Dave Robbins: Ad man's shameless exploitation of all we hold dear is just part of Christmas present
Published 24/11/2013 | 01:00
Roland Barthes was a French philosopher, but there was a little something Irish about him too. He lived with his mammy for 60 years and had the kind of devious mind we sometimes produce is this country.
His gift to philosophy was to take the analytical tools of linguistics and apply them to popular culture. Thus, he was able to discern deeper, troubling meanings in advertising, TV and media images.
In one essay, he masterfully decodes a photograph of an Algerian Legionnaire saluting the French flag. On the surface, the photo portrays a multi-cultural France, a place where the colonised Arabs can be patriotic Frenchmen too. But the image itself "colonises" the history of French intervention in the Maghreb. It glosses over history, smoothes out troublesome details and wraps everything in a digestible image.
Barthes, who died in 1980, would have had a field day with the slew of Christmas TV adverts that have hit our screens in the past week.
This year's Christmas campaigns are unusually subtle. Many are mini-movies, with plots, characters and high production values, but very little reference to what they are trying to sell.
There's the John Lewis ad, a Disney-style cartoon about a bear and a hare wandering through snow-filled woods. It is sentimental and shamelessly plays on our memories of books such as Watership Down and The Wind in The Willows.
It has been hailed as a near-masterpiece and the video has had over five million hits on YouTube. You might almost think it was art. Almost.
The Marks & Spencer ad lasts a full two minutes. Expensive, but the retailer obviously thinks it's worth it.
Its offering is an Alice In Wonderland riff – it also references The Wizard of Oz and Aladdin – with model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley falling down a manhole and losing her clothes several times.
The Sainsburys ad is a classic of the genre. It is a whopping three minutes and features seemingly amateur footage of families and what they get up to on Christmas Day.
It builds to a climax in which an army wife and her three children are "recording" a message for a soldier serving in Afghanistan. In the middle, he walks through the door. In fact, the ad is a kind of trailer: a 45-minute feature version is to be released later this month, directed by Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald and produced by Ridley Scott.
Barthes would have especially like this one, for it shamelessly exploits our emotions around family, the sacrifice demanded of the military and the impulse for families to be together at Christmas.
Tesco also opted for a faux home-video style ad this year. Its is a montage of home movies from the same family over 30 years. It gains emotional traction by playing on the kind of ache we have for our families to be near us at Christmas.
All these ads basically do the same thing: they annex things for which we have real feelings and use them to sell stuff.
They even take the idea of Christmas itself – a complex concept involving religion, nostalgia, high Victorian sentimentality and pagan ritual – and deploy it in the service of profit.
People want to make Christmas nice for their children. In many cases, they want to give their kids the Christmases they never had themselves.
We want to connect with our families at Christmas too and we want them to put aside, for one day, the usual rancour and rivalries that beset most families at some stage.
The ads take very understandable human urges and subvert them. You can have all that, they tell us, if you do your Christmas shopping with us.
I'd love – and Monsieur Barthes probably would too – to see a Christmas ad made up of "home movies" of my Christmases: the rows, the disappearing dad, stress, sadness.
Don't get me wrong, there have been good Christmases too. And I have high hopes for this one. But if it turns out well, it won't be because of where I did my shopping.