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The insensitivity of the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert

It’s that time of year when corporate businesses jostle to pull our heartstrings and tap into our purses so that they can push up the Christmas bonuses. What a wonderful time of year it is.

For the last couple of weeks, social media has been beguiled by Sainsbury’s new Christmas advert, which teamed up with the Royal British Legion in commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. The advert sent a shiver down my spine, not because it was emotionally engaging (which it was), but because it reinforced how we have become the emotional puppets of a cold and calculating corporate sector.

On one level, the advert is beautifully crafted and emotionally touching. But, despite its sentimentality, it is important to remember Sainsbury’s are not trying to change the world with this advert: they are trying to sell turkeys at Christmas.

Using a war that killed 40 million people in order to trump John Lewis’ sale of Christmas paraphernalia is almost as insensitive as Tesco’s’ “Poppy Pepperoni Pizzas”. One of the worst things about the advert is its attempt to be ‘subtle’ by weaving in the theme of food (and consumerism) as a sort of saviour of the situation. I almost expected to see a “Taste the Difference” label on it — luckily they didn’t push it that far.

The advert encapsulates one of the biggest problems of the whole Poppy Appeal. While the campaign claims to honour the lives lost in past wars, it also legitimises the wars of the present. The cloak of remembrance disguises a multitude of sins. It is hardly surprising that the Royal British Legion derives a great deal of its funding and sponsorship from arms companies, including BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, and Thales, all of which have provided arms to dictatorships the world over.

The irony of our “remembrance” is that, despite our sentimentality, we are forgetting the major driver of the First World War: the arms market. The British arms company Vickers-Armstrong, later to become BAE, sold arms to the Ottoman Empire that were used later against British troops. Remembrance by donating to the Royal British Legion is not, therefore, a statement of nationalism or solidarity. It is a statement of complicity in a system that acknowledges capitalist profit as the ultimate good and thus facilitates the exploitation of the bottom 99% by the top 1%.

We are crafting how we choose to remember the horrors of previous wars according to a narrative that is created and sustained by this corporate elite. A series of elitist networks of businessmen, media moguls, and politicians ensure the dominance of this narrative. All too often, the media manipulates two of our most powerful human emotions: desire and fear. We are constantly manipulated into desiring products and lifestyles; this ensnares us into consumerism and cycles of debt, which in turn benefit financial institutions and corporate businesses. Meanwhile, we are encouraged to fear the Other, whether defined as immigrants or benefit recipients, and thereby encouraged to vote for parties that strip away provision for these groups while maintaining the incomes of the rich. This fatal combination of desire and fear is a case of “divide and rule” that gives the controllers of popular media — the elite — enormous power.

In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel argues that we are en-route from being a market economy to being a market society. From buying the right to healthcare to traders betting on people’s life insurance in the viaticals market, commodification dominates every aspect of our society. With the increasing dominance of big business in politics through the funding of political parties, it is inevitable that corporate interests will shape the political agenda. As Sandel puts it, “Our politics is overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content. It fails to engage with the big questions that people care about.”

How can we escape the pernicious influence of corporate business in our lives? We can protest at the disgusting use of war as an emotional marketing tool to manipulate us into consumerism and support of the arms trade. Whatever it is that we do, we must do something. If we do not, we will progress inexorably towards a society in which we know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. 


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