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Selling charity at Christmas, from Sainsbury’s to Band Aid

Sainsbury’s Christmas ad has been criticised for using World War I to serve its bottom line. Sainsbury's

Sainsbury’s Christmas advert has stoked considerable controversy. It involves a cinematic re-telling of the “Christmas Truce”, where Allied and German soldiers ceased fighting on Christmas Day and played a friendly football match together on the stretch of No Man’s Land between their trenches. While the film’s power has been widely acknowledged, the propriety of the subject matter for advertising and fundraising has also been questioned.

Some, such as Ally Fogg in the Guardian, have criticised Sainsbury’s for romanticising the conflict, editing out the horror and killing, and disrespecting the millions who suffered in the trenches. Others have argued that the advert exploits the epic scale of the war and solemnity of remembrance in service of Sainsbury’s bottom line – and perhaps also in their battle for the best Christmas ad against the likes of John Lewis.

The advert’s charity tie-in doesn’t necessarily help. Does raising money for the Royal British Legion, who approved the advert and will benefit from sales of a chocolate bar that features in it, redeem the use of World War I imagery to sell groceries? Early reports suggest that the collaboration has proven lucrative. Several commenters on Fogg’s article expressed surprise that the three minute film was an advert for Sainsbury’s and not Remembrance Day. This confusion highlights a wider point - the boundaries between the public communications of charity and private sector organisations are becoming increasingly blurred.

Communicating conflict

The issues raised by the Sainsbury’s ad overlap with those faced by development and humanitarian charities working in contemporary conflict zones. Prominent organisations are using increasingly sophisticated and cinematic renderings of war in their own communications. Save the Children, for example, recently invited viewers to imagine a Syria-style civil war in the UK through the eyes of a child. The film ends with the message: “Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”

Save The Children’s video to highlight the plight of Syrian Children – and raise money for the charity.

These adverts deploy the established tactics of private sector advertising, using optical illusions or hyper-reality to promote their brand and raise awareness of humanitarian issues. They can be seen as part of a broader shift in humanitarian communications away from the more emotionally-charged fundraising appeals associated with the Live Aid campaign of 1985.

Misrepresenting those in need

As Lilie Chouliaraki has argued, this shift can be viewed as a welcome move away from the doom-laden and sometimes exploitative messages that charities have relied on in the past, often presenting passive and helpless victims from poor countries to raise money. On the other hand, Chouliaraki also shows how the more playful, ironic and less emotive approach used by many charities today can be morally ambiguous and fail to inspire any sense of solidarity with people living in distant countries.

As the latest re-launch of Do They Know It’s Christmas? suggests, charities have not entirely dispensed with using misleading and despairing depictions of poor countries to raise money. The debate surrounding the 30th anniversary edition, however, suggests that there is at least more widespread public questioning of these approaches than there was in the mid-1980s.

Same message, better PR machine. Anthony Devlin/PA

Innovations in PR have accompanied professionalisation in the charity sector. Technical progress has provided organisations with a more expansive set of tools with which to represent their work and to frame the problems of poverty, inequality and war that they seek to address.

As well as drawing attention to their work, these innovations provide new opportunities for charities to unsettle popular perceptions of conflict. They can also challenge the prevailing sense that ordinary people living in well-off and peaceful countries are helpless to alleviate the suffering of those living in places like Syria, as a recent film by The Syria Campaign sought to do.

At the same time, these advances also carry risks. The increasingly stylised accounts of war that charities are using may present mythologised versions of conflict that, while very different from the warm and sentimental account presented in the Sainsbury’s ad, may neverthelessreinforce deeply rooted pre-conceptions about what civil wars in parts of Africa or the Middle East look like. Like the Sainsbury’s ad, some of the more vivid accounts of war also risk serving up war as entertainment.

The blurring of boundaries between private and charity sector marketing risks promoting the sense that humanitarian organisations are only motivated by a need to deliver services effectively. As Stephen Hopgood has argued, one response to this problem is for charities to emphasise the distinctive sense of moral purpose that underpins their work. Another more radical approach would be to focus more attention on the political causes of conflict and poverty.

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