The big brands synonymous with British life—including such venerable outfits as Marks and Spencer, the Post Office, Boots and Waitrose—compete to produce the most heart-string tugging commercials possible which tend to feature, in no particular order, open fires, furry animals, and tracking shots of individual snowflakes spiraling onto rooftops encapsulating scenes of domestic bliss.
Over the years we have been treated to a Christmas truce on the World War I battlefields, NHS workers doing double shifts and serving turkey on the big day and robin red breasts flying thousands of miles for a (Sainsbury’s) mince pie.
The big daddy of the lachrymose but heart-warming Christmas advert is, by common consent, usually reckoned to be Kate Middleton’s favorite department store and the apogee of middle-class aspiration, John Lewis.
The store, which has an annual revenue of some £4bn, sells a bewildering array of linen, underwear, Le Creuset cookware, fine food and alleged fashion.
And, as this year’s ad makes clear, they are also now selling trampolines.
The 2016 advert is a bit of a classic. It features a joyful sequence in which a dog, now trending on Twitter under the hashtag #BusterTheBoxer, bounces in slo-mo on the trampoline—bought for delivery from the store’s important and growing online offering we must assume—set up in the garden as a lucky kid’s Christmas present. The dog has spent Christmas Eve jealously, through a window, observing the toy being tested out by foxes, badgers and other assorted wildlife.
The John Lewis ad has been widely shared and is proving a viral hit, but it has also been astutely hijacked for another purpose by a pressure group, Stop Funding Hate, who, rather than buying into the John Lewis message of Christmas-inspired togetherness through trampoline-purchasing, are using the #bustertheboxer hashtag to spearhead a campaign against newspapers that they accuse of running divisive, racist, and xenophobic front pages.
Stop Funding Hate’s video mashes classics of Christmas advertising, and then intercuts the joyful scenes with stills of xenophobic and anti-immigrant headlines from the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express.
Richard Wilson, one of the founders of Stop Funding Hate, told The Daily Beast that while Christmas ads “contain a message of peace, goodwill and compassion for others, the revenue they generate is spent on advertising in newspapers with headlines and language that divide society and increase levels of hostility. Customers are increasingly aware that by shopping with these brands, they are inadvertently funding their own demonization, or that of their family, friends and neighbors.”
Wilson insists his campaign is not trying to restrict the freedom of the press to hold trenchant and provocative views, but says, “We think press freedom goes hand in hand with consumer freedom.”
As any journalist with many years working on Fleet Street behind them will attest, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the idealistic campaign is ultimately doomed to founder on the rocks of reality. The trouble is that readers do say they dislike racist, xenophobic and sexist headlines, but, inconveniently, their professed distaste doesn’t appear to prevent them withholding their business in sufficient numbers to have the slightest impact on such newspapers’ circulation figures. Yet.
However, the campaign has had some small successes, helped by the support of official national treasure and former England football captain Gary Lineker who retweeted the video and has appealed to the potato crisp brand, Walkers, for whom he advertises products, to stop advertising in the Sun, a paper with which he has had an antagonistic relationship over his support for migrants rights.
The Co-Op group agreed to review the outlets in which it advertises following representations from the campaign, but, more significantly, Lego, the toy brick manufacturer, announced at the weekend it would no longer be advertising with the Daily Mail.
Lego’s move came after they were contacted by British parent Bob Jones who told the company that the Mail’s headlines, “create distrust of foreigners” and “blame immigrants for everything”.
On Saturday, the Danish company tweeted Stop Funding Hate: “We have finished the agreement with the Daily Mail and are not planning any future promotional activity with the newspaper.”
It is a small and, from the statement, clearly not completely wiggle room-free victory, but its real relevance may be as a harbinger of things to come. It’s unimaginable that a small, privately funded pressure group could have leveraged crowd-sourced outrage into even this mild statement of restraint before the social media age.
“It is a completely new idea, and that is one of the reasons people find the whole concept fascinating. Ordinary people can now use all these tools to make voices heard,” says Wilson.
Indeed. But the noise is not yet loud enough to turn the head of John Lewis. The company said in a statement that they do not “make editorial judgment” on the newspapers they advertise with.