Christmas adverts sell us a myth of British generosity – one that is strikingly absent from our politics

The nation delights at giving imaginary oranges to imaginary orphans, but doesn’t dare dream of creating a better life for everyone.

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I’ll admit it: I cried. There’s no shame in it, really, as millions of pounds were invested to ensure I did so – the orchestra swelled at the right time, the grubby wide-eyed orphans were just the right amount of grubby and wide-eyed. But after the screen faded to black at the end of Sainsbury’s 2019 Christmas advert, “Nicholas the Sweep”, I felt cynical and annoyed.

There’s something so strange about watching the release of Christmas adverts in the midst of an election campaign. On the one hand, Sainsbury’s can make a Dickensian advert where a poverty-stricken chimney sweep is gifted a bag of citrus fruit from a kindly Mrs Sainsbury in 1869 – and the nation will cheer, applaud, and weep. On the other, Jeremy Corbyn can suggest free school meals for all primary school children, and the flaming torches are lit alongside the Christmas puddings.

In the same week that newspapers were writing online listicles celebrating the best Christmas adverts of 2019 for their heart-warming messages of generosity and goodwill, Corbyn was mocked, ridiculed and even called “crazed” for suggesting that every UK citizen is entitled to free broadband. Last Christmas (or more accurately, on 3 December 2018), the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly released a report declaring that broadband is a basic human right – but it’s clear the British public don’t agree. Something has gone very wrong when the nation delights at giving imaginary oranges to imaginary orphans, but doesn’t dare dream of creating a better life for everyone.

The John Lewis Christmas advert – always eagerly anticipated – was similarly celebrated by the nation. It tells the story of an overexcited dragon who accidentally commits acts of arson around his quaint village, before earning redemption by setting alight the Christmas pud. Unlike Sainsbury’s, the department store doesn’t give us a year in which the advert is set, but it is similarly of the past. There are horses and carts, thatched roofs and baker boy caps galore. Once again we see British generosity set in a nostalgic past; meanwhile, little thought is spared for making a brighter future.

Free broadband could transform real lives here and now. One of the greatest crimes of austerity is that the Conservatives rolled out the new Universal Credit benefit system as a digital-only service, isolating already disadvantaged people who are unable to apply online. Benefits claimants could, of course, pop into their local library – had 478 not closed between 2010 (the initiation of the austerity programme) and 2017. Yet free full-fibre broadband doesn’t just benefit society’s most vulnerable: it helps everyone, from infants learning to read to the elderly hoping to reconnect with old friends. Labour’s policy isn’t accompanied by a softly sung acoustic cover of a power ballad, and there’s no cartoon dragon, but there certainly is goodwill to all men.

In response to the criticism of his broadband policy – and his suggestion that everyone in England should be given free dental check-ups – Corbyn tweeted on 16 November: “If I was proposing the creation of our NHS today, the Conservatives would call it health communism.” It is a convincing argument. Free broadband is easily comparable to the concept of public libraries – it is hard to imagine that today’s detractors would have celebrated the Public Libraries Act of 1850. Through modern eyes, the nation can now see it’s a great idea to give fruit to Victorian vagabonds, and yet it is obvious that if you think the poor are undeserving of basic human rights now, you also would have done so back then.

One of the most popular Christmas adverts since the fad exploded in earnest in the early Noughties was Sainsbury’s offering in 2014. With the help of the Royal British Legion (RBL), the supermarket told the story of the famous Christmas Day football match in 1914, when British and German troops emerged from the trenches to play the game and exchange gifts. It was a moving and incredibly well-made short film, and while I personally was disturbed at a supermarket using the memory of the war dead to flog food, Sainsbury’s pre-empted criticism by donating all profits made from a tie-in vintage-style chocolate bar to the RBL.

Less so this year. There is no operation to donate fresh fruit to disadvantaged children, and the child who has profited most from the advert is arguably the young actor from Westminster Under School who plays the orphan Nick (annual school fees are £20,502). With this year’s Sainsbury’s advert, it is the idea of giving, not the actual act, that we are supposed to celebrate.

Why do we continue to fall for this sentimental nonsense peddled by huge corporations? On 14 November alone (the day this article was written), 27 people tweeted to express the sentiment that “nothing beats” Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas advert – so why not stop there? While no official figure has been released regarding the cost of this year’s Sainsbury’s advert, 2018’s cost the company £7m, and John Lewis’s advert is estimated to have cost the same. Why spend all this money to make us shed tears in front of the telly? If you want to cry, just look around: 4.5 million children in Britain live in poverty, they rely on charity donations for shoes, food, and clothing. Foodbank use is up 19 per cent this year, with 1.6 million parcels supplied across the nation.

Sainsbury’s 2019 Christmas advert ends with the revelation that orphan Nick is Santa Claus himself – inspired by the generosity of Mrs Sainsbury, he went on to give clementines to the other chimney sweeps. It’s a sweet (if sacrilegious) story, but that’s all it is. Imaginary acts of generosity are not enough, and nor are sentimental depictions of the past. Forget dragons, forget Santa’s origin story, and start imagining a better future.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 20 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over