Opinion: Is the First World War a reasonable subject for a supermarket advert?

Tyne Cot cemetery Ypres First World War by fdecomiteThis Christmas is the 100th anniversary of the so-called “Christmas truce” in 1914 when some First World War troops gathered in “No man’s land” on the battlefields of the Western Front to greet each other and share gifts. It is therefore, perhaps, understandable that Sainsbury’s have collaborated with the British Legion, historians and a leading film-maker to produce a beautiful 3’41” video featuring the truce, which is being used to present shorter TV adverts.

And yet, it is difficult not to feel somewhat uneasy as this advert is repeated many times on our screens.

The main concerns must surely be those of context (or lack of it) and the basic purpose of the advert.

This advert presents a heart-warming incident amongst four years of the most disgusting, harrowing and brutal suffering and bloodshed the world has ever seen, which left around 16 million people dead and 20 million injured.

It presents that incident in order to persuade us, however subliminally, to spend more money at Sainsbury’s. OK, there is the tie-up with the British Legion, which will fill their coffers and, in turn, burnish the image of Sainsbury’s. But really we are talking about base commerce here.

But what is particularly worrying is that the advert does not even tell the whole story of the “truce”. The following is an extract from a letter from a Leicestershire soldier at the front dated January 2 1915, published in the Leicester Mercury, January 27, 1915 (from The Christmas Truce website):

We had a rather sad occurrence on Christmas Day. Directly in front of our regiment there were one or two German regiments. On our right was a regiment of Prussian Guards and on our left a Saxon Regiment. On Christmas morning some of our fellows shouted across to them saying that if they would not fire our chaps would meet them halfway between the trenches and spend Christmas Day as friends. They consented to do so. Our chaps at once went out and when in the open the Prussians fired on them, killing two and wounding many more…

In fairness to Sainsbury’s, the fact that some soldiers were shot while trying to join the truce is mentioned in their “Story of” video by one of their historians. But that video has been seen by around 300,000 people while the advert (which, in fairness, implies the risk of soldiers being shot when venturing over the top of the trenches) has so far received 9.4 million hits.

To do justice to those who died in the First World War, the story of the Christmas truce should be seen in its entirety – including its patchiness, the fact that soldiers died trying to join in and its backcloth of horrific conditions, suffering and deaths in the trenches. I have in mind the sort of fine treatment given to the Holocaust by Steven Spielberg in Schindler’s List. That film presented a heart-warming story of human kindness but did so against an appropriate backcloth properly reflecting the horrors of the Second World War.

That is the sort of treatment which the First World War should receive. Celebrate the Christmas truce, yes, but reflect the full horrific background of the war.

But of course, Spielberg had 191 minutes in which to explore his themes and didn’t have broccoli to flog. Sainsbury’s are restricted by minute or so TV slots. And they have turkeys and crackers to sell, so they can’t confuse the message by showing people being shot.

That captures the central dilemma. The medium of a short advert to push a supermarket is fundamentally incompatible with doing justice to history.

Photo of Tyne Cot cemetery, Ypres by fdecomite

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Max Wilkinson 19th Nov '14 - 1:58pm

    Customers will ultimately decide the answer to your question. That’s the way it should be.

  • Martin Land 19th Nov '14 - 2:09pm

    Curious that this should trouble us 100 years on.

    If you want to see true commercial exploitation of the First World War, go back and look at some of the adverts of the time.

    Burberry’s ‘Trench Outfit’ is pretty tasteless. Perrier perhaps even more so.

    How about a month after England declared war on Germany, one cigarette brand had already placed an ad that featured a young woman bidding farewell to a naval officer with the gift of cigarettes.

    Or Lea & Perrins campaign to persuade mothers to buy their sauce to make trench rations more palatable.

    A sense of proportion, please.

  • I have a lot of sympathy for the views expressed by Paul Walter here. History is undermined by this advert.
    This advert is a travesty, in the real dictionary sense of that word.

    Unfortunately we are awash with romanticised versions of the First World War at the moment because someone decided it would be a good idea to have months (possibly years) of “commemoration” of that war.
    It all adds to the convenient myths of “Britain” and no doubt helps to prop up the monarchy and the class system and an underlying message that foreigners especially Germans are not to be trusted. But it is not history.

    Much of it is nationalistic clap-trap and hugely over sentimentalised. Very seldom is there be any mention of the 1,500,000 soldiers from India (and “other coloureds” as they were described at the time) who accounted for more than one in eight members of the “British” armed forces.

    It is a nice, safe diversion from the real wars that are going on in the world today.
    I doubt that there is much football or exchange of chocolate bars going on today in the war in Iraq and Syria.

  • Tsar Nicolas 19th Nov '14 - 6:13pm

    To b e honest, I think that Poppy Day does more to glorify the wars.

    Year after year November 11 is used as an excuse to talk about the fallen as if they spontaneously fell, and that there was not an organised slaughter arranged by the political and media elites of various countries.

    Moreover, those who voice their doubts are accused of dishonouring the memory of the dead etc., when all they wish to do is remind people that 1914-18 and 1939-45 were horrific slaughters, and that it really should not happen again.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Nov '14 - 11:04pm

    I liked the ad at first, but after reading some more horrific accounts of World War 1 I think it should have shown some death and suffering at the end, even if only briefly.

  • matt (Bristol) 20th Nov '14 - 1:11pm

    My approach to this (like a lot of things) is, ‘I don’t like it, but I can’t stop it’. I also wonder how much families of the survivors of the Terror era during the French Revolution appreciated ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, or how much Wellington’s veterans liked what was a mini-Waterloo industry that developed in the mid-19th century.

    On the whole, I am intensely minded of the Ben Elton novel of the 90s, ‘This Other Eden’, set in a near-future world in which the only cultural industry (replacing films, novels, everything) is advertising, and everything from the past is being remade as adverts – iirc, ‘Apocalypse Now’ becomes a 5-minute Coke commercial.

  • Paul in Wokingham 20th Nov '14 - 7:40pm

    I thought the John Lewis ad was more interesting as a reflection on modern urban life. It clearly channels “The Sixth Sense” (right down to the “shock” dénouement) and shows a dysfunctional family unit with parents who are too busy or uninterested to talk to and engage with their child. The message seems to be “OK, you won’t/can’t spend time with your child, so buy them some things”. Modern life, eh?

  • Was at cinema this evening and thought clip was a trailer for a new film at first – when I saw it was for a Sainsbury’s ad at the end I thought it was the most tasteless thing I had seen in a long time. Really inappropriate.

  • It looks like some teachers are trying to give some sense of context to the advert in their lessons. One has written in detail about a lesson he taught at http://www.mrallsophistory.com/revision/the-supermarket-and-the-truce-sainsburys-christmas.html that seems to get the pupils to reflect on how representative the advert is.

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