LONDON - Artillery booms. A trench comes into view. Soldiers huddle into their overcoats for warmth.
The scene is the unlikely backdrop for a holiday commercial that has many Britons reaching for hankies — and others demanding it be pulled from the air. The 3-minute, 40-second mini-movie from the Sainsbury's grocery chain depicts the 1914 Christmas Truce, when soldiers stopped killing each other for a few hours to celebrate the holiday together in no man's land.
The commercial has sparked debate on whether it is appropriate for corporations to use sensitive national history for commercial use. The issue is all the more delicate as the country marks 100 years since World War I began — a months-long national moment of soul searching highlighted by sombre ceremonies, intense media coverage and crowded exhibitions.
"It is a somewhat brave decision on the part of Sainsbury's," said Leslie Hallam, the course director of the psychology of advertising program at Lancaster University Management School.
Big Christmas ads have become a tradition in Britain — an opportunity for companies to pull out all the stops to woo holiday shoppers and stamp their brands firmly on the consumer brain. These mini-blockbusters, similar to Super Bowl showstoppers in the United States, usually feature warm and fuzzy characters like lovestruck penguins and adorable children who reveal the true meaning of Christmas.
The commercial has sparked at least 240 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, which is considering an investigation after viewers objected to using the war to promote a company. While it's not the first time war has formed the backdrop for an ad, previous efforts tended to be light-hearted.
Hallam finds the ad is inappropriate, like putting a brand name on a re-enactment of Princess Diana's funeral.
But its sheer beauty is what has its critics displeased. With the gore and rats of trench warfare from 1914-1918 firmly in mind, Manchester-based writer Ally Fogg wrote in a Guardian newspaper column that the ad was disrespectful as it offers a sanitized version of World War I.
"Would we welcome an advert next Christmas showing a touching little scene between a Jewish child and a disabled child in Auschwitz, swapping gifts for Christmas and Hanukah on their way to the gas chambers?" he wrote. "I would hope not, yet I fail to see any great moral difference."
Whatever its intention, Sainsbury's is tapping into the national mood. Interest in the war was evident this month when estimated 5 million people visited an exhibition of 888,246 ceramic poppies — one for each British and Commonwealth soldier killed — planted in the Tower of London's moat, creating a blood red tribute to the dead.