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Christmas ad backlash: how racists turned the song ‘White Christmas’ into a call for white supremacy

I was scrolling through Twitter the other day and was surprised to see both the words ‘White Christmas’ and ‘snowflake’ trending, despite the apparent lack of any snow. The reason? Sainsbury’s had just released its Christmas advert ‘Gravy Song’, featuring an all-Black family.

The ad starts with the sound of a phone dialling out, and a conversation ensues between father and daughter about the excitement for Christmas, particularly dad’s renowned gravy. The phone call overscores old home videos of previous Christmases when the daughter was much younger, and her embarrassment about dad’s ridiculous ‘gravy song’ is as apparent in her face then as it is in her reluctant chuckle on the phone now. It is made slightly bitter-sweet as the daughter ‘hopes’ she can be there in person this year to taste it: a reminder of the uncertainty surrounding Christmas in the age of Coronavirus. At its core, however, the advert is about family, nostalgia, and coming together over good food.

Unfortunately, not everyone has received it with such warmth. Under Sainsbury’s release of the advert on Twitter, there were hundreds of racist replies, all outraged and incensed at the lack of white representation. One twitter user said: ‘You may as well rename yourself Blackbury’s!’. Another wrote: ‘There seems to have been a mistake and we are being shown the wrong advertisement. Could we have the English version, please’. Some even called to boycott the retailer entirely: ‘Another one added to the banned list’. Apparently, a family eating Christmas dinner – beaming on the home videos and reminiscing laughingly over the phone – is ‘Absolutely sickening’, a phrase which would be more accurately deployed to describe the viscously racist backlash. One of the comments read: ‘Isn’t the UK supposed to be all about Diversity and inclusion? Don’t see any of that here. Virtue signalling if ever I’ve seen it!’. You had us in the first half, Karen… (For transparency, the Twitter user’s name was not Karen).  

The one response which really stuck out to me simply stated: ‘Certainly not a white Christmas’. It seems the ‘diversity and inclusion’ these people crave is in the form of a ‘white[washed] Christmas’. The very notion of ‘white Christmas’ was popularised by Charles Dickens, most notably in his depiction of a snow-covered festive season in his fictional work A Christmas Carol. This portrayal of winter was taken from memories of his childhood, which coincided with the coldest decade in more than a century. In actuality, a white Christmas remains a rarity – a hazy memory from fiction of a world none of us were alive during to remember. The outcry for a ‘white Christmas’ (meant in the context these racist tweeters mean it) comes from a similar, hazy, fictional notion of an exclusively White Britain which has never truly existed.

Sainsbury’s was quick to defend its advertising choice, with a spokesperson stating: ‘we want to be the most inclusive retailer. That’s why, throughout all our advertising we aim to represent a modern Britain, which has a diverse range of communities. We have three stories of three different families in our advertising.’ That’s right. There were two other Christmas ads from Sainsbury’s, both of which centred a white family in their narratives, entitled ‘Perfect portions’ and ‘Big sarnie’. Did the other adverts get as much attention or backlash? I think the numbers speak for themselves: ‘Gravy Song’, as I am writing this article, has around 48,000 likes on Twitter, and 7220 replies. The subsequent ads, ‘Perfect portions’ and ‘Big sarnie’ have 431 replies and 87 replies, respectively. Whilst these ads have not been released for as long as ‘Gravy song’, it is clear the reason there is little interaction with them in comparison is because there is no outrage. There is no ‘contentious’ portrayal of Christmas, no backlash, and certainly no angry twitter trolls.

It’s not just Sainsbury’s that has received complaints over their Christmas ad. Tesco has been accused of being ‘too diverse’ in its ad, with certain YouTube comments ranging from calling it ‘Covid propaganda and forced diversity’, to suggesting that ‘it should only be real british ppl in this.’, a sentiment as insightful and eloquent as its grammatical execution. There were also further calls for yet another supermarket boycott: ‘Dont shop at tesco. They have no right to indoctrinate our kids.’ It seems racists are running out of places to buy food this year…

This comes at a time when Vanessa Vanderpuye, a Black model and actor, claims she has been cut from one of Tesco’s October adverts. Earlier this week, Vanessa Vanderpuye took to her Instagram stories to express her disappointment in being cut from the final edit of Tesco’s October ‘Food Love Stories’. In Vanessa’s video (now no longer able to view on her profile), she firstly paid tribute to the Sainsbury’s ‘Gravy song’ advert, which she described as ‘beautiful because it just features a Black family’. She continued that in her line of work, she is often cast a ‘token Black girl’, and so for her to be cast alongside a Black man to portray a dark-skinned couple for Tesco’s commercial was so exciting, ‘because [she]’d never seen that before on UK TV screens.’

However, after seeing the advert air on TV for three days without a version that included herself, Vanessa came to the conclusion that she had been cut. In her video on Instagram stories, she states that although Tesco did not contact her at first to explain why she and her co-star had been cut, ‘I know in my heart why they did it.’ In September, Tesco received backlash over an advert they released with a Black woman wearing afro hair. It is this same scenario, Vanessa implies, that Tesco is not keen to repeat – hence why her portrayal of a Black woman with afro hair has been cut from the ad’s storyline, consequently removing the only Black representation from this particular advert.

Following these accusations, Tesco denies that the actors’ race was the reason behind the new edit which no longer features them. ‘At Tesco, we believe that diversity in our business makes us stronger and our advertising campaigns are designed to represent everyone, showing the breadth of the communities and customers we serve,’ the retailer said.

What constitutes ‘British’ representation on our screens has been a source of great contention in recent times. But what is astounding to me, is that Aldi’s Christmas ad – with Kevin and his carrot family – is more relatable to some, than a portrayal of a Black family enjoying Christmas. For those who claim the UK is not racist: look no further than the comments surrounding festive advertising this year, many of which come with a frightening undercurrent of white supremacy in their calls for a ‘white Christmas’.

 

Ruby is a 21 year-old Master's student on the Early Modern English: Text and Transmission course at King's College London. She completed her undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature at Balliol College, Oxford in 2020. She is passionate about the environment, feminism, musical theatre, reading and plays.
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