During his presidency, Naresh Ramchandani will bring thought leadership through periodical opinion pieces that explore – and hold a mirror up to – contemporary issues facing the creative industry. Here the writer, Pentagram Partner and co-founder of environmental non-profit Do The Green Thing muses on the recent racist backlash to a Christmas ad from UK Supermarket chain Sainsbury’s by Wieden & Kennedy.
If you’re a brand owner or creative practitioner and you weren’t living on the moon, chances are you made a commitment to diversity and inclusion this year.
You may have been shocked by murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, stirred by the full-throated protests and demands that followed, and decided that your workplace and work needed to be more inclusive. If so, you responded entirely fittingly not just to a Black Lives Matter moment but to systemic injustice that’s been part of our society as long as immigration. In fact, longer – since slavery and colonisation.
Basically, you were doing the right thing.
Then along came Sainsbury’s and its Gravy Song. In the UK supermarket’s Christmas 2020 commercial, a daughter calls her father to say she’ll miss seeing her parents this Christmas, while her father asks her if she’ll most miss his Christmas signature dish, the gravy. Sainsbury’s gave us a nicely observed, good humoured mini-slice of pandemic life – featuring a family that happened to be Black.
The twinkly score had barely faded when the racists hit twitter (boy they love to hit Twitter) and suddenly our Christmas run-up swapped comfort and joy for hatred and bile.
It was ugly stuff that no brand or agency would want.
Sainsbury's 'Gravy Song'
But there’s no need to let this incident shake your commitment to inclusivity in your work. Because when you pick over the turkey carcass of the last three weeks, there’s more than one way of interpreting the story.
Sure, a gloomy view of what happened says that Sainsbury’s miscalculated on many fronts. They were flattered by the increasingly important role that supermarkets played in 2020, feeding the nation in a year of a pandemic. They overlooked the entirely white composition of their five executive directors and nine operating board members. They failed to notice that Brexit is still an open sore on the flesh of people of many colours. And they miscalculated the cauldron effect of lockdown.
And having forgotten all of these things – or hubristically decided they didn’t matter – Sainsbury’s chose the sanctity of Christmas and the extra sanctity of a big retailer’s Christmas commercial to do a spot of Black bandwagoning.
In a Covid year, it made a message of Christmas f2f nostalgia. But in a Black Lives Matter year, it virtue-signalled and cast a Black family in roles that detractors said a white family could have played.
“In this cautionary tale, Sainsbury’s pushed every conceivable button of everyone fervently on one side of the nation’s identity politics”
In this cautionary tale, Sainsbury’s pushed every conceivable button of everyone fervently on one side of the nation’s identity politics. When seen this way, the resulting barrage of social media hate almost makes sense.
Except of course it doesn’t.
Looked at more hopefully – and I would argue, more rationally – Sainsbury’s did most things right. It didn’t bandwagon. Sainsbury’s has long had a commitment to inclusion, ahead of other retailers. Since 2008, Sainsbury’s has run a programme offering access to jobs for those who face barriers to the workplace and used it to recruit more than 25,000 employees. Sainsbury’s supported the Paralympics GB team in London 2012, Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016. Sainsbury’s is the UK’s top retail employer for LGBT+ people according to Stonewall.
When seen in this context, choosing to cast a Black family in a Christmas commercial is not a case of Sainsbury’s playing to the moment, but using the moment to advance an existing commitment.
It wasn’t inauthentic. Sainsbury’s didn’t simply cast a Black family instead of a white family. True, the commercial plays with close-to-universal archetypes of a daughter being embarrassed by her father and the father scoring playful points off the mother – his gravy versus her roasties. But agency Wieden+Kennedy and directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace created an intimate and touching portrait not of any family but of this particular family, complete with their memories, rituals, relationships, in-jokes – and blackness.
It was also authentic in another way. Sainsbury’s chose to include rather than integrate. They could have cast a Black person as part of a white family in a more quota-based representation of our society. Instead, it created three films about three families, one of whom was Black, which is a truer, more authentic experience.
Which may lead you to wonder if Sainsbury’s could have aired this commercial second or third instead of first. But to go anywhere near that question is to live in fear of racism.
“For Sainsbury’s didn’t bandwagon, it wasn’t inauthentic - and most importantly, it wasn’t fearful”
For Sainsbury’s didn’t bandwagon, it wasn’t inauthentic – and most importantly, it wasn’t fearful. If it was only interested in sending out a virtue signal, it would have done it somewhere in the margins of its media schedule, on one of the low-risk edges of its brand.
Instead, it launched Gravy Boat first, in national airtime, in the run-up to Christmas, making a strong statement about the composition and spirit of modern Britain in a place where the whole of Britain – including its racists – would see it. Knowing it would provoke some exceptionally prejudiced people to say some incredibly sick things, like:
“Christmas in Nigeria”
“Just wondering whether, in their portrayal of a “typical” Black family, the male adult is actually the father of the children? Quite often, it isn’t the case.”
“Good advert, looking forward to seeing the UK version.”
And some absolutely astonishing things, like:
“This doesn’t represent me, I don’t see myself in this at all”
As The Voice of Colour said in its round-up of racist reactions to Gravy Song: “Imagine feeling so entitled that you expect 100% of media outlets to feature someone who looks like you 100% of the time.”
Or as I say: What planet do you live on? Because I really hope it isn’t mine.
Sainsbury’s did what every good brand should do. It made a positive statement about a Britain we all recognise. When others didn’t like what they recognised and crawled out of their holes and howled, Sainsbury’s kept calm and carried on – and soon found others by its side.
In a wonderful hands-across-the-high-street moment, Sainsbury’s was joined by eight other UK supermarkets, all airing their Christmas ads in a single Channel 4 break to give the haters a collective #StandAgainstRacism Christmas stuffing.
Far from being a cautionary tale, Sainsbury’s has given brand owners and creative practitioners a playbook for how to commit to inclusivity.
It’s one we should all be clear-eyed enough to read, and brave enough to follow.