Why you should care
Because you are what you eat.
Ansgar Allen is a lecturer in education at the University of Sheffield and author of The Cynical Educator.
The season is upon us, and upscale British department store John Lewis has released its annual Christmas ad. Perfectly timed — released 24 hours after the U.S. election result — it was set to Trump election disappointment and designed to inaugurate what’s shaping up to be an almost perfect season of distraction. Dogs and cute kids, not geopolitics and Armageddon.
Reportedly costing $1.2 million, and with a further $7.5 million assigned to the campaign, there’s plenty of good feeling to go around — good feeling of the curated, large-budget sort. And the fervent anticipation and delight on social media surrounding this holiday debut would be completely unbearable were it not for the cynicism of many tweets like: “After the year we’ve had, this had better be bloody good.” But, you see, our cynicism is part of the game.
The John Lewis Christmas advert better be fucking spectacular— Philip Westerman (@westerfest) November 9, 2016
In the U.K., supermarket chains Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have followed John Lewis’ lead. And we know the subtext: These ads are designed to make us buy more. They’re not fooling anyone; we can easily see how they veil this basic injunction, and that’s their charm. We’re willing fools as we enjoy the spectacle, waiting to see how the Christmas-buying frenzy will be dressed up again this year.
It’s no surprise that these institutions are sometimes exploiting middle-class angst to raise revenue by tying their campaigns to charitable donations (“each year we work with a charity which fits our ad”) and by convincing those who have become bored of austerity that “affordable luxury” is still within their reach. It hardly disrupts the feel-good vibe of these ads to say that they represent a collective denial of social division and crippling economic inequality.
We also cannot puncture our enjoyment of them if we point out these are elite institutions that restrict free coffee schemes, for example, because customers have complained, according to Gloucestershire Live, that they’re attracting the wrong kind of people. And to suggest that they are complicit in the growing degradations of global capitalism is to become guilty of a kind of naïveté, the naïveté of those who have not yet realized that we know all this already. The problem is of a different sort: It is that we know all this, and yet can live with it. That is our cynicism.
We realize what these ads are about, but prefer to experience them as if they were gifts, or little Christmas consumer bonuses. We choose to delight in the creepy moral excess of each advertising message. We marvel each year anew at the repeated cunning they display in obscuring their more basic message, which is that we must consume more and more and do so regardless of the consequences.
These institutions have adopted for themselves the task of keeping Christmas true, as the guardians of this season transfer from the pulpit to the screen. These adverts remind us of what is important, so we like to tell ourselves, they remind us of what we must value at this time of year, when lots of other stuff we do says otherwise.
Somehow this enables us to endure James Corden telling us, in the Sainsbury’s ad, that The Greatest Gift for Christmas Is Me. Our cynicism protects us, as we enjoy Sainsbury’s’ social critique as entertainment — where a devoted dad who struggles to get everything done in the run-up to Christmas has an epiphany that frees him from the surrounding madness: He is the greatest gift. We cannot be shocked by the hypocrisy of this narrative, which is designed, again, to sell us more stuff.
Protected by the fact that we are completely unshockable now (surely Trump was the last great shock), we can enjoy the Waitrose spectacle of a robin being fed an all-butter mince pie when we know that food banks are full of cast-off tins and facing increased demand, supplying hundreds of thousands of people in the U.K. with emergency aid. We can indulge ourselves, and our sentiment, in that motley collection of animals (some brought out of hibernation) bouncing on an overpriced trampoline from John Lewis as if it were a free-for-all. We can enjoy an ad that suggests the Christmas joy is shared equally (“gifts that everyone will love”), though we know it isn’t. More worrying, apparently for some according to Wales Online, is that John Lewis has ruined the magic of Christmas by suggesting that Father Christmas was not behind it all.
Faced with so much hypocrisy layered over with sentiment, surely a sardonic laugh would be appropriate. But even contempt has its respective ad. Aldi supermarket’s Christmas character, Kevin the Carrot, already has this nailed as he pokes fun at the John Lewis fans, providing relief for those already glutted on Christmas by early November. Every corner is covered.
At Christmas we’re all cynics — happy cynics. And that’s the problem.