I’m dreaming of—
a DIVERSE Christmas
by Sadé Green
Christmas adverts: in the last decade they have become calendar-worthy cinematic experiences.
However, until very recently, the adverts we have been enjoying presented a narrow definition of life in the UK. In 2012 we saw the first hint that high street brands were trying to address this issue. Although when I use the word ‘try’ perhaps I mean ‘forced to’.
After years of casting big names in their Christmas campaigns, M&S decided in 2012 to celebrate models of different sizes, shapes and ages, and not a celebrity featured. Cast member four-year-old Seb caused quite the stir: Seb has Down’s Syndrome and his inclusion in the advert was rightly celebrated, Just months earlier Seb’s mother Caroline had posted a picture of her beautiful boy on social media, complaining about the lack of disabled actors in advertising. So was this a genuine attempt to be inclusive, or did M&S spot an opportunity for positive press and exploit it? M&S do not routinely provide changing rooms adequately designed for disabled children and people in their stores, so it is understandable that many people believe the latter.
How far have we come when I haven’t seen a disabled actor in a Christmas advert since?
The LGBTQ community is also underrepresented in Christmas ads. Gay marriage was legalised in 2014 but the first same-sex couples only featured in Christmas ads in 2017. There has been a significant increase in same-sex couples in film and on television, but despite this, love in Christmas adverts is usually depicted between a man and a woman. This was particularly evident in the 2014 John Lewis advert when audiences watched a penguin, longing for a partner of his own, see love all around – but only between heterosexual couples. As of yet, no transgender actors have been cast in Christmas adverts.
2016 was a year of deep contrasts. Alongside the appalling murder of Jo Cox, the UK vote to exit the EU, and Trump’s election, the climate of advertising seemed to have taken a decided turn towards wider representation. There was the Oscars So White social media campaign, and the UK took to social media with the Christmas So White campaign: most big brands took notice. Perhaps they were exploiting the zeitgeist, but a more optimistic view might be that brands wanted to promote an idea of togetherness, to show that Britain is the amazing place it is because of its diversity. One ad in particular stood out – Amazon’s depiction of a Christian Priest and a Muslim Imam as friends who end up buying the same gift for each other; pads for their knees to make praying more comfortable. It sent a powerful message in the wake of the ongoing ‘War on Terror’ and the inherent fear the right-wing media push on the public. It told us that Christians and Muslims can be friends and that, ultimately, we are all humans with tired knees.
It wasn’t until 2016 that any brand featured a black family in their Christmas advert - John Lewis were the first. When approached about their decision, John Lewis responded by saying, “the actors cast, simply performed best on the day”, recognising that black actors were not chosen to tick a box, they were chosen because they were the most qualified for the job. In 2017, John Lewis cast a mixed race family. Mixed heritage people are the fastest growing group in the UK and after the 2011 census, 14 per cent of people identified as mixed race. As recently as the 1980s, over half of the British public expressed feeling uncomfortable with the idea of a mixed race relationship. However, by 2013, this had dropped to 5 per cent of under-25s and 15 per cent overall. Mixed race relationships are no longer a rarity in the UK so finally showing them in a Christmas advert made perfect sense.
This year, Christmas adverts from most big brands have continued to be more ethnically diverse but there are many groups who continue to be under-represented and even entirely erased. It is true that each step in the direction of making our on-screen world look more like the world around us is important. But with continued concerns about world-wide politics is it possible - is it appropriate - for brands to use their platform for the greater good?
Meanwhile the lurking question about why brands are becoming more diverse remains. Is it simply a reaction to public pressure? Is it because they truly believe in inclusion? And if so, we should ask whether this belief filters backstage to the photographers, stylists, art directors of the shoots; to the office floor, to the boardroom…