In their Christmas messages, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and the Queen all paid tribute to the 1914 truce, in which English and German soldiers stopped fighting to play a game of football. The story has become mythical over the years, to the point where the myth almost needs to be considered separately from the truth. We might look at the true story with questions like “How did the truce come about?”, or “What happened afterwards?” As interesting as answers to these questions might be, they’re irrelevant to the mythical version of the story, which is neat, self-contained, and now pretty much set in stone.
The tale of the truce has become a kind of secular parable. While we can tell the story with a religious dimension to it, a secular version still carries a core message that it’s possible to stop a fight, set aside differences, and focus on what makes us the same as our enemies. Stories like this appeal to teachers (and politicians) because they include everyone, no matter what their faith or attitude to religion. While the teachings of Jesus are seen as belonging to Christianity, and the teachings of Mohammed are seen as belonging to Islam, stories like the 1914 truce don’t belong to any particular group. By that ticket, they belong to all of us, like fairy tales.
That’s why I was so disturbed by the Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas advert. As you may be aware, the ad was a filmic dramatisation of the 1914 truce. The ad follows an English soldier as he hunkers down in a trench, thinking about his family back home. We see him playing football in No Man’s Land, where he makes friends with a German soldier. He gives his new friend a bar of chocolate as a Christmas present, and the ad ends with the slogan “Christmas is for sharing”, a Sainbury’s logo, and finally, the logo of the Royal British Legion.
My reaction to the advert was more complex than my reaction to most Christmas adverts. As the story was being told, I felt uncomfortably real emotions as I empathised with the lead character. I knew the story, but to see it told from one person’s perspective made it more powerful. You start to imagine yourself in the trenches, away from home on Christmas Day. Then the noise of the artillery stops, and you walk across the field to meet the people you’ve been fighting.
Not wanting to be a sucker, I snorted and regained my cynicism. Once that was taken care of, I just felt a steady level of disgust throughout the rest of the ad. But not just disgust. I was curious, too. Curious about the boardroom discussions that had taken place behind the scenes.
A few months ago, I watched a Channel 4 programme about famous pets like the Dulux dog and the Andrex puppies. It was roundly agreed by the advertising folk in the programme that getting a cute animal in your advert was good marketing. Why? Well, they explained, when we see something cute, we want to look after it, and in so doing, we make ourselves emotionally vulnerable. In that state, we are much more susceptible to accepting the associated marketing messages.
Brutally simple, and precisely what Sainsbury’s were doing with their ad. The tale of the truce draws you in and leaves you vulnerable. The loneliness of the soldier is healed by the exchange of Sainsbury’s chocolate. If you ever fear being alone, a subconscious voice will remind you of how Sainbury’s helped alleviate that problem once, long ago, between some trenches not so far away.
Finally, the Royal British Legion logo at the end. In a way, this is the really interesting bit. Aware that the ad commits a kind of cultural rape, Sainsbury’s realised they had to prepare a defence of some sort. Their defence was crude: enlist the British Legion as collaborators. Now if anyone wants to attack Sainsbury’s for the advert, they risk hitting the honourable human shield standing in front of them. Sure, the ad might be a hideously blatant use of war to sell supermarket products. Sure. But it’s for charity. End of argument.
We all know that large charities make compromises in the name of fundraising, but this is something different. The British Legion gave their stamp of approval to an advert that undermines a valuable Christmas myth. This organisation exists to preserve the memory of the First World War. And they agreed to a story in which the 1914 truce is about sharing Sainsbury’s chocolate.
In a way, defending reprehensible acts in the name of charity was one of the themes of 2014. Sainbury’s aren’t the only one. Chain letters used to be frowned upon, but if it’s a chain letter that pressures people into dumping a bucket of ice on their heads, that’s okay because it’s for charity. Band Aid misrepresents Africa as a land of helpless diseased people, but don’t worry: it’s for charity. Taking the point to its extreme, Jimmy Saville was one of the most vile human beings on earth, but part of the reason people hesitated to accuse him of anything at the time was because he did so much for charity.
I’m not questioning the motives of most fundraising activity. I think most of the time people do things for charity because they know charity does good in the world. What troubles me is that in a few high-profile cases, charities are willing to tolerate the desecration of things that are culturally important provided the price is high enough. This is wrong. Some things are priceless.
For everything else, there’s (yadder yadder etc. etc.)
Three key texts on the Sainsbury’s ad
All from the Guardian, I’m afraid:
Stephen Collins: Cartoon