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12 November 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 1:02pm

What makes a Christmas advert political?

You can romanticise war, but you can’t warn against climate change.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Usually, when this time of year comes around, there’s a great deal of excitement about one Christmas advert in particular: John Lewis. Complete each time with a misunderstood critter who somehow finds love and acceptance (and a new lamp, never knowingly undersold) to a soundtrack of a saccharine cover version, the annual festive sales pitch gets more attention than any other.

But this year, the Christmas ad dominating the headlines hasn’t even hit our screens – and never will. Iceland’s offering has been blocked by Clearcast, the body responsible for vetting broadcast commercials before they’re aired.

The advertisement tells the story of a cartoon baby orangutan in a little girl’s bedroom, who informs her of palm oil’s dangers to the planet. Iceland’s own-label products won’t be containing palm oil from the end of this year.

Not exactly a traditional Christmassy message, though my colleague Dorothy explains very well why this is the right time of year to raise awareness, but why has it not been cleared?

Clearcast said in a statement that it is “concerned that it doesn’t comply with the political rules” of the Broadcast Code of Advertising Practice. This rules out broadcasts “campaigning for the purposes of influencing legislation” and those “inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature”.

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The advertisement uses an animated film originally created by the environmental NGO Greenpeace, which is where the concern lies.

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Are Greenpeace’s aims “of a political nature”? Well, yes, in that the organisation seeks not only to raise awareness among the public but to influence the attitudes and policies of governments.

Going by the letter of the code of practice, the ad does appear to break its political rules. Indeed, there is a suspicion that Iceland knew running a Greenpeace film would be prohibited – and did it for the sake of publicity from the backlash. (The supermarket denies this, saying it spent £500,000 on the campaign and had already booked primetime TV slots.)

Nevertheless, over 600,000 people have signed a petition calling for Clearcast’s decision to be overturned.

You can see why. When over 90 per cent of climate scientists the world over agree that human activity is causing global warming, and there’s a consensus that deforestation and palm oil are destroying the planet, classing climate change as “political” is wrong.

It’s not like Iceland is pushing one side of an equal debate – it’s simply telling its consumers, for overwhelmingly good scientific reason, to buy palm oil-free products (and therefore to shop at Iceland).

It technically might break advertising rules on political grounds, but the subject is not in reality a political agenda – it’s a universal one.

When Sainsbury’s released its Christmas ad in 2014, an inescapably tear-jerking film about a Christmas Day football match between German and British soldiers during truces along the Western Front in 1914, it caused controversy.

Romanticising a war that killed 10 million soldiers to sell pigs in blankets felt crass to many viewers – it was Ofcom’s fourth most-complained-about ad that year. The regulator acknowledged that some people felt it was in “poor taste”, but didn’t pull the ad.

You could argue that glorifying a bloody conflict which devastated so many lives (three million Britons lost a close relative) is a more damaging political message than warning consumers about the impact of climate change.

Some go even further, suggesting that there’s no reason a climate change-themed broadcast is any more political than capitalist ideals in themselves – ie. advertising to sell stuff. “Why is an advert to protect the planet any more political than adverts to sell products?” asks Green MEP Molly Scott-Cato.

Ultimately, though, who decides what makes a Christmas advert “political” is now far removed from our screens. The year of the Sainsbury’s sandwich-selling soldiers – 2014 – was when “social media came into its own in making it easier than ever to lodge complaints en masse”, according to Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) chief executive Guy Parker.

Social media has given Iceland far more media publicity than a sanctioned traditional TV ad ever would have done. It may not have cleared the regulator – but the YouTube video’s reached over 3 million viewers, celebrities have shared it, and hundreds of thousands of petitioners are arguing that the issue isn’t a political one.

Last Christmas, Poundland made use of this advertising shift with a social media campaign depicting a toy elf “behaving badly”. Again, making the comparison to Iceland’s campaign is instructive: surely using a toy to promote casual sex acts against women (as the elf tea-bagging a passive doll portrayed) is more destructive socially than warning audiences about the effects of buying eco-unfriendly products.

Mainly for the irresponsibility of depicting a child’s toy in sexualised scenarios on platforms that children have access to (Twitter and Facebook), these were retrospectively banned by the ASA. But it was too late. The images had already led to widespread online sharing, corresponding backlash, articles (including by the New Statesman), 85 complaints to the ASA, and a record £59m of Christmas sales.

The campaign cost the retailer £25.53.

They used to say no publicity is bad publicity. But going by the UK’s modern morality tale of Christmas ads, perhaps banned publicity is the best publicity of all.

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