On Advertising, Chocolate, and the First World War

One of the cultural residues of Britain being a post-Christian society is that companies try to outdo each other in celebrating the Incarnation by creating memorable “Christmas adverts.” The 2014 versions are coming out, and one has already garnered enormous attention — positive and negative:

Yes, the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s not only produced a three-minute short film depicting the famous Christmas Truce that temporarily interrupted the First World War in December 1914, but is selling a special £1 chocolate bar featured in the film — with proceeds benefitting the Royal British Legion.

Photo of British and German soldiers during the truce
Photo of German and British soldiers during the Christmas Truce of 1914 – Imperial War Museum

While the ad already has nearly 10 million views  on YouTube and has garnered praise for its production values, it has also inspired widespread complaints. And not just because of its resemblance to a 1983 Paul McCartney music video!

None have been more incensed than journalist Ally Fogg, opining for The Guardian:

Of course many film-makers, writers and other artists have made good money from representing the horrors of war. Some do so with respect and artistry, some exploit shamelessly. But there is a key difference, I would suggest, between selling representations of war as a product, and using representations of war as a means to another end. Somewhere close to 40 million young men were killed, lost or mutilated in the first world war. Sainsbury’s has all but dressed them in a sandwich board.

One of my former students, now living in the UK, brought the ad — and Fogg’s critique of it — to my attention and asked for my thoughts…

I guess my first, most cynical reaction is to say that you’ll never run out of reasons to be outraged if you watch a lot of advertising. 1914-1918, after all, has been inspiring manipulative ad campaigns since, well, 1914-1918.

But I do think Fogg is right to scoff at Legion/Sainsbury’s claims of accuracy and authenticity: “Nowhere in the new advert do we see the blood and entrails, the vomit and faeces, the rats feasting on body parts. The response might be ‘well they can hardly put that in a Christmas advert can they?’ and that would be entirely true. Which is why the scene is entirely inappropriate for a Christmas advert in the first place.”

At the same time, I take it as a rule that a critique of the use of history is only as strong as its author’s ability to resist the urge to tack on a needless Holocaust analogy. Ruh-roh:

Like the Nazi Holocaust or the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, [the trench warfare of 1914-1918] lives on as a vivid phantom in our culture, a constant reminder of our capacity to inflict incomprehensible degrees of violence and suffering upon innocent individuals. It surely behoves us as a society to retain those deaths with respect and a degree of reverence. 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? I would hope not, yet I fail to see any great moral difference.

No great moral difference? Between children at Auschwitz and men four months removed from having volunteered eagerly, if naïvely, for the chance to go kill their nation’s enemies? Soldiers who would resume shooting their fellow man as soon as the truce was done and then again for nearly four more years?

Sainsbury's store
Licensed by Creative Commons (Andrew Abbott)

Anywho… I’m struck that both the filmmakers and their critics seem to reduce the Christmas Truce to the level of a sepia-toned myth. It was “one of the most extraordinary moments of sharing in modern history,” said Sainsbury’s head of brand communication, “an emotive and cherished story in our history that is especially poignant in this first world war centenary year.” Even Fogg grudgingly admired the ad’s makers for finding “just the right blend of poignancy and sentimentality to bring a tear to the most cynical eye.” The Truce remained “heartwarming and heartbreaking to this day.”

But there’s another way to read an event in which common soldiers defied training and discipline in order to fraternize with those described to them as their enemies:

Why are men who can be so friendly sent out to kill each other? They have no quarrel…. When the war is over… each will realise that the lies told them by their press and their politicians had been deliberately concocted to mislead them. They will realise… that the workers of the world are not ‘enemies’ to each other, but comrades.

So wrote Keir Hardie, the Christian socialist who had helped found the Labour Party and staunchly opposed the war until his death in September 1915. To Hardie, concluded Adam Hochschild in his account of anti-war dissent in 1914-1918, “The Christmas Truce… was essentially a matter of soldiers staging a one-day wildcat strike against the war.” Taking place just after one of the most turbulent periods in European labor history, the 1914 truce foreshadowed the much larger collective actions to come: the Russian and German mutinies that helped bring down those countries’ illiberal regimes in 1917 and 1918, respectively. Senior officers on both sides understood this, and took stern action to make sure the Christmas Truce would never happen again.

What, then, would Hardie make of that event being turned into a marketing campaign by an aging corporation faced with sharply declining sales? Or of Britain’s historic bastion of left-wing journalism failing to recall its revolutionary implications?

“The film-makers,” concluded Fogg, “have done something to the first world war which is perhaps the most dangerous and disrespectful act of all: they have made it beautiful.” But I think Hardie would put it differently: making the truce “beautiful” also makes safe and reverent that which was “the most dangerous and disrespectful act of all” to those in power in 1914.

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