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Why did people get so upset about the Sainsbury’s/Royal British Legion WW1 advert?

Why did people get so upset about the Sainsbury’s/Royal British Legion WW1 advert?

The horrors of one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts being co-opted by a big company simply to sell a product to hundreds of thousands of people. No wonder it generated so many complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Hang on a moment though, it didn’t. Not a single one.

See, I’m not referring to the Sainsbury’s/Royal British Legion 1914 Christmas Truce advert that made the top ten most complained about adverts of 2014 with 823 complaints – none of which was upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority.

At the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, 56 per cent of the French army were killed, wounded or went missing, along with 25 per cent of the Anglo-Dutch-German army and 14 per cent of the Prussians – 61,000 casualties in a day. Yet Bombardier can use this battle as a basis for a humorous campaign to sell beer and no-one bats an eyelid.


Is it that the 99 years difference between Waterloo and Ypres make a moral difference, somehow? Is it because we’ve forgotten (or perhaps have never really known about) the horror of combat in the Napoleonic Wars, whereas the slaughter of the Somme and the tragedy of Gallipoli have never left our collective consciousness. Or is there a difference in using historical drama rather than historical comedy – would Sainsbury’s have got away with a Blackadder-style WW1 advert?

Whatever the answer, it seems it’s acceptable to make comedy out of killing French soldiers 200 years ago to sell beer, but totally beyond the pale to make drama out of a touching moment with German soldiers 100 years ago to sell chocolate.

Perhaps what we should really be cynical about here is not the advert itself, but some people’s attitudes to big companies such as Sainsbury’s, an attitude from which not even a partnership with one of the country’s most revered charities could offer protection.

For what it’s worth, the Mirror called the Sainsbury’s ad the “best Christmas advert of all time“.


Ian MacQuillin is the director of the fundraising think tank Rogare at Plymouth University’s Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.

Ian MacQuillin is the founder and director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University's Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. He has worked in fundraising since 2001 as editor of Professional Fundraising (2001-2006), account director at TurnerPR (2006-2009) and head of communications at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (2009-2013).

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