Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Christmas Truce of 1914, Sponsored by Sainsbury’s

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on November 21, 2014

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Sainsbury’s, the big UK supermarket chain, has released an advert based on the 1914 Christmas Truce during World War I. The short film was done in cooperation with the Royal British Legion, a support organization for service members, veterans, and their families. Sales of replica chocolate bars like that featured in the ad benefit the Legion.

The ad has brought a good bit of criticism in the UK, both for commercializing a wartime event, and for supposedly “sanitizing” the grim reality of World War I trench warfare.

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Big Christmas ads have become a tradition in Britain — an opportunity for companies to pull out all the stops to woo holiday shoppers and stamp their brands firmly on the consumer brain. These mini-blockbusters, similar to Super Bowl showstoppers in the United States, usually feature warm and fuzzy characters like lovestruck penguins and adorable children who reveal the true meaning of Christmas.
 
They do not, in other words, normally take place in trenches.
 
The commercial has sparked at least 240 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, which is considering an investigation after viewers objected to using the war to promote a company. While it’s not the first time war has formed the backdrop for an ad, previous efforts tended to be light-hearted.
 
Hallam finds the ad is inappropriate, like putting a brand name on a re-enactment of Princess Diana’s funeral.
 
But its sheer beauty is what has its critics displeased. With the gore and rats of trench warfare from 1914-1918 firmly in mind, Manchester-based writer Ally Fogg wrote in a Guardian newspaper column that the ad was disrespectful as it offers a sanitized version of World War I.
 
“Would we welcome an advert next Christmas showing a touching little scene between a Jewish child and a disabled child in Auschwitz, swapping gifts for Christmas and Hanukah on their way to the gas chambers?” he wrote. “I would hope not, yet I fail to see any great moral difference.”

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That last comparison strikes me as equal parts lazy and fatuous, as Nazi/Holocaust analogies generally are. Nonetheless, there are criticisms to be made. Furthermore, there are a number of similar stories from the American Civil War, where small groups of Union and Confederate soldiers met and fraternized between the lines.

What do you think of the Sainsbury’s ad, or the prospect of something similar set in 1861-65?

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GeneralStarsGray

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8 Responses

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  1. jclark82 said, on November 21, 2014 at 11:57 am

    I think it is an important event to remember and there are many good studies on it. Being this was the 100 year anniversary of the Christmas Truce I see no problem in commemorating it. It was a bright moment it a four year nightmare.

    As to how the trenches appear one way to look at it is that the trenches were just freshly constructed at this point as the First Battle of Ypres had just concluded the Race to the Sea after the Battle of the Marne. The lines became stagnant at this point and the horrors of the trenches had yet to be fully felt. The directors could’ve taken that into consideration. But let’s be honest, it’s a commercial. It won’t show what it looked like because it couldn’t make TV, the same could be said for most war movies/TV programming.

    It’s a nice little reminder of that moment in the war. People should look at it like that and not try to delve too deep into it. It’s nothing remotely like Auschwitz, to compare it to that is an insult to both moments in time and taking the easy way out of supporting an argument.

    I say there is no problem, now if they do commercials in this vein about the first day of The Somme or Passchendale, then there’ll be more room for criticism.

  2. Will Hickox said, on November 21, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    The trenches look pretty tidy and elaborate for being only about six weeks into static warfare at that point.

  3. Duane Whitlock said, on November 22, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Amen…

  4. Reed (the original, accept no substitutes) said, on November 22, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    Well, it could have been much worse, especially if they had explicitly tied the reenactment to selling a particular product. (“Our chocolates gave a warm Holiday feeling to grandpa in 1914—imagine how they’ll taste at your Christmas table this year! Sainsbury’s—over a century of chocolate happiness!”) So thanks for not taking that path.

    But still, it just doesn’t feel right. TV ads, even with noble goals and high-quality production values, are still TV ads, and employ all the condensed storytelling techniques and tropes of that sales-oriented medium. In the process they inevitably, willingly or not, romanticize the subject.

    The Christmas Truce was this one little pinpoint of light, a brief pause in what would become four-year tidal wave of slaughter. I’d be much more comfortable if Sainsbury’s had done without the reenactment and produced a short spot with historic images or non-dramatic visuals (winter scenes of the battlefields, then and now, perhaps?) and a voiceover or written text reminding us of the spirit of the season and how 100 years ago it caused bitter enemies to pause, briefly, and come together to remember their shared humanity and the real meaning of Christmas. And then, perhaps, something like “Sainsbury’s and the Royal Legion ask you to remember those who have served and sacrificed…:” or something along those lines.

    More than that, though, seems likely to coat a real, emotional, historical moment into a treacly, sentimentalized “story” that really does not do justice to the realities of the Great War or the Christmas Truce. So “thumbs down” from me for this ad, and probably for anything similar set in the U.S Civil War.

    And FWIW, I think Ally Fogg in the Guardian was way off base. Commercializing the Christmas Truce is not good and, as jclark82 suggests above, commercializing the Somme or Passchendaele would be much worse. But a “feel good” TV ad that was in any way connected with the Final Solution would be unspeakable. There is a big difference between stories about a pause in the slaughter between armies at war versus anything connected to the attempted systematic extermination of an entire people, and Ally Fogg is clueless not to recognize this.

  5. Craig Swain said, on November 30, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    I recall in 1983 when Paul McCartney released “Pipes of Peace.” IIRC the title track came out just prior to the Christmas season. And MTv ran the video about once an hour. Not a lot of push back at the time. And… as I watch that video again (finding it on YouTube of course), I’m struck by the similarities.

    If anything, I think it is hard for folks to get upset about Sainsbury’s if Sir Paul first broke this ground several decades back. After all, selling records and selling groceries have the same moral equivalent, right?

  6. Damian Shiels said, on December 13, 2014 at 8:52 am

    A fair comment from Craig on this. I had avoided watching the ad for a long time as it has been such a hot topic over here. It is nicely shot, of that there is no doubt, and it is an enduring story. It certainly is a sanitized view but I could get over that- what I just can’t get past is the fact that it is inappropriate for a commercial giant like Sainsbury’s to be tying their brand the event. No matter what the positive spin offs for the Legion, it was surely a commercial decision for Sainsbury’s to connect themselves to it. World War One commemoration is at fever pitch on this side of the Atlantic, I have never seen anything like it, and there is a rather unseemly rush in many quarters to profit from it, be that financially, politically or otherwise. Of course another form of the backlash to the ad is in parody form- here is one that switches the action from the Western Front to the carpark between Sainsbury’s and another of their major supermarket rivals, Tesco: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Khk1PE4vcgg

  7. kya smith said, on January 22, 2015 at 9:08 am

    just rember Those who have fought will never forget their comrades lost in battle. But it is only fair that for those who played football on No Man’s Land on Christmas Day 1914 are able forget their troubles for half an hour, as we can try to do every Christmas as we celebrate and share as one.

    I would also like you to remember it’s a Christmas advert it is not an advertisement to enroll in the army because It is an advert for Christmas. The advert shows people coming together, people sharing and loving at Christmas. It shows how two nations at war came together, taking differences aside and being as one human race. It shows the human races’ innate ability to love and to care. It tells the mythical or maybe true story of an event which for half an hour or so, brought people together


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