Praise and blame for first world war Christmas ad

Strange meeting: Two soldiers, one British, one German, meet on Christmas Day in 1914.

With over 8m views, Sainsbury’s ad about the 1914 Christmas truce in the trenches has caused a stir. But should a supermarket really be using the horrors of the First World War to sell turkeys?

The film had its world premiere last week and since then some 8m people have watched it. Some have called it ‘a masterpiece’ and ‘epic’; others said it was ‘grim’ and ‘disrespectful’. It is not the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but the UK supermarket Sainsbury’s new Christmas advertisement.

The Christmas season is a crucial time for high street sales. Every UK household will spend an average of £500 over Christmas on food, drink and presents and every retailer is desperate for as large a share of that money as possible.

Televison ads have become important in this struggle in the last few years. This year Marks & Spencers has a pair of do-gooding fairies. Waitrose’s advert is about a shy girl baking gingerbread and Boots has an exhausted nurse coming home after finishing her Christmas shift.

John Lewis waddled in two weeks ago with Monty the penguin and now Sainsbury’s has fought back with an emotional glimpse of the famous 1914 truce on the Western Front. On that first Christmas Day of the war British and German soldiers spontaneously laid down their arms and came together between the trenches on no man’s land to share greetings, drinks, mementoes and even a game of football.

But the Sainsbury’s ad has caused a substantial backlash. Though many admire it, several hundred complaints have been made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). Many ask if it is morally acceptable to use this airbrushed snapshot of a war in which millions died simply to push sales.

Sainsbury’s responds that it is raising money for the Royal British Legion with whom it made the ad. It features a chocolate bar, given by a British soldier to a German, and the supermarket has been selling 5,000 replica bars an hour, with half the profits going to the charity. And Sainsbury's has also recruited Andrew Hamilton, the grandson of the soldier who is believed to have started the truce, who has recorded a 'behind the ad' video for Sainsbury’s.

But is a brief and cheerful episode in a colossally murderous war really a suitable topic for selling Christmas turkeys, DVD box sets and expensive toiletries?

It will all be over by Christmas

Some say that this is a perfectly acceptable use of one of the few heartwarming events in the First World War. It reminds the audience that the true message of Christmas, generosity and fellow feeling, was still understood in the middle of huge carnage.

Others are appalled by the use of a national tragedy for commercial ends. By constructing a sentimental plot in the trenches at Christmas, Sainsbury’s has distorted history in the tradition of Hollywood blockbusters such as Titanic and Braveheart simply to provoke an emotional response to buy.

You Decide

  1. Is the First World War a suitable subject for a supermarket ad?
  2. Aren’t all advertisements really looking to provoke an excessive emotional reaction?

Activities

  1. Research some other controversial ad campaigns of the past and write short paragraphs on five of them. Discuss with your class why you think they were considered inappropriate at the time and why they might be less or even more acceptable nowadays.
  2. How much of what you know about history comes from advertisements? Discuss in groups if this might be a good or a bad thing.

Some People Say...

“Advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things.’David Ogilvy”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t buy anything from supermarkets. Why should I care?
Manipulating history happens in so many ways — especially in popular culture — and once done the new version can be used to justify current actions. This is not a modern phenomenon — we all think of King Richard III as an evil king, not because we know his history, but because we take our views from Shakespeare’s play, written for a Tudor monarch whose grandfather, Henry VII, had defeated him and taken his throne.
But the First World War ended nearly 100 years ago. How can any of it still matter?
It is not so long ago. Many people still alive remember members of their family, grandparents and great-grandparents, who fought it the First World War. And its consequences are still causing trouble, notably at the moment in the MIddle East.

Word Watch

No man’s land
The term goes back to the Middle Ages to describe a piece of land whose ownership is disputed. However today it most commonly refers to the area between the opposing trenches on the Western Front in France and Belgium during the First World War.
ASA
The ASA oversees the voluntary code of practice of the advertising industry to ensure that all advertisements are truthful and honest.
Legion
The Royal British Legion is a charity founded in 1921 to support ex-servicemen and their families. It organises the annual Poppy Appeal.

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