Roland Barthes was a French philosopher, but there was a little something Irish about him too. He lived with his mammy for 60 years and had the kind of devious mind we sometimes produce is this country.
His great gift to philosophy was to take the analytical tools of linguistics and apply them to popular culture. Thus, he was able to discern deeper – and often troubling – meanings in the images used in advertising, television and media generally.
In one essay, he masterfully decodes a photograph of an Algerian Legionnaire saluting the French flag. On the surface, the photo portrays a multi-cultural France, a place where the colonised Arabs can be patriotic Frenchmen too.
But the image itself “colonises” the history of French intervention in the Maghreb. It glosses over history, smoothes out troublesome details and wraps everything up in an easily digestible image.
Barthes, who died in 1980, would have had a field day with the slew of Christmas TV adverts that have hit out screens in the last week. He would relish picking them apart and exposing the cynicism behind the cosy confections.
This year’s Christmas advertising campaigns are unusually subtle. Many are mini-movies, with plots, characters and high production values, but very little reference to what they are trying to sell.
There’s the John Lewis ad, a story about a little boy and his adventures with his penguin pet/toy. It is sentimental and cheesy, and shamelessly plays on our fondness for the plucky penguin. It also harvests our memories of books about other brave animals, such as ‘Watership Down’ and ‘The Wind In The Willows’.
It has been hailed as a near-masterpiece on social media and in the advertising press, and the video drawn huge traffic on YouTube. You might almost think it was art. Almost.
The Marks & Spencer ad is not quite the Hollywood extravaganza of last year – that was two minutes of Alice in Wonderland fasntasia with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. This year’s features a pair of do-gooding fairies sprinkling fairy dust and covetable clothing over a snowy London night.
But the Sainsburys is a classic of the genre. It is a whopping four minutes long – confirming that these ads are meant for YouTube consumption rather than TV – and centres around the famous football match in No Man’s Land during a Christmas Day truce near Ypres on the western front in 1914.
This is a mini-move – the YouTube clip even has “extras” such as behind the scenes shots – with Speilberg-level production values. Again, however, it seeks to appropriate for commercial motives the powerful feelings of gratitude people have for the armed forces who fought in the first World War.
Barthes would have especially liked this John Lewis ad, for it shamelessly exploits our emotions around family, the sacrifice demanded of the military and the human impulse for generosity at Christmas.
All these ads basically do the same thing: they annex things for which we have real feelings and use them to sell stuff.
They even take the idea of Christmas itself – a complex concept involving religion, nostalgia, high Victorian sentimentality and pagan ritual – and deploy it in the service of profit.
People want to make Christmas nice for their children. In many cases, they want to give their kids the Christmases they never had themselves.
We want to connect with our families at Christmas too and we want them to put aside, for one day, the usual rancour and rivalries that beset most families at some stage.
The ads take these very understandable human urges and subvert them. You can have all that, they tell us, if you do your Christmas shopping with us.
I’d love – and Monsieur Barthes probably would too – to see a Christmas ad made up of “home movies” of my Christmases down the years: the rows, the disappearing dad, the stress, the sadness.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been good Christmases too. And I have high hopes for this one. But if it turns out well, it won’t be because of where I did my shopping.