Julie Burchill

When did Christmas adverts become so unbearable?

When did Christmas adverts become so unbearable?
Credit: John Lewis
Text settings

When I was young, I dated a man who wasn’t in advertising, but had lots of friends who were. Because I am witty, at some point during dinner — usually when dessert was being laid out with a platinum credit card — one of them would say: ‘Have you ever thought of working in advertising?’ I remember feeling real indignation, like someone had spat in my spritzer. I don’t care that Salman ‘Naughty, but nice’ Rushdie and Fay ‘Go to work on an egg’ Weldon started out that way; I had no intention of ending up in such a venal profession. So intense were my feelings that when, as a Bright Young Thing in the 1980s, I was asked to be one of the fresh faces which re-launched Croft Original in the style mags, I wrote a really rude letter back. I could kick myself now. Imagine all that free sherry.

I don’t believe that advertising is evil. It helps keep a free press going, including this magazine. I don’t subscribe to the late, great Bill Hicks routine: ‘By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing: kill yourself. Seriously though, if you are, do. There’s no rationalisation for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers. You are the ruiner of all things good. You are Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage.’

I do believe, however, that the advertising industry needs to stop kidding itself that it is in any way helping civilisation. We’re now so concerned with fake news and social media conspiracies that the industry has been let off the hook in recent years. Make no mistake, though. These agencies wouldn’t know a principle if it stuck itself right up their noses.

As we approach Christmas, the syrupy cynicism becomes especially irritating. John Lewis (and adam&eveDDB, which makes its adverts) are the worst offenders. Their first stab at a full-blown narrative Advent advert in 2011 (fidgeting child counts down the days while a Smiths song is defiled in the background) was hugely successful, although it didn’t actually appear to be advertising anything at all. The only goal was ‘branding’. It was designed to make us associate John Lewis itself with the sort of warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feelings that we’d normally only associate with Christmas. This year’s John Lewis advert — which features a young black boy introducing an alien white woman to her first Christmas — seems to suggest that the only good white person is one from another planet.

And why do John Lewis adverts always have such miserable music? I was taken aback when ‘edgy’ Lily Allen droned that soppy Keane song for the Lewis lucre in 2013. At least she had some shame. Five years later, she claimed her record label had ‘bullied’ and ‘betrayed’ her into doing the ad.

Before long, every big company was tugging at our heartstrings. I recall with especial distaste the year that Sainsbury’s attempted to co-opt not only our Christmases but our armed forces. The clip in which a returning soldier surprises his family while they’re in the middle of recording him a Christmas video message was genuinely moving, but that only made the fact that it was being used to flog cocktail sausages all the more offensive. And what about those army families whose loved ones wouldn’t be coming home that Christmas — or any other? Was any thought given to how something like this might make them feel? Of course not. There was money to be made from brave men making the world safe for soft-handed and overpaid brand managers.

Another advertising trick is to present a vision of national unity. Marks & Spencer is guilty of this. Despite its massive losses over the past few years, it appears to think it is bringing the country together with its over-priced Yuletide tat. This is not just cynical Christmas grifting gimmickry — this is M&S cynical Christmas grifting gimmickry.

But all Christmas adverts are the same to some degree. They knowingly lure a lot of people in to spend money they haven’t got on pointless stuff for people they don’t like, thereby establishing that credit-card companies and divorce lawyers will be among the few people waking up perky on 1 January.

We are herded into the commercial Christmas corral like gormless reindeer. As a Christian myself, albeit a bad one, I really do feel that one of my special times of the year has been totally culturally appropriated by greedy non-believers. Let Christmas be Christmas. Now that’s an advertising slogan.