Should History Be Used for Advertising?

Thanks to Prof. Thostenson for drawing my attention to a special Christmas ad recently produced by the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. Made one hundred years after the start of World War I, the three-minute film is set during the Christmas Truce of 1914, when soldiers on both sides of the Western Front set down their guns to celebrate the holiday by playing soccer, sharing photos of loved ones, and trading goods in No Man’s Land.

The ad concludes with a British soldier giving a chocolate bar to a German, a chocolate bar that you can buy in any Sainsbury’s for £1 — proceeds going to the Royal British Legion, the UK’s largest veterans organization.

While the ad has proven hugely popular, it has also been hugely controversial. Writing in The Guardian, for example, Addy Fogg castigated Sainsbury’s for “co-opting the events for a purpose as crass as flogging groceries.”

I shared my own response to the ad, and to Fogg’s critique, at my personal blog this morning. But here I wanted to pose some questions for our students and alumni:

Can you think of an American ad similar to this?

Honestly, I’m not even sure what event in U.S. history would come closest to approximating the feel of the Christmas Truce. (It’s probably from the Civil War… Gettysburg Address?) But if you can come up with an analogue, how would you feel about a company turning that event into the setting for an ad campaign?

I’m asking in part because I had planned to spend some time next spring asking students in our new Intro to History course to keep their eyes open for commercial uses of history. So I’d love to have some examples cued up and ready to go! And that leads to the second question…

Sainsbury's chocolate bar from 2014 Christmas advert
The chocolate bar featured in the Sainsbury’s ad

What do you think, in general, of history being used for advertising?

It’s been interesting to see the spectrum of responses to the Sainsbury’s ad. It seems that, for some, certain episodes in the past have a sacred quality. Bringing commerce into a temporal holy of holies strikes people like Fogg as “crass,” and they tend to respond like Jesus to the money-changers in the temple. Others, who feel just as strongly about the symbolic power of the event, think that the ad pays tribute to it, or at least raises awareness of it.

Then there’s my Facebook friend who had “no problem with this ad because it happened.” He didn’t elaborate on the “it happened” response, but given his training as a lawyer, I wonder if he had intellectual property issues in mind. After all, one could argue that events that took place in a historic past, unlike those stemming from the imagination of an author or artist, can’t be copyrighted — the past belongs to us all. Which, of course, prompts a third question:

Who has the authority to decide what is an appropriate use of history?

In the broadest sense, “history” is simply the act of making meaning of the past. That activity isn’t solely the privilege of members of an academic guild or other credentialed professionals. Seen in this light, a three-minute film “flogging groceries” can be as much a work of history as a journal article, museum exhibit, or Ken Burns documentary. It’s up to the audience to judge its merits as an interpretation.

But do we want so free a market of ideas? Shouldn’t there be some regulation of what is appropriate and legitimate? But if so, who does the regulating? Clearly, Sainsbury’s had some sense of this, since it had professional historians consult on the making of the film and sought the imprimatur of the Royal British Legion. (But is that group the owner of the event, or its guardian?)

Please comment below or at our Facebook page!

– Chris Gehrz

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