Loving Christmas?

Posted: December 22, 2015 in Uncategorized


Regular readers of Revolts Now will know that I occasionally write about the use of love in advertising. In my post Advertising Love I discuss how every year we see debates about the meaning of Christmas and its increasing commercialisation. For many people Christmas is less about celebrating the birth of Jesus, or giving and receiving presents, and more about love actually (and Love Actually). Yet, many of us feel the tensions of the festive season, when we try to enjoy some time with family, friends and loved ones, only to find ourselves stressed and unhappy. Christmas is both touted and appreciated as a time of celebration, joy, sharing, communing, caring, happiness and hope. It’s also understood and experienced as a time of mourning, over-consumption, grief, loneliness, sadness and regret.

I’m interested in love as an economic, social and political power and how advertising demonstrates both the importance of love to people and to capital; how commercials express, subvert, co-opt, harness and exploit love. Today many commodities are marketed as a way of giving or gaining love, or of showing that we care. The purchase of some product, we are told, will make us loved or demonstrate our love for others.

Love can be deployed as a constructive tool and utilised in destructive ways. Last month, following the attacks in Paris, I wrote about the importance of love in countering terror and war. A few weeks later, as much of the world again focused on Paris, to see how bad the outcome of the United Nations Climate Change Conference would be, those seeking to thwart a more progressive environmental agenda demonstrated how limited perceptions of love, and general anxieties about people’s commitment to each other, can be harnessed to sell romantic corporate illusions of a green future.


This year, for the first time, my youngest daughter is spending Christmas away from home, in the UK. As she prepares for a Christmas of festive knitted jumpers and the possibility of snow (even though December temperatures in London have been warmer than July’s), she may have seen this popular British Christmas ad, for the John Lewis department stores, highlighting the distance many people feel between them, especially at Christmas. It also speaks to more widespread concerns about the planet/society and our desire to reach out to others.

And perhaps this year’s most popular UK Christmas commercial is ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’.

When such disasters befall people, this scenario is fairly common – their friends, family, neighbours and communities step-in to care and share. To a certain extent the ‘Mogs’ ad is a light-hearted expression of common concerns about the level of poverty in austerity Britain – with its message that ‘Christmas is for sharing’, as part of Sainsbury’s ‘Live Well For Less’ campaign. The company’s ‘Live Well for Less’ website begins by stating; “These are tough times for family budgets, no question about it.” The site also asks – “Do you love sharing stories?” – encouraging customers to upload videos of themselves reading from the book ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’ (in order to assist Sainsbury’s marketing campaign) while explaining that; “Telling stories can ignite imaginations and build bonds between parents and children.”

As indicated at the end of the ‘Mogs’ advert, as well as promoting themselves as supporting family and community ties,  Sainsbury’s is also sponsoring the charity ‘Save the Children’, reminding us that among the most prominent advertisers at this time of year are the major charities addressing poverty, homelessness, family breakdown, etc. The traditional economic exchange associated with the purchase of a commodity has increasingly moved into a wider range of spheres through the promotion of ‘ethical consumption’, solidarity, care and love. Attempts by apparently socially concerned or social justice-oriented businesses to reconfigure purchasing as a communal act, and positioning consumer choice as a site of responsibility, are becoming more common in today’s marketplace, as states promote ‘self-reliance’ and corporations seek to position themselves as interested in, and committed to, love.

Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas ad won a ‘Marketing New Thinking Award’ for ‘Creative Excellence’. The message of this advertisment was “It’s not just about the gifts, it’s about who you share them with.” The commercial re-told the story of Christmas Day 1914 (on its one hundred year anniversary) when British and German soldiers laid down their arms and gathered between the trenches to share greetings and treats, exchange mementos and even play a game of football. Sales of the chocolate bar featured in the commercial, combined with shopper donations, raised seven million pound for the Royal British Legion charity (supporting military veterans) and helped Sainsbury’s climb into second position in the British grocery sector. I wonder if they would have considered running a similar advert this year, appealing to widespread desires for peace, after the recent decision by the British Parliament to begin bombing Syria?

In the past few weeks, it’s been interesting to see popular use of the nativity story to highlight the plight of refugees and the need to shelter and support them. This grass roots social media campaign stands in stark contrast to the annual flurry of ‘we can’t celebrate Christmas anymore because of Muslims’ urban myths. Meanwhile, the deceptively self-depreciating and self-aware advert below instead uses the nativity story to portray the commercialisation of Christmas and the love of commodities.

Clearly it’s not “just a bag” – it’s a powerful symbol. And who doesn’t love a beautiful bag? Even if it only promises short-term gratification and increased status, rather than eternal salvation. Of course, the commercial is humorous because it speaks a certain truth – that Christmas is no longer centred on Jesus, or each other, but on the worship of possessions.

Michael Hill jewelers are consistent users of love to sell their products, as commodities centred on relationships, displays of wealth, and gift giving. In this advert, from their long-term ‘We’re for Love’ campaign, they declare their commitment to a socially progressive view of love, where ‘everyone gets their fair share’. The commercial stresses that the company’s jewellery is much more than precious metal and jewels – they are declarations and symbols of love. Here the advertisers disguise the quest for profits by appreciating the value of love – highlighting the importance of moving beyond an appeal to individualistic yearnings for economic wealth and status towards collective desires for a diversity of deeper and richer social connections.

One of the world’s major advertisers, Apple corporation, spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year and employs some of the leading marketeers, psychologists and sociologists just to promote their phones. Consider the sophistication of this Apple Christmas ad, and how it positions the iPhone at the heart of the family.

The commercial centres on familial love – playing on common concerns about family breakdown, generation gaps and alienated youth, while countering the widespread criticism that smart phones are socially isolating, alienating, and debilitating. It achieves its aims by demonstrating how this is may not be the case and in fact the opposite can be true. Having one of the largest advertising budgets in the world, Apple knows that associating itself with creative and positive social relations is their optimum strategy – love sells.

And what would Christmas be without a special song about hope, peace and love? So, this is Apple’s offering for Christmas 2015.

Clever advertising reflects and mobilises our emotions, our dreams, our fears, and our wishes. The products of Apple’s sweatshop labour can help us create a heart-warming Christmas tune, bring friends and families together, and communicate our common hopes for peace and love. But we are meant to ignore the immense exploitation and destruction of people and the environment involved in the manufacture of the corporation’s merchandise, and who benefits most.

During Christmas we are often faced with important questions about being together, how we spend our time, how we value each other, as well as the nature of the things we consume; their purpose, their fate, their potential, their ability to be something more than profitable commodities, waste, or a means to address fleeting desires. For many people, Christmas is as disappointing as seeking meaning and fulfillment in the accumulation of things. Yet, while the importance of caring  relationships can be contrasted to consumerism, they need not be opposed to consumption. People’s love for each other can be facilitated by caring for and about things. These things are not necessarily superficial distractions. But what does it mean to think of the things in our world as more than objects for us to profit from, use and consume – to have deeper encounters with them and to value them in more profound ways?

The distortions imposed on love by the capitalist system shouldn’t prevent us from proclaiming its importance. Loving social relations make our lives worth living despite, against, and beyond capitalism. A communal culture of sharing and caring can rebuild fragile relationships, communities and environments, weaving supportive networks and movements. These networks and movements are produced out of recognition that the widespread hunger and search for love, for meaningful connections to ourselves, to each other, to life, cannot be met by capitalism. Rather than buying into the failed system so widely promoted at Christmas, we can instead find joy, as we share the gift of love.

Nick Southall


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