by Sarah Allen
I’m writing this in the first week of December, but the battle of the ads started a few weeks ago. Much anticipated, compared and dissected in the press, these adverts from the major retailers have become a tradition over the last fifteen years. And I guess they do their job, raising the profile of the companies concerned and presenting them as beneficent, family friendly, cheer-bringing organisations – helping us to forget for a month or so that they are really consumption-creating giants battling each other for the contents of our purses.
As Christians who know that Christmas is about the extraordinary, awe-inspiring, dazzlingly beautiful miracle of the incarnation, it would be tempting to despise these ads. They are often manipulative and cynical sickly-sweet confections, after all. They promote idolatry of the family and of consumption and gloss over the pain that is so much a part of many peoples’ Christmases. But maybe we should not condemn too quickly or switch off from their effects; after all these adverts showcase the aspirations and values of our nation. They are a picture of the yearnings that we all share.
Take, for example, the John Lewis advert which tells backwards the career of Elton John, ending in a Christmas gift of a piano. The origin of his success, we are told, was the generous gift of loving parents, and throughout his famous “Your Song” plays with its refrain, “how wonderful life is, when you’re in the world”. Parental love and giving are elevated together.
This sentimentality is really cleverly undercut by the advert from their partner store, Waitrose, in which a teenage daughter attempts to show her parents this John Lewis advert, but they keep fast forwarding it because they want some cake; it seems we can choose – buy into to the schmaltz or laugh at it, either way, family is centre stage. The same message is there in the 2018 Boots ad; which tells the story of the reconciliation of a teenage daughter and mum. The BBC too have run their own ad-like narrative showing a working mum walking away from her demanding job to have fun with her son. And Sainsburys, whose ad seems to have been the most popular so far, featured a mum putting away her phone to watch her daughter’s starring role in a primary school extravaganza.
I could go on, but I think the central message is clear. These are more like religious tracts than traditional adverts. They call the watcher to repentance and worship and change with their message that family is more important than work, or technology or superficial disputes. Unconditional love is at the heart of family, they say, and this love liberates. So, show this love, presumably by buying stuff.
We might agree with a lot of this — Christians think that the family is important and that we should be generous to each other. But we know as well that the nuclear family, however materially comfortable, cannot provide us with the love we really need. And the most peaceful, loving family can still be riven with patterns of sin. The best parents cannot sacrifice enough to bring their kids round. If the family is where we turn to for salvation, then we will be left full of guilt and shame, trapped into giving (or buying?) more and more and more.
But the religious yearnings of these ads can also point us to a greater reality. Isn’t our family relationship with our Father in Heaven, and through His Son, with our brothers and sisters on earth, more valuable than anything else? Wouldn’t you agree that His love is liberating and accepting and generous. And don’t the undeserved gifts of forgiveness and the outpouring of His Holy Spirit transform lives? The desire expressed in these ads finds its answer and end in the gospel.