In the Christmas ad war, as British retailers slug it out against German retailers Aldi and Lidl, has Sainsbury’s scored an own goal?

The Sainsbury’s Xmas ad has created a Marmite reaction, some love it, others hate the brand for exploiting the First World War. So is it ethical for marketers to exploit any situation to outdo another brand in the ego wars? Or as is it really a sensitive CSR film that supports the Royal British Legion?


The good news is that after spending millions on making the ad/film (not to mention big fees to their ad agency) and millions on the media (the launch ad was 3m 40 sec) Sainsbury’s will be giving profits from a £1 1914 style chocolate bar to the RBL (I guess that’s about 20p a bar).

Even comedians know the boundaries and we expect them to overstep the mark, as I discovered when I used the brilliant Filthy Phil for an event set in a church – never tell a comedian not to do religious jokes, it’s an invitation! But he was very funny, even more so when the choir master pulled him off the stage.

Punk rockers top the list for crossing boundaries, but when it comes to consumer marketing brands have to beware. It’s a brave marketing director who oversteps the mark, risking a public and media backlash that can be costly to the bottom line.

So has Sainsbury’s gone to far?

The first thing in comparing the two most notable ads of this season, John Lewis’ children’s story about a single child who sets up a dating service for imaginary penguins and Sainsbury’s war time epic is that both have at least got people talking. Both are highly emotive, excellent executions and long – very long – not your usual 30 sec ad. But sadly for M&S The Magic & Sparkle TV campaign hasn’t delivered much magic or sparkle , I prefer last year’s ad.

Personally I like the Sainsbury’s ad, well it’s actually a film not an ad, but I understand why so many people feel it’s overstepped the mark. From an ethical point of view I have to agree that some things are too sacred to exploit just to out ego the competition. Didn’t anyone ask, “do we have another script that won’t offend 50% of the population and give the gutter press a field day?”

After all, I bet this ad started life as a brief to “outdoor John Lewis” not to celebrate 100 years since the first world war started.

When social media really lets you down…

Sainsbury Twitter

Even if the TV ad just about gets away with it for me the social media doesn’t. To look at their Twitter page is just repulsive as against the image of the soldiers is the typical trite writing you get. Utterly insulting and disrespectful, but then you’d hardly expect the 23 year old kid who probably writes it to know anything about war.

Who forget to tell marketing about the bulldozers in Bristol…?

The trouble is, when you decide to be controversial you need to have your house in order because when the critics come gunning they’ll look for any small thing to use against you. Even worse if that something is big…

In a recent piece in the Independent, “Hypocritical Sainsbury’s TV ad accused of exploiting emotions of WWI while supermarket plans to bulldoze war memorial in Bristol” they revealed that the brand was planning to build a superstore over a war memorial. Ouch! Bet the marketing department didn’t see that one coming.

Diana Srarfton of the Bristol anti Sainsbury’s group, TRASH, said “How can Sainsbury’s do this in the centenary years of the Great War while exploiting the pathos of the Christmas Truce in 1914? Are the trenches of the western front to be memorialised as chilled food isles?”

The Sainsbury’s story has got varied responses from the press and as one reader commented, “I thought my great grandfather died in the war for freedom from tyranny not for a ‘buy one get one free’ offer on mince pies at a supermarket.” ”Epic or disrespectful?” commented CITY AM, as it pointed out that within days the ASA had received hundreds of complaints.

Others include, “Should we really be using the horrors of the First World War to sell Christmas turkeys?”

Sainsbury's Christmas advert

Head of brand, Mark Given, defended the Sainsbury’s ad in the marketing press, claiming “Overall reaction to the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive”, well that doesn’t sound that positive.

Is this Sainsbury’s vs John Lewis or English retailers vs German retailers?

With Aldi and Lidl, which are both German brands, kicking Sainsbury’s into defeat, some people have asked if the ad has a subtler message – a hidden attempt to fly the British flag?Today the real war between England and Germany is not in the trenches but in the retail environment.

Times are not good for the third biggest UK supermarket (after Tesco and Asda) following an announced of a £290m loss in profits. If this ad doesn’t deliver increased customers and sales there may well be a new marketing department next year, probably giving us something safe like all those dreadful Christmas turkeys featuring families around Christmas trees smiling like idiots.

Sainsbury’s, M&S and John Lewis’s may not have invented any new strategies (most brands have been using the same 5 for 100 years), but they have certainly created great ads that raise the bar and if last year’s results are examined they prove that great emotive ads sell and we don’t need to serve up twee Christmas clichés. Sadly I fear that this may be the last great year of great Christmas TV ads.


LINKS Sainsbury ad  “Christmas is for sharing”

  • Dr Cardwell

    Yes, afraid so. This is a lapse of taste. The company wasn’t there, so they have no excuse for gratuitously exploiting events that really happened to real people, many of whom did not survive. Bad taste.
    This is what happens when people start to believe the things they write on Nobo charts “we are stitched into the fabric of the nation’s life”, etc. No. You are not that important. You are a shop.