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No sex please, we’re British: what David Bisbal and Monty The Penguin tell us about Christmas

Por: | 01 de diciembre de 2014

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It is said you can know a lot about a country by its advertising. And when this combines with the pop psychological fest that is Christmas, that surely goes double. The release last week, then, of Freixenet’s annual Christmas TV ad, following hot on the heels of the John Lewis advert in Britain, promises to be a veritable paradise for the armchair psychologist.

The John Lewis ad, for those who don’t know (i.e. pretty much everyone outside of the UK), has in the words of The Guardian “become as regular a part of the Yuletide season as turkey, aggro in Albert Square and disappointing knitwear” since it launched in 2007.

It is, much like its Freixenet counterpart, that one ad that people genuinely look out for over the festive period, the one piece of publicity that gets discussed around water coolers, endlessly picked over in the media (hello!) and savaged by useless comedians.

But there the crossover with Freixenet ends. For, while the Freixenet ad piles on celebrity and glitz (this year it features David Bisbal and María Valverde – well, there is a recession on – while previous years have included everyone from Shakira to Christopher Reeve), John Lewis 2014 stars a lonely penguin called Monty and a mopey take on John Lennon’s Real Love, courtesy of soul singer Tom Odell.  And if that doesn’t sound like much of a Christmas to you, Spaniards, well you’ve obviously never spent December 25 in Blackburn.

I’m joking, of course.  But the truth is that a comparison between the Freixenet and John Lewis ads can tell us a lot about the two countries’ views of the festive period.

1) A British Christmas is tinged with melancholy

Freixenet’s Christmas ads are not, typically, subtle affairs, nor do they wildly push the boat out in terms of originality. In fact, you can pretty much pick off the Freixenet clichés as they come bouncing by every year: dancing girls - check; lively music - check; star appearances - check; and lots and lots of gold - check.

None of this really matters, though, as the one thing that Freixenet adverts always convey is fun and lots of it. Here you go, they say, it’s the holidays at last. Put your feet up, have a glass of cava and enjoy yourself.

The John Lewis ads are rarely so uncomplicated. In fact, on the face of it, they initially appear a bit of a downer. This year’s effort, for example, features a boy mooning around with his “adorable” penguin friend except - hold on! - there’s a problem in paradise. Yes Monty the penguin (or #MontyThePenguin if you want to sip the John Lewis Kool-Aid) is feeling alone and unloved, gazing idly at loving couples passing by with barely disguised penguin lust, while Tom Odell warbles on about Real Love, just to rub it in.

Come on Monty, you want to say, cheer up a bit and have a glass of cava. It’s Christmas, for crying out loud. But fear not, because Monty’s faithful human pal has got him a penguin lady friend as a Christmas present and the advert ends with Monty giving his new paramour a peck on the beak (at which point he turns back into the fluffy toy he presumably was all along).

Our Spanish readers might be wondering at the moment what on earth is Christmasy about that (presents apart). But the British will know that there is no Christmas untinged with melancholy and the John Lewis ads tap into this perfectly. Yes, we’re a gloomy lot, the British, and especially when we’re meant to be enjoying ourselves. How else do you think we invented The Smiths?

 2) The British don’t dance. Not at Christmas. Not ever.

…. and talking of The Smiths, that brings us onto the second key difference between the John Lewis and Freixenet ads: the music. 

While the Freixenet ads typically hop along with some upbeat number, usually tinged with a hint of swing nostalgia, and LOTS AND LOTS of dancing, the John Lewis ads revel in music that is an exercise in moping around, gently tugging heart strings. In fact, the John Lewis ads love nothing more than taking a song that was pretty gloomy in the first place - their 2011 advert featured a cover of The Smiths’ classic Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want, for example - and glooming it up considerably, typically by slowing it down and stripping it back.

Obviously, much of this has to do with the feel of the respective adverts - you can hardly expect a penguin to look forlornly for love while Bisbal is belting away in the background. But there’s more to it than that.

You see, the British are typically pretty reserved. And that means we don’t dance (or not until we’ve had considerably more to drink than one glass of cava). By extension, then, an advert featuring some very artful dancing makes us feel a little hot under the collar, reminding us of the awful time at the 2009 office Christmas party when we had one too many eggnogs and hit the dance floor with Steve from accounts. Never again, we think. 

The John Lewis music, on the other hand, offers the British the opportunity to swan around looking a little gloomy in the vague hope that someone will ask us if we’re OK, which is something in which we lead the world. And all the more so at Christmas.

3) No sex please, we’re British

The Freixenet adverts are, let’s face it, more than a little saucy. Their 1990 advert, which starred Christopher Reeve and Ines Sastre, featured the top being taken off a bottle of cava and bubbles spewing suggestively all over the place in a way I would hesitate to show to my children, while the 2001 spot with Penélope Cruz features her flying around mounted on a Freixenet bottle like an AC/DC video from the 80s.

And why the hell not? After all, it’s Christmas. 

In the John Lewis ads, by contrast, the closest we get to a bit of festive nookie is a very chaste penguin kiss, which is further removed from the business of reproduction by the subsequent reveal that both penguins are only cuddly toys.

And that is what makes it so very, very British. I’m not saying that the British are afraid of sex, necessarily. But bedroom affairs are typically kept quite under covers and out of harm’s way, in a way that the Spanish aren’t so fussed about. That makes putting sexual innuendo into adverts a risky business in Britain, unless blunted with a certain degree of humour. 

Provocative bottle popping, as a result, has no place in British adverts, Christmas or not. Because who wants to see THAT when gathered in awkward silence around a television in Manchester with your grandparents, waiting for the Bond film to start after Christmas lunch? Far better a heartwarming penguin, that you and your grans can both smile drunkenly at.

4) An Englishman’s best friend is his dog / penguin / cat / bear. Especially at Christmas

What the John Lewis ads lack in sex, they more than make up for in fluffy animals. This year we have Monty the penguin, while last year’s ad had a bear, a hare (best friends of course) and a whole woodland menagerie of animals. 

The British are famed as a nation of pet lovers and there is little guaranteed more to pull the heart / purse strings than appealing to our love of cute little bunnies (or some such). And this goes double at Christmas, when the British apparently spend more money on presents for their pets than their partners. (Spaniards - if you’re going to a British house for Christmas, take a present for the pet. Seriously. And don’t try to move Fido from his prize place on the sofa just because you want to watch TV). 

John Lewis - or more probably their advertising agency - know this and they use this weakness to prize open our wallets with deadly efficiency. 

Freixenet - if you want to crack the UK, then replace Bisbal with a load of spaniels, and make Valverde cuddle up to a kitten.

5) Politics and Christmas don’t mix for Brits

There’s a saying in Britain that you should never talk about politics and religion in polite company, for fear of offending someone. At Christmas - a fractious affair at the best of time - this is even more important, if you don’t want to end up with the strange uncle glaring at you over the Brussel sprouts, because you happened to suggest that Alex Salmond might have a point over devolution. Nothing but nothing, then, is less typically John Lewis than a political message inserted bluntly into a Christmas advert.  

The Spanish care little for such niceties, though. In fact, most of the time in Spain your party is considered an abject failure if it doesn’t descend into furious voice raising and political point scoring, in a way that makes the average British onlooker wish they had never been born.

So if Freixenet - a Catalan firm, of course - want to stick a rather unsubtle anti-independence nudge into their 2014 Christmas advert, celebrating “the next 100 years together”, then why shouldn’t they? 

That noise you can hear all around the Iberian peninsula is Catalans and Spaniards getting ready for a really juicy political argument over the Christmas cava. Britons, meanwhile, are left to dream of fluffy penguins.

And such is the British Christmas dream.

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

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