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  • Abbie Jones

A Look at the Sainsbury's Christmas Advert and its Racist Responses

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

The Sainsbury's 2020 Christmas advert featuring a Black British family has spurred outrage - but why? Abbie takes a closer look.

A Look at the Sainsbury's Christmas Advert and its Racist Responses

Christmas wouldn’t be the same without the early-November barrage of highly-anticipated, big-budget Christmas adverts from Britain’s biggest retailers like Coca Cola and John Lewis.

The arrival of the ads has become a festive tradition that signals the start of the Christmas countdown and permits viewers to begin putting up their decorations. Over the years, we have witnessed companies capture the hearts of the nation with their sentimental, tear-jerking or hilarious advertisements.

In November, the major supermarket retailer, Sainsbury’s, premiered the first of their three-part Christmas advertising campaign on Twitter. ‘Gravy Song’ uses old home footage of a family celebrating Christmas in a very normal British way: eating Christmas dinner; opening presents and enjoying time with one another. While the footage rolls, a phone conversation between the father and daughter is played over the top. They discuss how desperate they are to see each other this Christmas - a feeling that captures the public mood as the pandemic keeps people apart. The dad then starts to sing a song that boasts about the quality of his signature gravy.

Emma Bisley, the Head of Broadcast Marketing at Sainsbury’s, stated that, “It was important to us to focus on family connections and emotions, creating a relatable and heartfelt look at the memories Christmas bring, whilst providing a sense of optimism throughout. We hope everyone enjoys watching the collection and it takes them back to their fondest memories of food, home and Christmas.”

In true 2020 style, a year that has allowed the world to take a breath and re-evaluate what is truly important, the advert strips Christmas back to its core values. The result is both heart-warming and nostalgic - qualities that people generally look for in a successful Christmas advert. It is hard to imagine how such a simple and sentimental video could spark such public outrage.

What is its supposed crime? It features a Black British family.

The response

It didn’t take long for Sainsbury’s to start trending on Twitter as ‘Gravy Song’ was met with public outrage that can only be described as blatant racism.

Keyboard warriors responded to the ad featuring a Black British family with offensive tweets such as, “You’ve managed to completely alienate the few remaining White customers you still had” and “You may as well rename yourself Blackberry’s”. Sainsbury’s were accused of “not representing Britain” with “Britain” evidently being incorrectly used as a synonym for “white people”.

An advert that simply shows a Black British family celebrating their love for each other at Christmas, was branded as “woke” for reflecting the diversity of modern Britain. Sainsbury’s have even had to disable YouTube comments for ‘Gravy Song’ to stop any more racist remarks. The offensive response to the ad demonstrates how much more we need to do to tackle racism in the UK.

Sainsbury's 2020 Christmas advert, 'Gravy Song', featuring a Black British Family

Funmi Oletoye, a black freelance journalist for The Independent, counter-argued with the question, “Are we only deemed worthy of being on Crimewatch?” The barrage of racist responses would suggest that only white people celebrate Christmas, when in fact there are nearly two million black people in the UK. They also interestingly failed to acknowledge that the ‘Gravy Song’ was the first of a three-part series with the other two adverts featuring white families. If all three adverts had focused on white families then, and only then, could Sainsbury’s be accused of misrepresenting Britain.

The Head of Brand Communications and Creative at Sainsbury’s, Rachel Eyre, stated:

“We’re passionate about reflecting modern Britain and celebrating the diversity of the communities we serve, from our advertising to the products we sell. Sainsbury’s is for everyone and we are committed to playing our part in helping to build an equal society.”

Of course, not all the responses to the advert were negative, with many rallying around Sainsbury’s to stand in solidarity against racism and inequality. Some humorously picked holes in the “not representing Britain” argument by drawing on the intriguing lack of backlash that Aldi has faced over their Christmas advert which featured Kevin The Carrot. Many expressed their relief that they will not be having to share Sainsbury’s aisles with racists this Christmas.

Other major British supermarkets even set competition aside to unite with their rivals and Channel 4 for a higher cause. Two primetime advertising slots were filled with back-to-back adverts from Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, M&S, Tesco and Waitrose & Partners aiming to “#StandAgainstRacism”. An M&S spokesperson stated, “We’re with you

Sainsbury’s. Christmas is about bringing everyone together, and we absolutely stand together against racism with our fellow retailers.”

#StandAgainstRacism advert by Channel 4 and British food retailers in response to racist comments on the Sainsburys Christmas Advert

Final outlook

In a year that has truly highlighted that racism is still rife in society, the negative response to Sainsbury’s heart-warming ‘Gravy Song’ advert is sadly all too unsurprising and predictable.

Diversity’s Britain’s Got Talent performance on ITV set the precedent back in September. The dance group and former winners of the show performed an emotive routine that heavily referenced the death of George Floyd in the USA and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed worldwide. Ofcom subsequently received almost 25,000 complaints (the second highest number of complaints since the start of the century), with people arguing that the performance was “racist to white people” and “political.” Once again, we saw people incorrectly interpreting BLM as a movement that excludes white people and promotes black supremacy.

To find out what Black Lives Matter is actually about, head to our Cheat Sheet.

The regulator dismissed the complaints: “The performance contained no content which was racist, unsuitably violent or otherwise inappropriate in the context of this programme. Diversity’s performance referred to challenging and potentially controversial subjects, and in our view, its central message was a call for social cohesion and unity.” After the premiere of ‘Gravy Song’, Ashley Banjo, Diversity’s choreographer, humorously tweeted, “Dear Sainsbury’s, your application has been accepted… Welcome to the ‘trigger the racists’ club.”

Evidently, it seems that anytime the media attempts to reflect the diversity of modern

Britain, it is unfortunately met with complaints of “not representing Britain.” While

Diversity’s performance actively tackles racial issues, ‘Gravy Song’ isn’t even about being black. It is simply an advert that highlights the essence of Christmas. Isn’t that something that anyone who celebrates Christmas can relate to? Yet it is enough to illuminate the racism that is bubbling under the surface in the UK.

The discomfort that people feel when confronted with content that shows black people is highly disturbing and we must all continue to push against it to eliminate individual, institutional and systemic racism. This means educating ourselves so that we can engage in important discussions and educate the people who genuinely believe that showing black people in a Christmas advert is misrepresenting the UK.

For more resources on racism and the media, head to our dedicated Racism, Islamophobia & Antisemitism section.

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