Show Hide image

Mother of all Christmases

Why are so many adverts dishing up stale Seventies sexism this festive season?

Festive adverts
Various channels

It’s probably not terribly radical of me to write, in the pages of this magazine, that I hate Christmas commercials. But still, I do. For one thing, I wonder about all the people who are broke, for whom this nightly parade of stuff they can’t afford must be torture. For another, there’s the knowledge – prissy this, but what the hell; everyone knows that my knickers are made of worsted and come right up to my disapproving armpits – that Sylvanian Families, Lego Friends and the electronic dance version of Twister are not necessary to human happiness, and that even those of us who aren’t broke could spend our money more wisely. And then there’s the special loathing I feel for Iceland, whose ads – drum roll please, as we open the chest freezer – seem mostly to feature canapés as created by Aubrey from Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet. Lasagne bites, oriental duck pyramids and, to follow, mini pink custard slices. Given the choice, I prefer a generous slice of Aubrey’s pork cyst.

The John Lewis advert is supposed to be the big one, or so the Daily Mail keeps telling us (lately, the Mail seems to love John Lewis almost as much as it hates Marks & Spencer, a state of affairs that should last at least until Liz Jones is despatched to its womenswear department in search of “disappointing” shoes and “frumpy” underwear). This year’s ad is called The Journey, as if the director thinks he’s Fassbinder, and features a snowman who heads off to a well-known department store to buy his snowgirlfriend a pair of gloves. It’s a struggle for him to get there because snowmen don’t have legs – at one point, he can be seen standing mournfully on the hard shoulder of a motorway – but he makes the effort because, well, that’s what you do at Christmas, isn’t it? You are Mallory, the shops are Everest, and you stop at nothing in your effort to comb their furthest reaches.

Personally, I’m baffled by it. Given that most five-year-olds don’t own a Mastercard, who’s it aimed at? That’s the thing about ads (this one is reputed to have cost £6m to make; it was filmed in New Zealand, just like the bloody Hobbit): do they return the investment? Or is the idea merely to induce fondness? The Waitrose ad is a non-ad, apparently for this very reason. They’ve spent no money, or so they say, in order that they might give the cash to charity. So instead of dressing up as elves, Delia and Heston are in a warehouse trying to look kind. Alas, it was perhaps a mistake for Waitrose to scrimp on stylist as well as set. Heston is wearing a V-neck knitted sweater sans T-shirt, which is very Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct, and could well backfire. Charity or no charity, all that chest hair is going to put people right off his mince pies, even if they do come with icing sugar that tastes of pine cones (or Toilet Duck, these things are highly subjective).

Oh, well. Better springy chest hair than stale Seventies sexism, which is what Asda and Morrisons have dished up. Their ads both feature a woman, pale with fatigue, battling to complete her Christmas tasks on time and with zero help from any known male. This would be fine if the worm got to turn at the end. She could, for instance, ram the husband’s head up the turkey’s backside, or put something nasty – divorce papers? – in his cracker.

But, no. The message is: women love to be martyrs. We huff and we puff, and we stay up late wrapping brandy snaps round rolling pins. We wouldn’t have it any other way, and even if our menfolk offered to come to Asda or Morrison’s with us, we’d say no, dear, you sit there and watch Goldfinger for the 24th time, and while you’re at it, do help yourself to a Bailey’s and as many Matchmakers as you can eat without being sick. I bet a man wrote these ads. Show me a woman who says she likes scoring mountains of sprouts with a cross and I’ll show you a man who grew deaf to sarcasm long, long ago.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?