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Sainsbury’s Christmas truce ad defended
From the Financial Times of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 18:18:51 GMT

Sainsbury’s TV advertisement based on the unofficial Christmas truce of 1914 has attracted hundreds of complaints and has been described as inappropriate, historically inaccurate and even “obscene”.

But as the controversy rumbles on through the festive season, a military historian who was consulted over the making of the promotion has leapt to its defence.

Taff Gillingham praised the supermarket chain’s advert as a respectful short film that would have earned the approval of the soldiers it portrays. Most critics were “being outraged on behalf of men they never met who fought in a war they know nothing about”, he said.

Of all the big retailers’ Christmas advertisements, this year’s Sainsbury’s offering — backed by the Royal British Legion, which will receive profits from sales of the chocolate bar featured — has taken most of the limelight. The promotion has garnered more than 15m YouTube views and is a re-enactment of the famous encounter between British and German troops in no man’s land, when hostilities were — mostly — put on hold for a day.

Sainsbury’s has been attacked for exploiting emotions over a conflict in which millions died in order to boost sales. More than 700 people complained to the Advertising Standards Authority before the watchdog ruled on November 27 that it would not be investigating the promotion as it had not broken any rules.

Last week, the comedian and activist Russell Brand used his online daily show The Trews to call the advert the work of an “evil, twisted genius”, adding that Sainsbury’s should use “these resources of emotion and unity we have as human beings for something other than driving people into a supermarket”.

Mr Gillingham disagreed. He said the UK’s big broadcasters had failed this year to do justice to the “incredible achievements” of the men who halted the German advance at the start of the first world war. It had taken a national grocery store to pay proper tribute to the men who stopped the German push in 1914 despite being heavily outnumbered.

Sainsbury’s . . . has been supporting the British Legion for 20 years, so it is hardly jumping on a bandwagon

- Rita Clifton, BrandCap

Rita Clifton, a brand specialist who chairs the consultancy BrandCap, felt the advert had come down on the right side of the taste divide. “Sainsbury’s has a pretty good defence in that it has been supporting the British Legion for 20 years, so it is hardly jumping on a bandwagon,” she said.

She added that it was not new for people to use historical events on which to base advertising, citing a Carling Black Label Dambusters advert, where a German soldier turns into a star goalkeeper to fend off bouncing bombs.

Jane Frost, chief executive of the Market Research Society, said the advert was “a nicely shot film that told the story well”, though she would have advised Sainsbury’s to make the link with the British Legion more overt, adding: “You have to be careful about a subject this difficult and emotive.”

Mr Gillingham also defended the depiction of a football match, derided as a myth by many historians. He said there were corroborative accounts of a kickabout from two British soldiers, from the 1st Battalion the Norfolk Regiment and 1/6th Battalion the Cheshire Regiment, who were stationed in Wulverghem, southern Belgium.

Most soldiers, he added, were simply curious to see the enemy. “They wanted to find out what did the Germans look like. What’s their gear like? It was a great opportunity to take the day off and do that.”

Sainsbury’s said it had partnered with the Royal British Legion “to ensure we told the story with authenticity and respect”, and was delighted with the “overwhelmingly positive response . . . to our portrayal of the 1914 Christmas Day truce”. The supermarket chain added that sales of chocolate bars depicted in the advert would raise £500,000 for the British Legion.

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