feels like a long time ago, so it’s easy for brands and agencies to take their position in the Christmas cultural mix for granted. But, in reality, it’s a privilege for Christmas ads to be picked up by the mainstream media, strewn over personal Facebook posts and discussed, at length, in pubs across the land. And it’s a privilege that can easily be revoked. People willingly overlook the fact they’re being sold to because they enjoy the commercials – but it may not stay that way forever.

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 19 Nov 2014 19:00:59 GMT