How Monty The Penguin Won Christmas: Britain’s Epic, Emotional Commercials

The Daily Beast

November 16, 2014

It’s World War I versus the penguin; fetid trenches of war-weary soldiers and exploding shells versus cute animal japes, and a story about the meaning of love. The winner depends on what moves you more—a German and an English soldier reaching out in a spirit of peace and friendship, or a boy’s relationship with a cuddly, lovelorn penguin?

The adjudication of the Daily Beast office was clear and emphatic: penguin, penguin, penguin.

In Britain, every year—and it seems to get earlier every year—the big stores put out special Christmas advertisements. These are longer than traditional ads, mini-stories, designed to pull at heart- as well as purse strings. Christmas advertisements are the British Superbowl.

This year, the one that has garnered most attention—from food-store Sainsbury’s—brings to life the reputed Christmas Day truce between British and German soldiers that is said to have taken place in Christmas 1914.

In the advertisement, we see Jim in his British trench, and Otto in his German trench. In the cold of night, the two sides begin singing “Silent Night” in their respective languages.

The key to a Christmas ad is to ramp up the drama and tear-producing potential, and so next we see daylight breaking on the trenches and then Jim bravely rising from the British side, unarmed.

There is momentary panic: Will he be shot? Otto shouts not to fire. He and Jim lead their respective regiments across No Man’s Land, until they meet (it seems very romantic between them, until talk of girlfriends). An exuberant game of football takes place, then the sound of shells is heard, and both sides repair back to their enemy positions.

In their respective trenches, Jim and Otto find they have both given each other food—which, apparently, is on sale at Sainsbury’s this Christmas. The limited edition 100g “Taste the Difference “Belgian Milk Chocolate bar is manufactured in Ypres, Belgium, and features the same period packaging seen in the ad.

Some have questioned whether the First World War should be used to sell food. Others have said that anything that keeps the memory of World War I alive in the minds of generations far removed from it is a good thing. Others have rightly said the First World War was horrific, and anything that glosses over that—like this advertisement with its heart-warming center—isn’t doing history or education any favors.

Sainsbury’s, presumably anticipating criticism of insensitivity and placing profit before respect, consulted with the Royal British Legion in making the advertisement.

In a statement to The Daily Beast, Mark Given, Head of Brand Communications at Sainsbury’s, said: “We wanted to tell a story of sharing through the lens of one of the most extraordinary moments of sharing in modern history. This is an especially poignant story from First World War that has been recreated on a number of occasions and we know it resonates with many of our customers and colleagues. We’ve partnered with The Royal British Legion to ensure we tell this story with authenticity and respect and we believe it is a fitting way for us to mark the 20th anniversary of our partnership with The Royal British Legion by helping to raise additional funds for them.”

But despite such a headline-grabbing advert, on YouTube at least, the adventures of Monty The Penguin (for the store, John Lewis) have proved triumphant. Sainsbury’s soldiers have garnered just over 5 million views, while Monty has resoundingly waddled through the winner’s tape with over 14 million views.

The advert features a little boy having the best fun with a fluffy penguin—trampolining, going to the park—until the penguin starts getting mushy over couples kissing. The boy feels rejected and confused, and then hits on a Christmas morning solution, delivering a penguin mate for his penguin. The penguins are revealed to be fluffy toy penguins in the final frame.

The advert produced a few teary eyes and blown noses in The Daily Beast office, apart from one colleague, who noted: “Delusional boy buys mail-order penguin. Learns love can be bought. Great.”

The other Christmas ads rather pale in comparison. The posh food store Waitrose has an extended, and rather dreary riff on a young kid learning to make gingerbread men, using Waitrose ingredients.

Debenhams has an orgiastic celebration of consumerism, made all the more discomfiting as it features a bunch of young children aping their elders’ insane spending habits.

The drugstore chain Boots goes for understated and ever-so-slightly gritty, in its tale of a mom, who is a nurse, coming home to a lovely surprise after her shift finishes on Christmas Day at midnight.

Supermarket conglomerate Tesco has gone doolally for Christmas lights, while Aldi, a store without the overt swish of Waitrose but which the middle classes flock to buy food from, has a surreally awful advert featuring all the food it sells to all kinds of households spanning Britain’s socio-economic strata. It is literally a long, seemingly endless, table of cheeses and meat and pies.

The most glamorous ad is the four-minute mini-epic from Burberry featuring David and Victoria Beckham’s son Romeo, looking all wistful and slightly too grown-up for his age in a signature Burberry trench coat, watching older people dance and fall in love to Ed Harcourt’s song, ‘The Way That I Live.’

It is a sumptuous and stylish piece of modern ballet and not by any means a terrible advertisement—but it would benefit hugely from a lovelorn penguin.