Isabel Davis on the Waitrose Christmas advertisement and #StopFundingHate
This year’s Christmas advert from Waitrose is a moving tale of the Scandinavian robin’s dangerous migration. Set to a swelling orchestral soundtrack, it tells the story of a girl waiting for the robin to return to her family’s garden. It makes it – just – on Christmas Day, having survived freezing temperatures, storms at sea, a bird of prey, and a ferret. Then it shares a mince pie on a bird table with another robin who gives it a crumb from its beak.
I learned something from the Waitrose Christmas advert: the robin is a partially migratory bird. Looking them up in Peter Clements, Robins and Chats (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), I find that, as I thought, the British robin mostly isn’t migratory, but what I didn’t know is that the Northern robins are; they move south for winter. Actually, Scandinavian robins usually don’t come to Britain, preferring something more southerly. And they’re not really that fussed about gardens, being shyer. They tend to arrive mid-October, rather than December as the ad suggests. Migratory Scandinavian robins also look a bit different to our sedentary ones, whereas, in the Waitrose ad, they’re both the same. Furthermore, robins are famously territorial rather than chummy and sharing.
But there’s got to be room for artistic licence hasn’t there?
Waitrose, along with other high-street retailers are currently under pressure from the social media campaign #StopFundingHate, which urges big names to stop advertising in newspapers with lurid xenophobic headlines. The stop funding hate campaign is particularly pointing up the ethical distance between heart-warming Christmas ads and the violent rhetoric against migrants and others in the papers. The John Lewis Partnership, which owns Waitrose, put out the following statement:
We fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue but we never make an editorial judgement on a particular newspaper.
The ad is entitled ‘Coming Home’. But where is a migratory bird’s home? We like to think that the birds are at home when they’re with us. The swallow goes off on a winter sun holiday and, so the Waitrose ad has taught me, robins come back for Christmas. The ad is supposed to remind us of our own journeys to see our families, flying back to our nests, an ear-worm of Chris Rea’s ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ like the instinct motivating a migratory bird. Waitrose’s marketing director, Rupert Thomas, says:
coming home is a central theme at Christmas when welcoming, hosting and providing a special meal for loved ones at the heart of celebrations.
Yet, it could have been called ‘Leaving Home’. The other possible narrative is that the robins’ home is ‘over there’ and we are putting them up on route, as they pass through to more temperate climates, or temporarily housing them whilst things are bad back home. The epic tone of the advert would make that a more appropriate narrative. After all, most people’s journey for their turkey dinner isn’t so eventful. Things are trying to kill this little avian migrant. Most resonant is the scene where the plucky robin is hit by a wave on a fishing trawler. Washing up on the boat’s deck, it is taken up by a kindly fisherman. For one awful second it looks like the bird is dead in a box but, no, it’s nursed back to health and released to continue its journey.
According to the Missing Migrants Project, over 4200 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean just since the beginning of 2016. Many others have been picked up by fishing boats and other rescue vessels half-drowned and traumatised. It must take a long time to make these high-budget campaigns and Waitrose couldn’t have known that, on release, they’d be caught up in debate about rising nationalism and the media. But it can’t have been made before the tragedy of refugees dying at sea was in the news, a story which has been on-going for years.
The ad campaign is supported by contextualising information about the real migration path of the Scandinavian robin in an attempt to educate people, like me, into a correct reading. If the story is real and factual, and robins move by habit rather than under duress, they are just themselves and not like human migrants at all. But, because the advert is driven more by anthropomorphism than ornithological fact and because the robin’s journey is so perilous, the ad doesn’t fully suppress the association.
The advert’s narrative is oddly connected and disconnected to the news both at once. Whilst we may necessarily be reminded of one of the main stories of our times – of migrants drowning and displaced from their homes – in order to watch the Waitrose advert correctly, that story mustn’t occur to us; if it does, the advert doesn’t work, because it’s only about a bird. Waitrose can’t have hoped to borrow our sympathy for the dead human migrants, can they? Not for a robin, surely. Not just to capture custom for Christmas foods.
The reflection on migration in the Waitrose ad must, then, be completely unthinking, written in the certain knowledge that the audience will likewise watch this film unthinkingly, as if there is now no news. Indeed, in our post-truth times, the news is now about the ads, which solicit our custom, which pays for the ad space, which funds the papers, which ensure the ignorance, which makes us compliant readers of these ads … and, so, it goes on, as if we are not, really, living through an emergency, in which people are in crisis.
by Dr Isabel Davis, November 2016