According to many in the press, what's happened here is that while we were all staring, lovingly, at that Penguin in the John Lewis ad, Sainsbury's pulled a blinder while we looked the other way. An ad about war. "You can't get more 'authentic', more 'storytelling', more 'emotional advertising' than that, eh?"
Which, given that the Sainsbury's Christmas ad is unashamedly about the horrors of war, feels a little uncomfortable. Many people have already taken to the bottom half of the internet to express their dismay at this event - the famous 1914 Christmas Day Truce (or 'truces', to be historically accurate) - being used to encourage people to buy more stuff, or at least, buy their stuff from Sainsbury's. Some have even suggested it refers to the Aldi/Lidl supermarket battles, an idea that is so disrespectful it makes me feel sick (you might think 'advertising people' are that heartless, they aren't).
Watching all these ads is pretty much a professional obligation, given my job, and I share some of this unease. But then, I have to ask - is the Sainsbury's Christmas effort really functioning as an ad? Or at least, an ad for Sainsbury's?
I really like it. But as a film, not an ad. An advert for a supermarket looks away at the end, when the boys return to their trenches, an expression on their faces that says each knows they may kill each other tomorrow. This does not. In that way, it does not make me want to shop at Sainsbury's. It makes me feel grateful and appreciate the fragility of peace. It does not function as an ad to sell supermarket goods, except when you consider that ads now simply strive to outdo one another for authenticity.
Ultimately, all ads aim for loyalty, purchase, sales, donations or awareness. But adverts are also a valid a form of expression of a society and it's aims, desires and aspirations – and yes, hell, even art - so sitting with some level of discomfort is not unusual.
But this? This is beyond normal levels. It's no secret that Sainsbury's partnered with the Royal British Legion for this ad, but it's still positioned as a Sainsbury's ad. So I have to ask: did Sainsbury's actually just make a film for the Royal British Legion?
I think it's possible. And I think, if we have to think about that as a brand strategy (and we probably do, given what we're here for) then it's hard not to conclude that it's valid. Making your Christmas ad for a very worthy cause at a very important anniversary probably is a good move. Sainsbury's may have gifted its Christmas ad to the Royal British Legion. In terms of awareness of the war, the fear, the fragility of life - these are all central messages of RBL and of the ad. Perhaps the ad's could have made this link more obvious.
I'm being emotionally manipulated by pretty much every other ad this year - cute kids, animals, family togetherness, longing, wish fulfillment, the 'it's all about love' message when we know most organisations are just about profit. I can almost feel my tear glands kicking in when I watch some of them and I feel depressed that I'm so predictable. My strings are being pulled, and I hate that.
So: if you’re going to have ads that try to give you a message and make you cry (and we do, inescapably) then better that they perform a useful social, educational function, alongside ‘buy our stuff’. And maybe that they are for a genuinely good cause. Waitrose is releasing a Christmas single from its ad for charity, but the ad itself, though sweet, has made no great waves.
And of course, it's no coincidence that the event to which the ad refers took place 100 years ago, and we're in the year of Remembrance. I would have addressed this sooner, but it seemed so blindingly obvious. Of all the events and ads that have encouraged remembrance this year, this one has hit harder than most. The point of remembering is to feel unease, discomfort, gratitude - not to shy away from the fact that war is complicated and political and horrible.
The amazing thing is that this ad doesn't. It shows the preciousness of peace - and that peace, not war, can be seen as the temporary and hard won, fragile state. It's respectful and beautifully, sensitively done.
An ad has never done this to me before. Seven hundred words on the philosophy of advertising and what it means to be an advert.
So is this an advert? Just about. It's a film, for an act of remembrance, about gratitude, for a charity - the act of association with which means it just about functions as an ad, primarily for the British Legion, and secondly, for Sainsbury's.