Sainsbury’s Christmas advert puts the penguin in the cold; or does it?

Sainsbury’s Christmas advert, which aired last night and was produced in support of the Royal British Legion (RBL), features a poignant short film about the  Christmas truce that took place between British and German troops outside their trenches in December 2014, and has already courted controversy and sparked debate.  The advert beautifully depicts when the guns fell silent on Christmas Eve and men from both sides met in their hundreds to exchange greetings and small gifts and, reportedly, played football together.  Considering the strength of feeling this advert has provoked, Juliet and I explore the opposing sides to ask whether this advert is a beautiful and humbling message about the true values of Christmas, or, as the critics claim, a commercial venture to emotionally manipulate us into shopping at Sainsbury’s.


The exchange of greetings on the Sainsbury’s advert.

Louise…I found myself completely mesmerised by the poignant scenes, depicting the WWI Christmas truce,  unfolding in front of me on the television last night.  When I realised this emotional short film was, in fact, an advert for Sainsburys, in support of the RBL,  I felt compelled to write how much it had affected me, as I was taken aback that a major retailer would promote the Christmas values of friendship, kindness and sharing, rather than the usual adverts for the latest gadgets, expensive toys and materialistic gain.  So I was quite surprised to see that, in the thirty minutes since it had aired, critics were saying that Sainsbury’s should be ashamed to use a story from the bloodiest conflict this century to encourage visits to their store.  Were the critics right?  If this had been a one-off show of support, I might have agreed with them; but Sainsbury’s have been a prolific supporter of the RBL for 20 years.

A recent collaboration between Sainsbury's and the Royal British Legion

A recent collaboration between Sainsbury’s and the Royal British Legion

In 2013, Sainsbury’s raised around £4.5 million for the RBL, they are the only major supermarket to allow the RBL prominent stands in their stores; selling poppies and other merchandise for the Poppy Appeal and traditionally they are one of the last major retailers to air their Christmas advert: as they wait until after Armistice day, in respect of their support for the RBL .   Yes, there is product placement in the advert; but only in the form of a bar of chocolate – given by a British soldier to a German soldier – which can be purchased from Sainsbury’s with profits going to the RBL.  Which brings me to my next consideration: critics are asking why only such a small amount is being donated…

The scene with the chocolate bar

The scene with the chocolate bar

Bringing to life the bar of chocolate from the film, so that people could purchase it in store and raise money for the charity, was a very clever piece of advertising.  It is well-documented that during the Christmas truce, soldiers swapped small gifts of chocolate, tobacco, alcohol and shoulder badges.  Imagine if the film had included a more expensive gift so that Sainsbury’s could be seen to raise more money for the charity: that would not have had the same historic accuracy, it would not have fit with the message portrayed of traditional Christmas values and fewer people would have purchased it!  Charities know that more people can make low-value donations and a £1 bar of chocolate fits this bill.

But really the proceeds from the chocolate bar is not all that Sainsbury’s have donated.

It is my guess that it was intended as a way for people to feel they can get involved and raise money at the same time; not dissimilar to pouring buckets of water over our heads or taking selfies and publishing the pictures!

More importantly, this advert was aired on a prime time slot on television – during Coronation Street – when typical viewing figures are between 7 and 10 million and the advert slot can cost between £50-100,000.  That’s not factoring in the cost of producing the advert!  A charity would never spend this sum on a television advert: imagine the outcry if they did! As an ex-PR Manager for a national charity I know too well the double-edged sword of desiring that sort of profile opportunity to increase donations and consequently help more of your benefactors and yet the inevitable criticism that would ensue if you did.  That is one of the reasons corporate sponsors are so important in the charity sector!

The fact that this advert has already sparked debate, shows the power of advertising and a raised profile for a charity goes hand-in-hand with extra donations; which ultimately means more funds for their benefactors! Let’s not forget that typically after Remembrance Sunday, people lose focus on the RBL until the next year.  This advert and its associated debate could keep the charity in people’s minds until Christmas and beyond!   It is also highly unlikely that the RBL would sanction this advert without first securing the opinion of their members and benefactors and if they sanctioned it, should we really raise objections?

Charles Byrne, director of fundraising for the Royal British Legion, said: “We’re very proud of our 20-year partnership with Sainsbury’s and this campaign is particularly important.

“One hundred years on from the 1914 Christmas truce, the campaign remembers the fallen, while helping to raise vital funds to support the future of living.”

Would Sainsbury’s spend so much money on producing and airing an advert completely altruistically?   

Of course this raises their profile, of course it shows them to be a strong charity-supporter and of course this might encourage people to favour them over less-giving retailers!  But, having worked in the charity sector for a number of years, I can sadly say that very little charity support is completely altruistic; unless there is a personal involvement.  Not wanting to burst any bubbles….but there tends to be a connection between how much media coverage an event is likely to attract, as to how much celebrity support you will realise and, in turn, how much corporate support you might achieve.

In summary, I can understand how some might find it distasteful for Sainsbury’s to draw on WWI for their Christmas advert.  However, Sainsbury’s would have produced a Christmas advert anyway and surely it is better they spend that money on producing and broadcasting this advert, which advocates traditional Christmas values 1415881786455_Image_galleryImage_image001_pngand supports a very worthwhile charity, than spending it on an advert promoting the latest must-have toys and gadgets!  Some would argue that they could have anonymously donated the money to RBL if it was a truly altruistic gesture.  Yes they could, but this would not have been such a poignant tribute to a worthwhile charity, it would not have brought to life the fact that even in the darkest moments of history and the most arduous of times, there can be great humanity.  And it  would not have kept the RBL in our minds beyond the annual poppy appeal.


Juliet… 2014, fittingly, has been the Year of the Poppy, a year in which we reflect on the tragic centenary of the commencement of the First World War. This most bloody and grim event of the past 100 years has been at the forefront of the nations’ psyche, arguably the pinnacle of which has been the unprecedented flocking of hundreds of thousands to the Tower of London to see the 886,000 ceramic poppies in the “Bloodswept Seas” installation. My own home town of Folkestone has paid its own tribute at the top of the Road of Remembrance, a hilltop street which sweeps down to the former harbour, the crest of which is adorned with a majestic silver arch to commemorate the MILLIONS of young, British souls who “stepped short” down the hill to the awaiting military ships bound for Dunkerque. Many souls never returned.

So, indeed, there is room for reflection to honour and ennoble the many who died for our freedom between 1914 and 1918.

And, now, Sainsbury’s have taken their turn to remind of us of the horrors of war.

Except they haven’t. They have exploited this current vulnerability of the British psyche and are using this profound imagery to stamp their particular brand firmly into our subconscious.

Yesterday, I tuned in to view a beautiful, evocative mini-film depicting the well-documented “Christmas Day” incident of 2014 when soldiers in both British and German trenches abandoned fighting for a few short hours to play football, exchange gifts and sing hymns. The cinematic appeal of this short film was flawless – the tones of ‘Silent Night’ from the Brits mingled with ‘Stille Nacht’ from the German trenches, mists swirled about the fresh, young, yet battle-worn faces of the soldiers; two young lads compare photographs of sweethearts

Comparing photos of sweethearts

Comparing photos of sweethearts

and, at the tear jerking end, it culminated in a German boy-soldier returning to his trench to discover a simple bar of chocolate that had been gifted to him by a man he had recently, and would again, call his enemy. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Then it happened…. the ‘Sainsbury’s’ logo appeared with the simple legend “Christmas is for Sharing”.

And that is when a little bit of bile came up in my throat.

It occurred to me, all too late, that I had just spent the last four minutes being cynically and cruelly emotionally manipulated.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I do understand that this advertisement was made “In conjunction with the Royal British Legion”, and one could argue that this could only be a good thing. However the fact remains, in my eyes that this, first and foremost was a blatant campaign by a leading supermarket to raise their profile by jumping on the current bandwagon and hitting the nation’s heart when it is currently, very plainly, upon its sleeve.

On one level, I have to offer some kudos to Sainsbury’s. Every year there seems to be rampant competition for retail outlets to produce the most memorable, most discussed, most breath-taking Christmas advertising campaign. The increased use of social networking has perpetuated this exponentially as so many (myself included) are charmed and endeared by these mini-movies, as they have become, that they share them across all media platforms, ultimately doing the PR work for the companies concerned. This sharing also requires that the advertising companies have to pull something better out of the bag every year, for it to reach the pinnacle of publicity.

So far, John Lewis seems to have cornered the market, with cartoon bunnies, and hibernating bears, snowmen on the quest for the perfect gift for their significant others and, this year a cutesy, yet obviously sexually frustrated stuffed penguin and his best-friend-cum-pimp of a little boy.

All the other retail bigwigs must have been wringing their hands in anguish. I imagine a number advertising executives were called in at very short notice with the demand “how the hell are we going to top that?”

Perhaps, a group of young, creative types gathered around a fancy perspex table in an advertising agency somewhere, contemplating what they could do to win the most prized of accolades – Christmas Advert of the Year – discussed something like this:

“How about a twist on the nativity?” “Nope- been done before”

“Fluffy animals and adorable kids?”  “Too late, John Lewis are all over that”

…and then, in the corner of the room, a small voice pipes up: “how about using something that’s been big in the news this year?”

…a hush falls over the conference room…. “Go on…” barks a gruff CEO.

well, erm, well.. we can’t do Princess  Kate’s pregnancy (although she would have made a lovely Mary)… ISIS is a no-go…erm…I KNOW!!!!! The First World War Centenary. EVERYBODY’S talking about it…the Poppies at the Tower of London have been massive (how did we not secure the contract on that one?)”

There are numerous murmurings across the board table…”so, exactly how are you going to link WW1 with Christmas?”

What about that fateful Christmas Day in 1914, when the guns silenced for just a few hours in honour of the Nativity? It was supposedly an amazing event – I saw a film about it once. I think it was called ‘Pipes of Peace’ by Paul McCartney”

Sounds interesting – but how does that all link in with the Sainsbury’s brand, and how do we get folk to come shopping at our supermarkets?”

Well – we could make it a huge cinematic event, engage all the emotional fodder we can muster, – beautiful cinematography; fresh, handsome actors; authentic costumes (but none of that nasty mud, blood and trench foot stuff – it is Christmas after all). And here’s the best bit – no Christmas schmaltz whatsoever. Opinion polls indicate that the viewing public get a bit over-saturated with tinsel and fairies. They want gritty realism – and sincerity – so let’s give it to them. Let’s break down the British public to a sobbing, sniffling over-emotional mess and then, while they’re on their knees – BLAM – whack ‘em with the Sainsbury’s logo which will stick in their subconscious the next time they go shopping. If people are rejecting John Lewis for their over-sentimentality, let us be “the nice guys” that they choose to shop with because we have a ‘conscience’ for the veterans.”

Only one problem – how do we convince the public of our sincerity?”

Get the Royal British Legion on board, they are desperate enough for the support that they daren’t resist us. We are one of the Big Three supermarkets, who wouldn’t want to be associated with Sainsbury’s? And, for good measure, why don’t we sell a bar of chocolate in our stores, the proceeds of which go to the RBL. And that chocolate bar will feature in the advert so people will FEEL BETTER when they buy one.”

But what if they come to our stores just to buy the bar of chocolate?”

Nobody comes to Sainsbury’s just to buy a bar of chocolate….and once they’re through the doors, we’ve got ‘em..By the wallets

Great work – and I propose that we use the tagline ‘Christmas is for Sharing’ – for, let’s face it, our Shares are going to go up after this one

  • Cue much corporate guffawing, back-slapping and exchanging of cigars and fine whiskey –

So there we have it, well at least in my cynical old head. Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, perhaps the sentiment is genuine. However did it have to be branded with the Sainsbury’s logo, no matter how ‘subtle’ the message is? Any good advertising executive will tell you that ‘subtle’ equals ‘subliminal’ and that is bad enough. And there are many out there who will be suckered into shopping at Sainsbury’s because of this ‘message’ they purport.

Maybe I have got the message all wrong – perhaps this advertising campaign, using the image of war is a metaphor for the Supermarket Wars between the likes of Tesco, Asda, Morrison’s et al. Is it just coincidence that the ‘enemies’ are German – a bit like Aldi and Lidl???

Whatever is it, I resent the vile emotional manipulation and cynical   brand-appropriation of an extraordinary moment in history. – The shameful self-aggrandisement by associating a retail brand with those who we should be honouring, not exploiting to sell our wares.

Soldiers in the trenches did not exchange a special brand of chocolate, I imagine that they didn’t give a stuff about what brand of Christmas pudding to pick for the table that year. They were fighting for their lives in dirty, bloody, terrifying circumstances.

They were fighting for our freedom.

And to distort this true event, which rose up in the midst of the fear and gore, into a “chocolate box moment” so that we can use this mythology to sell turkeys, is wrong on so many levels. It dishonours and cheapens the fallen.

How would the dead feel now to know that their strife have been reduced to a gimmick that buys in wholeheartedly to the commercialism of the festive period? Would they have stepped so willingly down that hill to their potential doom?

Don’t be fooled by the endorsement by the Royal British Legion, they were just a vehicle to allow Sainsbury’s to cash in on the surge of feeling and support for the dead of 1914-1918.

Buy a poppy, join the RBL, read about the true stories of the fallen, pay your respects.

Go shopping in Sainsbury’s for all I care. But don’t, for one moment, believe that this campaign is borne of a true conscience.




4 thoughts on “Sainsbury’s Christmas advert puts the penguin in the cold; or does it?

  1. Excellent articles! I prefer to see it a bit simpler – a tear jerker of an advert that pulls the heart strings. I don’t even care about the commercialism aspect – just enjoy it for what it is – a poignant and excellent ‘advert’ that is perfect for Christmas time.

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