Bernard Trafford: Have yourself a commercial, cloying Christmas, won't you?

Royal Grammar School headteacher Bernard Trafford views the big Christmas TV ads - and finds himself turning into Scrooge on the spot

John Lewis/PA Wire A scene from the John Lewis Christmas TV advert
A scene from the John Lewis Christmas TV advert

Remembrance Sunday passed off without incident. There were all kinds of security concerns, although safety was maintained as unobtrusively as ever, but no one did anything inappropriate.

In fairness, we Brits tend not to mess up the big occasions. Though it depends what you mean by big, perhaps. Singer Robbie Williams recently made an entirely inappropriate contribution to the birth of his child. While his wife Ayda was in the throes of labour, Robbie both insisted on singing the song Frozen and posted a video. Eventually she called a halt – to the singing.

This past week my spleen has been stirred by the emergence of the major stores’ spectacularly inappropriate Christmas adverts. Nowadays this shameless, tasteless marketing is even a news item. Newspaper pundits have been comparing them and passing judgement.

Everyone’s talking about the John Lewis advert, featuring Monty the penguin. I get the circular connection. The best Christmas is a white one: snow means cold; penguins come from snowy and icy regions (not entirely, but we’ll let that pass); so the presence of a penguin suggests a white Christmas.

There’s a little boy who, with Monty the penguin inexplicably sharing his bed (imagine the fishy smell!), observes couples kissing and enjoying being together. In the final scene (does this count as a spoiler?), Monty is found a mate – but is revealed to be just a toy, after all. The idol has feet of clay, or of fluff.

And the moral? The video purports to be about Christmas bringing people together: but it isn’t. It’s about persuading us to spend money at John Lewis.

Marks and Spencer has two tiresome fairies flying about changing people’s lives, bringing happiness to children and love to lonely people. The critics called this one classy: I’d say kitsch.

Waitrose presents us with a moral tale, a little girl striving to make gingerbread for her school’s Christmas fair. I hope teaching colleagues up and down the country will resist the temptation to use this one for assemblies about discovering resilience and persevering when things go wrong – a metaphor for life (it’s the sort of thing we teachers do).

Only this film isn’t a metaphor for life: it’s much more prosaic that that, claiming that, because Waitrose employees have a stake in the business, their service is better. Meanwhile the music is repulsively schmaltzy.

Did I feel like eating the little girl’s beautiful gingerbread? No. This was the third cloying advert I’d researched on YouTube: far from wanting to eat, I considered sticking my fingers down my throat.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s old Scrooge exclaiming, “Bah! Humbug!” At my age it’s true I have curmudgeonly tendencies. Last Christmas I wrote an entry (unsuccessfully) for a Christmas Song competition: it was supposed to be wacky, a bit different. The first two lines of my chorus went:

“I’ll be spending Christmas at mine,

All alone with a bottle of wine.”

It was fantasy grumpiness, of course: in truth I love a family Christmas. But I find this ceaseless commercialisation hard to swallow, and wrote my song tongue-in-cheek as an antidote to the annual overdose of festive saccharin.

Oh, I nearly forgot the Aldi advert, a dull series of Christmas dinner tableaux with a swinging soundtrack, the latter later revealed as being played by Jools Holland. What a great outfit! But what possessed him to get involved with rubbish like that?

The money, stupid! All that Christmas glitz is about one thing: not family; not love and togetherness; not even about a baby born in Bethlehem. It’s about commerce.

There’s nothing wrong with businesses making money: that’s what they’re there for. But commerce masquerading as the Christmas message is, well, inappropriate. That word again.

Why don’t the big store chains stop competing to produce over-glossy, over-hyped rubbish and give the money to charity instead?

I know the answer. But I just thought I’d ask the question.


  • Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.


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