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Sainsbury's Christmas ad: the bad taste of festive chocolate?

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Ah, advent! The gateway to Christmas! Today is the day when millions of children all over the country are opening the first window on their advent calendars and devouring that first overpriced and possibly over-wrapped square of chocolate – assuming their parents weren’t crushed to death to get a pre-Christmas bargain in last week’s Black Friday riots.

Yes, Christmas – that time of year when we all focus on the most important things in life: why the heck we didn’t get a Christmas bonus and, of course, chocolate. Rivalled only by Easter for its national importance, chocolate-wise, Christmas is when we “shouldn’t really but, oh, why not”, and quaff down as much of the cocoa-based nectar as humanly possible. (Just me? Ah, OK then…)

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I’m yet to see the Sainsbury’s Christmas ad in all its glory on my television screen, so I had to YouTube it to see why my Facebook friends were talking about it. With more than 13 million hits and at nearly three and a half minutes in length, the First World War-inspired commercial is epic by any standards – even by John Lewis “hare and bear” 2013 standards. And in terms of cinematography, it’s a triumph.

Some would argue that the glut of television programmes commemorating the centennial of the First World War has been…well, a glut. I’m sure a lot of us would agree that, as memorials go, it’s at the top of the non-Christmas tree, surpassing any similar event of national importance. The poppy memorial this year at the Tower of London – which was still being talked about on this morning’s BBC Breakfast – illustrates the impact these events (and other wars, of course) still have on the lives of reverent Brits. Indeed, the older generation came from the most far-flung corners of the country to see the sight in person.

"..I can’t decide whether I like it, or whether I actually find it slightly sickly..."

And herein lies my ambivalence towards the Sainsbury’s commercial. I simply can’t decide whether I like it – and admire it, respect it, and am moved by it – or whether I actually find it slightly…sickly (?) that the First World War is being sentimentalised to such an extent that it’s being used to sell chocolate. Because after all, however reverent the commercial may be, the absolute bottom line is that Sainbury’s wouldn’t have made it had they not hoped that it would help them sell more groceries.

Let’s not be prudish and sanctimonious, however. Is there anything actually wrong with tugging at the nation’s heartstrings in what is quite a respectful way which just so happens to inspire them to buy chocolate – packaged in traditional First World War-style paper? It is also vital to mention as well that Sainsbury’s is donating all the profits from the sale of this chocolate to the Royal British Legion.

And what of comedy? Blackadder Goes Forth remains, to my mind, one of the best comedies in British TV history; but who can forget the tear-jerking final scene when Blackadder, Baldrick, Captain Darling and George go over the top to meet their deaths?

"..a stunning visual masterpiece and possibly the most moving advert I’ve ever seen..."

So comedy can be both funny and poignant. And, given the right treatment, the First World War should not necessarily be off-limits. Sainsbury’s has put together a beautiful advert – one which has been faithfully and respectfully made and which really stays in one’s mind. Yes, it’s ultimately advertising chocolate – but it is also a stunning visual masterpiece and it is possibly the most moving advert I’ve ever seen.

And yet…and yet… I can’t quite feel comfortable about it. Maybe it’s because millions of people were maimed or killed for king and country without really knowing what they were fighting for. Maybe it’s because the British have sold arms to dictatorships the world over – and the same arms have been used to kill British troops.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because it is quite literally a chocolate box image of the First World War. No blood, no severed limbs; just Christmas carols being sung to warm the cockles, and jolly good Tommys meeting the equally nice Jerries over the trench walls in no-man’s-land. Whatever the First World War was, it certainly wasn’t pretty. Obviously one can’t put said blood and said severed limbs in an ad. But maybe that’s the point.

by Ashley Morrison

Ashley is a copywriter, editor and blogger

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