Why is every Christmas TV advert like a nail gun to the tearducts?

We're looking at you, Coca Cola, John Lewis, Asda, Morrisons and Very.

Here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody's having fun. Well, it isn't, and they aren't, but it might as well be. For this weekend, all the Christmas advertising campaigns launched. "Holidays are coming", chant the perennially joyful Coca-Cola singers in Rainbowland as a giant truck snarls down Main Street, cruelly failing to add "Open brackets, in six weeks' time, if you're lucky, close brackets".

What have we become? What led us to here? What led us to a world in which every single advert ever has to have snow in it, and try and make us cry? What happened? What have we done to deserve this? In Christmasadvertland, it always snows, and families are lovely, and mums do everything, and men are hopeless and buy a turd in a box and have to get helped out, because their rancid brains are full of stupid, and it always snows. Stop the madness. Stop it now.

It's John Lewis's fault, of course. We've been destined for this ever since grown adults shed salt tears at last year's sickening glurgefest in which a boy bought his mum and dad the present of a nice lie-in on Christmas morning, set to the horrific choral excoriation of the Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want".

At least that had something going for it - it upset those fun vacuums who still like Morrissey - but this year's offering hasn't even got that bronze lining. No, we're stuck with another plodding "classic" with the vital organs and even the less pleasant offal ripped out of it, leaving just the squishy inedible connective tissue - "The Power of Love" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood depicting the story of a snowman buying some gloves for his icy inamorata.

I don't wish to get tediously literal about a mushy bit of sentimental old flannel which is designed to make you spend money in an expensive shop. But let me say this: How did the snowman pay for his purchase? Did he tap out his pin on a keypad using a spindly twig finger? If he did, surely he would have realised that, with fingers made out of twigs, gloves were probably the worst possible present of all to buy his for his snowy ladylove.

It's a despicable slushpuppie of an advertisement, appealing at first but causing horrifying brainfreeze immediately afterwards. Why is the snowlady so passive? Why is it only the snowman who is doing the purchasing of Christmassy things? Why are snowpeople in love with each other, despite lacking sexual characteristics of any kind? It's not that it's heteronormative that annoys me; it's the sheer bloody predictability of it all.

Enough. It's not just John Lewis peddling levels of sticky-sweet sentimentality that should come with a health warning for diabetic viewers. They're all at it. Asda, who you can usually rely on just to tell you that their things are cheap and, hey, why not come down and buy some, have attempted to ace the field with their own advent offering.

It's even worse. In Asda's advert we're told that mums are responsible for everything Christmassy. Hooray, you might say, what a warm and welcome departure from the patriarchal figure of Der Julemanden or Papa Noel popping down chimneys of an Xmas Eve, but you'd be wrong: this isn't the mother as empowered twenty-first-century totem, but a horrible message that everyone should hate.

Mums should hate it, because supposedly they have to do every bloody thing forever, and get no help, and that's just the way it is; and everyone who isn't a mum, or who doesn't have one should hate it, because apparently they're missing out on the sine qua non of Christmastime. Woe betide you if your dad's doing the Christmas dinner, because it's bound to be shit. That's the message.

Morrisons' meagre dribble of a commercial is the same. SuperMum struggles by and does everything, because she "wouldn't have it any other way". Really? Well, you see, we have let this happen. We didn't complain about the execrable "proud sponsors of mums" garbage during the Olympics; we didn't complain about John Lewis's nailgun to the tearducts last festive season, so we're stuck with this. Forever.

Then you have the Very advert: stupid braindead MAN has bought something RUBBISH because he's a MAN and only the clever WOMAN can do something about it. Regular readers will know I'm no fan of the whiny perinea who mewl about "misandry", but come off it: this kind of thing should have gone out with the Ark, shouldn't it? Is this really only as far as we've come in all these years?

Please. For me. For all of us who quite like Christmas, but start to see the joy of being a Jehovah's Witness with every passing commercial break, can we just have a bit less snow? A bit less sexism? A bit less lachrymosity, and a bit more fun? Is that too much to ask, Santa? Please, please, please, let me get what I want...

 

How did the John Lewis snowman pay for his gifts, eh?
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty
Show Hide image

Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit