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
Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.