Cine Outsider header
front page     disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  

 
That time of year...
Slarek reflects on why he passes on Christmas and hates Christmas ads | 26 December 2012

I am not, you might say, a Christmas person. It's hardly surprising. As someone with a long-standing adversarial relationship with religion, banality and social conformity, I've been an awful lot happier since I started giving the whole Christmas thing the widest of berths. I have, I should point out, no beef with those who do choose to celebrate it, unless they start badgering me to participate. Thankfully that hardly ever happens any more. Those who know me personally will have a good idea why.

I'm aware that a portion of those who do dislike Christmas tend to grin and bear it and just get through the whole thing as best they can. Humans are, by their nature, social animals, and for the silent sufferers, the fear of being excluded or feeling isolated tends to outrank any temporary discomfort the festival itself may bring. Atheist friends who enthusiastically participate in this peculiar collision of religious traditions have told me that they do so because it's the one time of year that the whole family get together, which seems fair enough, though it does make me wonder why they only meet up when tradition and religion dictate that they should. And if it weren't for Christmas, would they not meet up at all? Not everyone, of course, actually wants to get together with their family more than once a year...

There seems little doubt that most people thoroughly enjoy the collective sense of celebration that comes with the season, and if the non-religiously inclined are prepared to put their beliefs on hold to partake in what for them is a most congenial experience, who am I to begrudge that? That some of my more atheistic friends passed on the opportunity to do likewise during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations because they're not big on the whole concept of royalty says a lot about how we've been hard-wired to embrace the celebration of Christmas from our earliest years (in this respect, it really is like a religion). For young children, of course – myself included – the whole thing is pig heaven. You don't have to go to school, you get showered with presents, you're allowed to scoff sweets until your teeth turn black, and you're too young to start questioning why we continue to celebrate something that a sizeable number of us no longer believe in.

I'm genuinely not complaining. As someone who no longer enjoys his day job, I do tend to relish the time away from work (though I freely admit that if the workplace remained open I'd probably go in anyway, as no-one else would and I'd rather enjoy being the only one there). My family and friends are also completely cool with my stance, so I'm never pressured to take part in their own modest celebrations, and in the current economic climate they seem relieved at not having to cough up for presents I probably wouldn't want anyway. Instead I get a couple of days of cherished peace and quiet (when I should be watching movies and writing up reviews, but this year ended up wandering cheerfully between a fine book and a rather too addictive video game), and I like to think that in my own teeny way, I'm also quietly thumbing my nose at a government whose sole interest in Christmas is how much money us plebs will spend.

But I still experience a sense of relief once the 25th December has come and gone, for while I find it easy to ignore Christmas itself, I still get unreasonably wound up by the collective abandonment of individuality and imagination that comes with the build-up. As brass bands bang out the dreary hymns in supermarket foyers, co-workers decorate themselves with Santa Claus hats and tinsel necklaces, and the loudspeakers in every shop I have to visit to buy basic supplies blast out those same fucking Slade and Wizzard songs we hear everywhere each year, normally imaginative and individualistic people adopt pre-programmed behaviour and phrases as if under strict orders to follow unspoken rules. Thus if you're going to offer Christmas greetings then they have to be "merry", an adjective somehow reserved for this holiday that should never applied to Easter or New Year. If you're going to dress up as Father Christmas, then make sure it's the version created by illustrator Thomas Nast and adopted as a mascot by the Coca Cola company, not the green-dressed fellow of British tradition. And if you're going to do a Santa Claus laugh (and you will, won't you), then make sure you say "ho" the regulation three times. It's this adherence to tradition that prompts otherwise logically minded people bring a tree into their house and plaster it with decorations, an action whose original pagan purpose was designed to ensure that plants will bloom again in the spring. A very likely story indeed.

What winds me up the most, however (and yes, I know, it's taken me ages to get to the point) is the complete lack of imagination and embracement of cliché you'll find on seasonal television, and particularly seasonal television commercials. Now in case I've not made this abundantly clear before, I loathe TV commercials of any description. Having worked on a few myself, I do appreciate the technical skills of those who put them together, specifically the people on camera crews and in editing rooms. Many of those I worked with were fully aware that they were peddling bullshit and would have given their high teeth to be working on feature films instead. A few of them eventually did. But commercial work was steady and paid very well, well enough for them to ignore the fact that what they were creating televisual prostitution designed solely to persuade the public to hand over money for products they'd probably not have bought otherwise.

The TV commercials of today are witless creations devised by grossly overpaid and largely talentless twerps who tend to regard their target audience as gullible idiots. Some of them clearly are. Ask just about anyone if their buying choices are influenced by commercials and they'll assure you they're not, but the companies in question simply would not fork out zillions for these wretched things if they didn't deliver results. Sit me down in front of any commercial break and I'll happily (make that angrily) deconstruct every one of these glossy and insidious sales pitches to expose the nature of their specific deception. And it really is important to see through this crap and respond accordingly, and to remember that every time you tell someone that you are "confused dot com" you are not being witty, just helping to promote a company who are financially benefitting from your unpaid autonomic ad-fed credulity.

It's at this time of year that the advertisers hit the rock bottom of invention, so much so that I've become increasingly convinced that every single Christmas commercial, whatever the product, was devised by the same small group of unimaginative marketing tossers in the space of a single coffee break. As a result, certain elements are a given. In the Britain of Christmas ads, it's always snowing, a romantic cliché that no longer has any relevance for the sizeable portion of its target audience who have never seen it snow at this time of year and have thus no good reason to associate one thing with the other, expect that they're media-programmed from birth to do so. Families are shown to be multi-generational (lets not forget the grandparents, who have definitely not holed up in a care home somewhere), are always boisterously happy, and have at least two (and probably more) mixed gender children. And there's no room for rebellion in this world of enforced social conformity, epitomized in one of the most horrible ads of 2012, a Tesco commercial in which a family of smiling fascists relentlessly browbeat their teenage son, who clearly dislikes Christmas almost as much as I do, into putting on one of those ridiculous paper hats you find in cheap crackers. The message is depressingly clear – try to be different at this time of year (the boy has got a pierced lip, which in the ad man's world identifies him as a would-be rebel with a lesson to learn) and you'll be forced to conform. As a family scene, this wouldn't be out of place in Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, in which the oppressive behaviour of parents towards their own children was shown to be grooming a whole generation of future Nazis. And I can't be the only one who's noticed that almost the only adjective used to describe potential Christmas gifts is "perfect", a universal absolute that no gift can honestly be ever said to live up to. Yet over the course of just one evening, I heard that term used to describe Christmas in the following commercials: Carphone Warehouse, Morrisons, Olay Regenerist, One Direction's Take Me Home album (how is that a perfect Christmas gift for anybody?), Led Zeppelin's Celebration Day, The Watch Shop, FeelUnique.com, Littlewoods, Oasis Chat (a service rather than any specific object, but they're still guilty) and CSL sofas, who hammered the point home by using the word "perfect" three bloody times.

So while I will cheerfully and genuinely hope that those of you who did get a break are enjoying it to the full, whatever you believe and however you spend it, please, please see through these deceptive and overpriced attempts to empty your savings account. Openly mock their shallow stupidity (it actually makes for a rather fun drinking game) and don't buy the products they are attempting to hawk just because the name brand is stuck in your head when you visit the supermarket. And while I'm likely to land in trouble if I start encouraging the defacement of advertising posters, I would suggest that it's in the artistic response to such commercialism that you'll find the very wit that's lacking in the advertising world itself. Personal favourites include this nicely hostile collection of anti-government defacements, Clifford Singer's splendidly executed digs at David Cameron’s promotional posters at mycameron.com, and the long-standing billboard work of Ron English (just do an image search for "Ron English Billboards" for some choice examples) and the ever-reliable Banksy. And I was genuinely delighted to discover that a memorable and pertinent bit of graffiti I recall from my younger days has been captured and preserved on the net right here.