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
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue