LONDON (AP) — Artillery booms. A trench comes into view. Soldiers huddle into their overcoats for warmth.
The scene is the unlikely backdrop for a holiday commercial that has many Britons reaching for hankies — and others demanding it be pulled from the air. The 3-minute, 40-second mini-movie from the Sainsbury’s grocery chain depicts the 1914 Christmas Truce, when soldiers stopped killing each other for a few hours to celebrate the holiday together in no man’s land.
The commercial has sparked debate on whether it is appropriate for corporations to use sensitive national history for commercial use. The issue is all the more delicate as the country marks 100 years since World War I began — a months-long national moment of soul searching highlighted by somber ceremonies, intense media coverage and crowded exhibitions.
“It is a somewhat brave decision on the part of Sainsbury’s,” said Leslie Hallam, the course director of the psychology of advertising program at the University of Lancaster.
Brave, that is, in the sense of it being risky.
Big Christmas ads have become a tradition in Britain — an opportunity for companies to pull out all the stops to woo holiday shoppers and stamp their brands firmly on the consumer brain. These mini-blockbusters, similar to Super Bowl showstoppers in the United States, usually feature warm and fuzzy characters like lovestruck penguins and adorable children who reveal the true meaning of Christmas.
They do not, in other words, normally take place in trenches.
The commercial has sparked at least 240 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, which is considering an investigation after viewers objected to using the war to promote a company. While it’s not the first time war has formed the backdrop for an ad, previous efforts tended to be light-hearted.
Hallam finds the ad is inappropriate, like putting a brand name on a re-enactment of Princess Diana’s funeral.
But its sheer beauty is what has its critics displeased. With the gore and rats of trench warfare from 1914-1918 firmly in mind, Manchester-based writer Ally Fogg wrote in a Guardian newspaper column that the ad was disrespectful as it offers a sanitized version of World War I.
“Would we welcome an advert next Christmas showing a touching little scene between a Jewish child and a disabled child in Auschwitz, swapping gifts for Christmas and Hanukah on their way to the gas chambers?” he wrote. “I would hope not, yet I fail to see any great moral difference.”
Whatever its intention, Sainsbury’s is tapping into the national mood. Interest in the war was evident this month when estimated 5 million people visited an exhibition of 888,246 ceramic poppies — one for each British and Commonwealth soldier killed — planted in the Tower of London’s moat, creating a blood red tribute to the dead.
Sainsbury’s worked closely with The Royal British Legion, a veterans’ organization, and historians to ensure details were authentic. But this is a bloodless moment. The commercial features a dusting of snow and choruses of “Silent Night” in English and German. The landscape of war is transformed into an oasis of calm. The hero prop is a chocolate bar in bright blue wrapping — a replica of which is being sold to benefit the legion.
It depicts a young British soldier named Jim, who ventures out of his trench and steps into no-man’s land to shake hands with Otto, a German soldier of similar age. Their comrades follow, exchanging gifts, snapping pictures and playing an impromptu game of soccer.
Historians have disputed some of the specifics of the events of the real life Christmas Truce. Recent scholarship suggests that rather than one event, there were a series of unofficial truces along the Western Front. Whatever the specifics, the idea of this heartwarming moment in the midst of absurdity is seared in the public mind.
Sainsbury’s is unapologetic in the face of criticism.
“This year, we wanted to tell this story of sharing,” the company said in a statement. “Working with The Royal British Legion, we have chosen to do this through the lens of one of the most extraordinary moments of sharing in modern history, when on Christmas Day 1914, British and German soldiers laid down their arms and came together to share a game of football.”
But it remains to be seen whether a connection has been made with shoppers — whether they will buy their chocolate at their neighborhood Sainsbury’s.
Sarah Wood, the co-founder of Unruly, a marketing technology company, said her firm is tracking the number of times the Christmas advertisements have been shared on social media.
So far, the more traditional commercial backdrop is beating World War I. The Sainsbury’s advertisement has been shared nearly 384,000 times, but the John Lewis department store ad, which began five days before and features Monty the Penguin, has been shared some 776,000 times.
Whether it proves a commercial success or not, the Sainsbury’s strategy is getting attention. Robert Foley, a historian at King’s College London, says that is because World War I was a formative experience for Britain. It marked the first mass mobilization of civilians.
With concerns about the futility of war and needless sacrifice being revisited, the Great War has been linked to contemporary conflicts, such as the war in Afghanistan, Foley said. People are remembering that these people died for a reason — that each poppy in the moat represented a person.
It’s on everyone’s mind. And now it’s in a commercial.
“This is all anybody’s been talking about,” Foley said. “They have really touched a nerve in the British population.”
(An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Hallam teaches at the University of Lancaster’s management school.)
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.