Using the slaughter of the first World War to make us buy groceries? Bah, humbug
The Sainsbury’s ad strives to make us associate the tragedy of a generation with self-service checkouts and shopping trollies and Christmassy feelings
A still from Sainsbury’s Christmas ad
Standing in muddy no-man’s land in the midst of war, a German soldier and a English soldier face each other. One extends his hand to the other. “We are not so different you and I,” he seems to say. “We are, after all, both Paul McCartney.”
Paul McCartney’s 1983 Pipes of Peace video is very like Sainsbury’s recent Christmas ad, a homage to the unofficial Christmas Armistice of 1914, during which hostilities briefly subsided and German and English soldiers sang carols to each other before crossing the barbed wire to play football and eat Sainsbury’s chocolate.
In the music promo, McCartney plays both a plucky, clean- shaven Tommy and a winky, moustachioed German. In this version of history, it is these disparate, pan-national Paul McCartneys who instigate the temporary truce of 1914, all to the sound of a jaunty anti-war song. In the Sainsbury’s ad, it’s ruddy-cheeked young model types who do the boundary- crossing to a bitter-sweet, less jaunty score (a piano arrangement of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms) but lovelier, Christmassier cinematography.
Both films depict these events for different reasons, one to shill a surprisingly upbeat anti-war ditty from a former Beatle, the other to shill the wares of a British supermarket chain. I’m fine with the former. I mean, it worked on me back in 1983. After seeing Pipes of Peace on MT-USA with Vincent Hanley, it became the first album I bought (I also liked the video for Say, Say, Say with McCartney as a funky old-west snake-oil salesman swindling people alongside what I genuinely thought was a pretty, tomboyish young lady. It was Michael Jackson.) At eight years old, it was the first time I realised war was bad. Prior to this my war knowledge had come from Victor and Warlord comics and it looked like great fun.
So it could be the nostalgia bubbling in my blood, but I feel like the Pipes of Peace video has something genuinely profound to offer about both the psychology of Paul McCartney and the futility of war. “Hey,” it seems to say, “We are all just pale reflections of the platonic, cosmic Paul McCartney, why we gotta fight?”
The Sainsbury’s ad, on the other hand, despite basically working with the same material, leaves me weeping in a Pavlovian fashion while simultaneously feeling empty, angry and eager to shop for condiments. Borrowing powerful historical symbolism for art, even a commercial pop song, feels like an artist’s prerogative. It’s their job. Leveraging historical touchstones to make us buy groceries, on the other hand, feels like dark, Satanic behaviour.
The Sainsbury’s ad strives to make us associate the tragedy of a generation with self-service checkouts and shopping trollies and Christmassy feelings. It fits in with current trends that like to denude the first World War of political and historical meaning so that we can use it as a big tragic signifier in period dramas (no emotional depth in your writing? Transfer the action to 1914!). The franchise could be expanded beyond the first World War, of course. And around the world I imagine there are brainstorming sessions underway at which marketeers are gleefully matching glitzy brands with suitable historical mass slaughters.
I suspect something similar will be done here in Ireland with 1916 when we figure out how to express patriotic fervour safely and with confidence. All I can gather from the current, rather vague 1916 Inspires video, is that the Rising had something to do with Macnas and Facebook and Fungie the Dolphin and James Connolly muttering “brand Ireland” and “great little place to do business” while blasting a shotgun from the roof of the GPO at uniformed ex-Beatles (probably). We could, I suppose, learn something from the ancient enemy about the sentimental appropriation of history. Maybe all the signatories of the proclamation could be played by Paul McCartney?