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
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder