I regularly forget that my exposure to British culture is largely skewed these days, as it consists almost entirely of BBC programmes enjoyed at leisure, thanks to the wonders of technology and of a patient husband. So it was a nasty jolt that I received, as I was struggling to keep the enthusiasm going for live TV, which had navigated the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special (Bruce, Tess, judges, celebs and pros all sticking rigidly to the script of this-is-the-stuff-old-ladies-like-as-does-a-frankly-astonishingly-large-proportion-of-the-rest-of-the-population – yes, like me – and was then leading to eager anticipation for the Downton Abbey Christmas special.
The nasty jolt took the form of a supermarket Christmas advert floating across our living room and into my visual field, which was insufficiently impaired by overindulgence. This is what I registered : two paunchy men in late middle age wearing naff jumpers, asleep on a sofa (yes, yes, I know that ridiculous acrylic jumpers with reindeer patterns are part of the whole British Christmas ironic thing, but in heaven’s name, why?) who snuffled a bit when they woke up temporarily. Womenfolk smiled indulgently at them, a little boy was nudged into taking a “cheeky” picture of the sleepers, and the riotous evening in front of the TV rolled on. After suffering the realisation that the neatly ad-expunged episodes that I normally watch on DVD are a whole 35 minutes shorter than what ITV viewers need to sit through, I settled down to grin and bear it (because I love trash, I really do, see Strictly above, and – spoiler alert – I understand that the Matthew actor was starting to find Downton a little career limiting, I really do, too).
But I had barely got back into Tom behaving very thickly with someone who would have been an erstwhile colleague if she had been a maid when he was a chauffeur (you following?), when another very similar clip wafted over my knitting needles and into my sleepy, but still just about functioning, brain. Just as I was thinking how remarkably similar it was to the previous one, and trying to work out whether it was part 2 of the ad series, the logo of a competitor supermarket chain popped up. (Sadly, like every single person in the Western world, surely, I know enough about advertising to expect adverts to come in series, and in varying durations, depending on whether they are proudly presenting a programme or doing the serious “buy us, buy US!” thing in full-on mini film mode).
This depressed me so much that I did a Youtube search and found a selection of Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s Christmas 2012 adverts, as these two organisations are the ones that had initially made me wince for twice 20 seconds. I must admit that there was, in my view, compared to the Sainsbury ads, slightly more colour and music in the Tesco ads, which helped to lighten the general low key approach and anti-style aesthetic of the whole thing.
Last year, the John Lewis advert got a lot of airtime and bandwidth and comment. That advert worked, in my book. Spades of nostalgia (as my husband pointed out, the boy’s clothes, bedroom etc could have been relevant to the childhood of a large number of viewers, whose age could span at least 40 years) and tons of sentiment of course, but it was sweet and watchable. Whereas “Just Forty Winks Day TV Ad – Christmas Days at Sainsbury’s”, as I have since found it is called, looks like Scrooge stealing into the nation’s living rooms with an extra strong Bah humbug can, spraying a trail of grey weariness and a feeling of “can’t complain, it’s Christmas”.
I do understand that it’s a falling asleep in front of the telly scenario, but surely even that can be amusing, rather than brain numbingly depressing? (For the record, falling asleep in our house is the adults’ natural defence mechanism, when they have been overexposed to their daughters’ exuberance, and I can readily accept that the latter blessing is one you might prefer to be spared, reader.)
The thing that I really don’t understand is that Britain is brilliant at marketing and advertising, presenting many things in a highly creative and fun way. What’s happened here? Or is it the case that Britain used to be good at this? Because it seems to me that it’s been OK to level down to boring and “good enough” for a while now. I realise that people reading this might think “gosh, what’s her problem, what a load of angst for a stupid little ad!” but I really got the feeling, watching it, that a new low had been hit.
So, please make my Christmas, help me forget that this might be the recession really biting. Please just give me ads with improbably hospitable families and friends, delightfully playful children, true fine food and drink connoisseurs and dazzlingly stylish partygoers. Final hints to ad film directors: steer clear of “The Little Drummer Boy” or “Mistletoe and Wine” for the soundtrack, add loads of chocolate boxes and a particularly decorative nativity scene to the set and you’re in business.