Yes, the focus of today’s post is primarily that Sainsbury’s Christmas Advert and no, I don’t think that weighing in with my two cents will provide any considerable insight or worthwhile contribution to the discourse surrounding it. As a result I won’t go into any great length with regard to my feelings about this retouched and not especially touching rendition of one of the most human moments of the Great War. I am aware that this advert is proving quite contentious but the furore surrounding it having been broadcast isn’t what really disturbs me, although I can easily see why people have been roused to complain to the advertising authority, ASA. I’m more worried about the fact that people want to stop it being seen.
We live in a world that readily gulps down the brazen self-promotion of big businesses on a daily basis, only seeing fit to challenge it with intermittent bouts of cynicism and outrage. Who and how we delineate between what is acceptable, distasteful and outright wrong on the advertising front has been a source of puzzlement to me for some years. I could never understand why certain things cause little or no concern, whilst things I consider trivial result in hundreds of complaints.
Advertising smoking is considered irresponsible, but this hasn’t always been the case. It was only upon realising the health risks involved that advertising smoking became unlawful and even with an incontestable body of scientific proof at our disposal the process of legislating against hugely influential tobacco companies was a long, hard fight.
Nowadays we take it for granted that only in art house noires do we ever see smoking aggrandised on the silver screen, but there was once a time when there was a cigarette languishing between the lips of every credible film hero as well as in the mouth of their nemesis. Now smoking is scarcely used on screen except as a cheap device to indicate great stress, or insinuate that the character has vices and flaws, humanising squeaky clean characters lest they come off as too virtuous.
That we should be able to ban unhealthy habits from being portrayed in a cool light is reasonable enough; it doesn’t alarm me to think that there is a governing body in place that determines what is deemed acceptable to broadcast because I truly believe that advertising should be vetted. In relation to smoking this might have seemed clear cut, but last last decade has seen a tremendous number of very graphic adverts aimed at countering the habit, most of which staunchly relied upon scare tactics to have an effect. This approach could be traumatic in the extreme as a child of smoking parents etc. but I’m glad they were aired because they provoked discussion, not merely a reaction.
I like how the presumption of innocence, which is one of the touchstones of our nation’s identity, also seems to apply to advertising. To a certain extent I believe it is right that adverts for e-cigarettes should be permitted until it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt that they are dangerous as well as cigarettes. I don’t necessarily question the system, because every way of doing things has foibles. I question the escalation of shock tactics, and our concurrent desensitisation and descent into thoughtless acceptance of what we see.
I find the lack of ongoing discussion that seems to follow any given ruling to be almost as scary. Once banned there is no grey area; absence by definition doesn’t (often) provoke an audience to ruminate on a given topic. There is a real sense that once something has been legislated against, it is committed to remain thus because there are new evils to be tackled and brought to heel. Being safely removed from the public eye does not any given problem solve.
How is it that the promotion of sanitary products and condoms is only acceptable after the watershed, yet we see adverts for pay-day loan companies on children’s TV channels during the day? The watershed was put in place to protect children, but I think there is real scope to argue that it undermines the intent by feeding into the cultural tendency to avoid confronting issues that need confronting. We have perpetuated the taboo surrounding (safe) sex and normal bodily functions in the name of safeguarding childhood, but the world is such that the innocence of childhood is curtailed well before they are old enough to stay up beyond the watershed. If anything, children tend to question what they are exposed to far more rigorously than we have grown accustomed to doing ourselves.
There is a farcical quality to our notions of what is and isn’t acceptable viewing at any given moment in our history as a race, but if history has taught us one thing, it is that our values are protean. I want to see a new era ushered in where there is more open discussion surrounding what we see; social media proffers a fantastic platform for activism and it forces us to come into contact with the views of others, views that might be contrary to our own. Or this ought to be the case, provided Facebook puts a stop to the use of algorithms that increasingly tailor the content that we see to what we have liked previously… a trip down a rabbit hole best saved for another day!
This exposure will hopefully encourage us to challenge the content we devour on our smartphones and from our TV sets. We should not accept everything at face value, nor should we be given over too easily to cynicism. There is a balance to be struck between being provocative and cotton-wooling uncomfortable topics. I think that this particular advert, however misconceived, has been a healthy exercise. In an era where net neutrality has been usurped by algorithmic censorship it is paramount that we are exposed to gaffs like this.
I am glad that ASA didn’t rule against the Sainsbury’s Christmas Advert because sometimes it is more beneficial for an advert (or any visual content) to split opinions than to be hidden from view. It does us the world of good to think about the location of lines previously drawn in the sand under a different set of circumstances, and was there ever a more fitting talking point for this than the trenches of a wasteful, if valiantly fought war? Or a holiday more in need of being recentred in the tradition of thinking and giving thanks for what we have than Christmas? I think not.