“Snow is falling, all around me, children playing having fun. It’s the season of love and understanding, Merry Christmas everyone.”
Welcome to the world of Christmas adverts, where the snow is ALWAYS falling, the children are ALWAYS having fun and EVERYONE is having a Merry Christmas.
Except we’re not always having a Merry Christmas are we?
From John Lewis and Marks & Spencer to Waitrose, Sainsburys and Tesco, the message pedalled by Christmas marketing year after year is perfectly clear with a big fat emphasis on the ‘perfect’.
Perfect nuclear family with a mum, dad, 2.4 children and a sweet, Christmas-jumper wearing grandpa snoozing in the corner.
Perfect-ly decorated house with a perfect tree, plenty of perfect food and everyone having a perfect-ly brilliant time.
Perfect-ly wrapped presents with perfect-ly reasonable price tags.
You get the idea.
But for many of us real-life Christmas doesn’t come close to living up to ‘advert’ Christmas.
For a start, one in four families in the UK is headed up by a single parent. Whether the outcome of divorce or bereavement, for 1.8 million families in Britain, a mum and dad sitting round the tree in their PJs watching the kids open their presents is not what will happen on Christmas day.
Some will only get to see one parent over the festive period, others will be lucky to be given a card and many haven’t even met one of their parents.
“As the countdown to Christmas continues, so too do the adverts,” says Emma Yorke, campaigns manager at single parent charity Gingerbread. “Many will continue to show mum, dad and two kids opening presents and celebrating together. We are hopeful that some adverts will better represent the diversity and reality of family life across the UK by celebrating all family types. This includes the 1.8 million single parent families who are doing a brilliant job bringing up their children.”
And it is not just single parent families who can find Christmas marketing isolating. For some people chasing a warm and cosy family Christmas is simply not realistic. From politics to rifts, there are untold reasons many families won’t be telling naff cracker jokes round a bustling table this year.
There are those who are estranged from their families, those for whom relations are strained and those who are separated by distance and for whom going home just isn’t an option.
Then of course there are the families who have lost someone special. For the bereaved the relentless deluge of Christmas propaganda and shiny, happy TV ads can be more than a little upsetting.
“There is a lot of emphasis placed on the idea that Christmas should be about spending time with family and friends, which can be further highlighted by Christmas adverts, the media and other people seeming to be having a good time,” explains Stephen Buckley, Head of information at Mind.
“For many people Christmas is something to look forward to, but for others it can intensify financial pressures, feelings of loneliness and the pressure to have ‘the perfect Christmas’.”
But trying to live up to the myth of the ‘perfect’ Christmas is every bit as damaging as the concept of the ‘perfect’ body, or the ‘perfect’ parent, and it’s easy to feel disheartened when your reality doesn’t resemble that.
What’s more chasing down an often unrealistic Christmas ideal can have a negative impact on mental health.
“Research last year by Mind found the consequence of this has left one in ten people feeling unable to cope at Christmas,” Stephen Buckley explains.
“Regardless of age, Christmas can be particularly difficult for the one in four of us who experience a mental health problem, especially if people feel unable to ask for help. Although it is clear many need extra support at Christmas, not everyone feels they have someone to confide in for emotional support. Half of people (58%) with a mental health problem did not feel they had someone to confide in over the festive period if they needed to.”
So is it time that we lay to rest the myth of the perfect Christmas?
A blanket ban on all shiny, happy Christmas adverts might be taking things a snow boot-ed step too far. Indeed, though there are many who find Christmas isolating, there are just as many for whom it genuinely is the most wonderful time of the year. And snow-hued Christmas adverts can be a lovely nostalgic nod to that.
Nevertheless, it would nice if the retailers could at least try to depict some less rosy-cheeked Christmas scenes.
This year, there’s does seem to have been some effort by retailers to portray a more diverse picture of family life in their Christmas ads. Sainsburys and Tesco have both included a gay couple, and at the end of the Tesco advert, a father/daughter scene hints at single parenthood, which is definitely a step in the right direction.
But can we realistically expect Christmas ads to be at the forefront campaigning for social change? Surely it is less important whether Christmas ads are warm and inclusive than whether we reach out to real people we know who might be alone at what is for many a really difficult time of the year.
Visit www.mind.org.uk/christmas for more information and tips about coping at Christmas.
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