Sainsbury’s Christmas ad: Did WWI soldiers really carol on Christmas Eve? (VIDEO).

A Masterful, Tear-Jerking, Morally Complicated New Christmas Ad 

A Masterful, Tear-Jerking, Morally Complicated New Christmas Ad 

Slate in motion.
Nov. 14 2014 4:04 PM

The Moving, Troubling Sainsbury’s Christmas Ad 

Is it ever OK to make a commercial about war? 

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On Christmas Eve, 1914, five months after war broke out in Europe, German and Allied troops volleyed carols back and forth to each other, a rare moment of camaraderie between the trenches. The next morning—as the story goes—small pockets of soldiers (both German and Allied, depending on the personal account and their location along the front) began to emerge from their subterranean positions, waving truce flags and shouting season's greetings. Eventually realizing it wasn’t a trap, the troops in the opposing trenches followed suit, meeting their enemies in no man’s land. 

What followed was an impromptu cease-fire along parts (the fighting did not come to a halt everywhere) of the western front, a day of gift giving, song singing, and soccer playing between two groups of men otherwise tasked to kill each other. That day, known as the Christmas Truce of 1914—which has inspired no small number of movies, songs, and poems—is now also the subject of a tear-jerking and well-produced long-form commercial from U.K.-based supermarket chain Sainsbury’s.

As you can see above, the ad opens with the Christmas Eve carol-singing, focusing on young British soldier Jim—who, at daybreak, gets caught up in the shared musical moment and emerges from the trench, hands raised. Backed by a violin-heavy, throat-tightening score, the temporary truce follows with handshakes, gifts, and soccer. It’s an exceedingly effective ad—one that might even cause you to shed a tear, depending on the size of your heart.

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That aside, the advert itself has run into some understandable resistance. Given the horrors of World War I and the unimaginable suffering experienced in the trenches, it’s undeniably callous to hallmark one rare moment of levity for commercial purposes. As Ally Fogg argued in the Guardian, “The sheer futility of the slaughter is what made the truce possible and also what makes the recounting of the tale so heartwarming and heartbreaking to this day. That vacuum of sense provides all the more reason for caution when co-opting the events for a purpose as crass as flogging groceries.”

Still, as someone who spent many childhood Christmas Eves listening to the songs immortalizing the truce—and in turn growing to understand at least something about the shared humanity between enemies—I couldn’t help but be moved by the ad, callous or not. Not only is that the sign of an advertising budget well spent, it proves that this specific moment in time is worth celebrating, despite Sainsbury’s motives and the carnage that followed once the real-life soldiers returned to the trenches. And maybe that’s enough to allow the ad's (and the truce’s) overall message to triumph over its commercial nature.​