The First World War (Brought to you by Sainsbury’s)

It’s that time of year again: from now until Christmas all we are meant to eat, sleep, think, breathe, and feel is Christmas. This means, of course, Major Retailer’s Christmas Adverts! We’ve seen the Magic and Sparkle Christmas Fairies, and John Lewis’s Monty the Penguin (and all the related memorabilia that can be yours). Now Sainsbury’s has taken its cue from 100 years ago, and based their advert on Christmas 1914:

The advert has had over 2 million YouTube views in just one day, and generally, my social media feeds have been awash with positivity; this has clearly ‘won’ the competition for ‘best advert 2014’. It’s not clear whether the advert is meant to pay any reference to the much uttered fact that many people in 1914 assumed that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’. My cynicism says probably not.

But in a just a view minutes the advert recalls (according to the video’s online description, ‘commemorates’) Christmas Day 1914, the first Christmas of the War, in which a temporary truce saw British and German soldiers playing football with each other between the trenches and exchanging gifts. Taken at face-value it appears to be an ‘authentic’ reimagining that allows for reflection on the events of that day. It is another take on Christmas, one that saw young and old men set their differences aside to laugh and joke, take photos, share images of their sweethearts, and shed their military uniforms to play a friendly game, before gunfire reminds them of the realities of where they are, and why they are there. While they return to their trenches at the end of the advert, without really shying away from the fact that they are in a war zone: yes, it’s heavily romanticised. However, the emotive effects are more poignant, and leave more space for much-deserved historical reflection than those generated by a pair of CGI penguins. If only it were all just as simple as that.

The criticisms have started to fly. According to the Guardian, maybe we should take offence: the history of trench warfare is being hijacked so Sainsbury’s can win the battle of the major-retail Christmas ads, and ultimately sell groceries. All in all, this is true, and it’s been done so masterfully. But it’s not as if it’s the first time this event has been used for one purpose or another. As Ally Fogg notes, the event itself — the British/German Christmas day kick-about in No Man’s Land— is already remembered in a completely untouchable, mythologised way. It’s taught to children in schools throughout education. It’s a pretty clever choice of source material then, ensuring that watching this clip will make most people who know anything about the First World War feel a sense of recognition. It is a ’memory’ most people will have about the conflict. Admittedly, the first time I saw the advert today that’s how I felt, and I’m not sure if I should be ashamed or not of the fact that I was, essentially, taken in by the advert’s undeniably raw, emotive power. Yes, it does make the war look ‘beautiful’ (worryingly so, if actually you think about it). So should we be as outraged as this Guardian article would like us to be?

While yes, if all we consider is the commercial exploitation going on here, it’s easy to consider this advert an affront to the memory of all those people who fought and died in the conflict, and indeed in terms of taste there aren’t many other wartime events that could be exploited in order to sell turkeys. But what’s the difference between using this part of history to create what is, on the whole, not a very overtly-Sainsbury’s piece of cinema (and it is so cinematic it’s hard to consider it anything less than film), and the way the War has been portrayed for the entirety of 2014? Whether in print, radio or TV news, or in TV programmes of all genres, across all media this year we have been bombarded by things we should ‘remember’. War diaries made into television series, the ‘real stories’ of ‘real soldiers’. Museum exhibits and art installations. What’s the difference between using the past to get viewers or visitors, or to make it appear that their sense of ‘paying respect’ is at least equal to if not greater than all the other television channels or companies out there, and Sainsbury’s doing essentially the same thing? Is it the tone? Because the tone of the advert is altogether sombre, not glossy and sparkly like the other major retailer’s seasonal adverts are. Maybe most surprisingly, it basically recognises the German and British soldiers more or less equally– we even hear Silent Night being sung in German before we hear it in English. If we’re going to get down to the nitty-gritty of who we are really ‘supposed’ to be ‘remembering’ —all soldiers, or just ‘our’ soldiers?— then this advert actually goes much further than, for example, the Tower of London’s major art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, because the installation, while undeniably monumental, only (physically, at least) represents the British fatalities of the First World War, not all of the millions who died. And, really, how could it ever hope to do so?

But surely, to remember the First World War doesn’t just mean remembering our part in it. If Sainsbury’s can force us to consider the fact that the people who fought were exactly that— just people, British and German, who endured the worst of hardships every day of the year—, then maybe we shouldn’t so easily scoff, or treat this advert any worse than we’d treat other ‘good’ or ‘bad’ attempts at commemoration that we’ve seen or are still to come.

We also have the fact that this advert was made in partnership with The Royal British Legion. The bar of chocolate made centrepiece to the advert will be sold in stores to raise money for the charity over the Christmas period.  So while, yes, this is undeniably going to bring Sainsbury’s major brownie points this year, whether tastefully or not, it’s also gives real benefit as well as airtime to a charity that does actual work with British veterans, and who likely wouldn’t have wanted their name attributed to an advert they thought to be wholly disrespectful.

The only thing, then, that makes this portrayal of the First World War any different to the other portrayals of War we’ve seen over the past year, or the countless portrayals of war that have been in our cinemas for even longer, is the fact that this one is sponsored by Sainsbury’s. Should we be more outraged by this, or the multi-million pound film industry that makes more money for itself out of numerous wars year after year?

‘Remembering’ any specific part of history is complicated, and commemorating periods like 1914-1918 is not exempt from this, despite how apparently seamlessly these commemorations have become a fixture of daily life this past year. People have been outraged over the way certain political figures have tried to aggressively remember the First World War, or tried to use or subvert its history to their own advantage (Remember this, from four days into 2014?). Or the way ‘groups’ like Britain First have all the more exploited the Poppy, selling their own, or by encouraging social media users to ‘share’ THEIR poppy, and be part of the ‘1%’ who ‘shows respect’. These extreme examples aside, ‘remembering’ is never unproblematic. While we should never forget the horrendous loss of life this war and all of our other wars brought, are we ever really told to think about the First World War and its complexities? Does ‘the past’, history in the traditional sense, that historians try to preserve have any meaning in these ‘remembrances’?

I can’t help but worry that, after the consistent nature of the coverage of World War I’s Centenary this year, the media has enabled just as much desensitisation as it has encouraged a spirit of remembrance. As a result, if you want to take a certain point of view, this process of desensitisation has arguably reached its peak with Sainsbury’s Christmas advert, sure to be played, and replayed, and played again across our TV screens for the next six weeks. History, and specifically the First World War, has at this point endured so much promotion, for so many different purposes, should this advert’s critics really be surprised that this is how 2014 has ended?


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