Yes, John Lewis evokes a reaction from us just like Sainsbury’s, and yes this is used to boost sales (see my previous blog, John Lewis: Making the Nation Cry and Buy), but there is, I believe, a crucial difference in the way that the two retailers have gone about linking emotion to commercial gain.
John Lewis manufactures the sentiment with make believe: CGI penguins and a sweet song – Sainsbury’s utilises a very real and very powerful feeling of heartbreak based on the sheer futility of the slaughter of millions.
Most of the people on the screen would have died, and this is where our feeling of hollow sadness derives from – and the historian in me, and the moralist, can’t help but feel that their memory should be revered, not utilised for commercial benefit.
Of course it can be argued that this is a charity initiative, with all sales of the chocolate bar from the advert going to British Legion – but let’s also be realistic – this was a brand building exercise, and, given some of the rave reviews, an effective one. The sale of the bars to raise money does temper the commercial edge, but doesn’t serve to erase it completely, and the nasty taste is still left in the mouth.
However, the more I think about it, the more I feel that this issue is perhaps more complex than a matter of wrong and right, and I find myself conflicted when considering the broader issues. It could be argued that adverts now exist to create feeling, they are cinematic and edifying and carry messages far beyond the scope of their usual branding (think the P&G Olympics advert). So was Sainsbury’s simply marking an important memory in a way they knew would resonate with the British public? Do they have a responsibility to do this?
If the British Legion had produced the ad, perhaps it would be seen solely as beautiful and non-exploitative. They obviously don’t have the budget to do this, so is it down to those that do have the budgets to honour the moment, remind and in some cases educate the nation? I think so, but I would add the caveat that ‘beautifying’ the war in the way Sainsbury’s has done – I saw no signs of faeces, mud, rats and blood that typified the First World War – is dangerous and insulting.
I’m not alone in my instinctive lamenting of the crassness of the ad – Ally Fogg from the Guardian calls it “a dangerous and disrespectful masterpiece”, and the twittersphere has in some part echoed this sentiment.
The senselessness of the war made that truce, a single moment of exquisite humanity amidst the tremendous horror, possible, and to sentimentalise it with beautiful cinematography in a Christmas advert – and worse, for a sales boost – is, I believe irresponsible.
P.S. It’s worth pointing out that all views expressed are entirely my own and do not represent the collective views of WPR. The advert has been the subject of heated discussion throughout the agency all morning, and needless to say opinions have been polarised.