Mulling over Mulberry and the power of adverts

  This week the onslaught has begun. It started with the Christmas tree made of red cups in the centre of King’s Cross station. Then I saw Pret have a website counting down the hours until the launch of their Christmas sandwich. I like their Christmas sandwich, but really, it’s only 5 November. John Lewis will ‘premiere’ their Christmas ad this weekend and no doubt it will be the media event of the month. Finally, for now at least, I saw Mulberry’s advert this morning. I’m not ready for it to be Christmas yet, and to there derision of colleagues have spent a lot of this week moaning about the tsunami of Christmas related marketing surging towards me.

No doubt someone somewhere is denouncing the #mulberrymiracle advert for blasphemy but I think it’s more interesting than that. Advertising both reflects the values and priorities of culture and seeks to lead them as well – it seeks to tell us what is important. Sometimes this is done subtly, sometimes self-consciously self-deprecatingly, and other time explicit to the point of being surreal. An example of the latter is an Audi Quattro advert I saw in the cinema last weekend. A group of nomadic people in a snow blizzard encompassed landscape have constantly been battling a beast, but no more! For the Audi Quattro has come to their rescue. If a car can do that it can do anything you want it to, it’ll be your hero.

There was another car advert in the same pre-film reel for Toyota which took a very different approach. The theme was ‘take me for granted’, whether old or young, in blizzard or calm, on the school run or on the road trip, this car could be yours to take for granted. Almost as though it wasn’t trying to be anything spectacular (aka the Quattro) but a normal part of your life you don’t notice but can’t live without.

 In placing a handbag at the centre of a nativity tableau Mulberry know exactly what they are doing. They are taking something which people recognise and understand. This suggests there is still currency in the traditional scene of Mary, Joseph, a ‘baby’, shepherds, sheep and wiseman (even if they are wearing suits and Christmas cracker crowns). Even the lift of the camera at the end to the star at the close of the advert is an echo of something well known. This is why it’s interesting. In a society where it is increasingly suggested people are unaware of key Christian ideas, this one still resonates. The idea that two people have a child, are visited by strangers and given gifts beneath a star. Christians seeking to relate the birth of Jesus this Christmas may have slightly less work to do than perhaps they thought.

The Mulberry miracle advert is self-aware, it knows what it is doing, it is taking a cultural icon and reformulating it to its own ends. Without the line “It’s just a bag” from Joe towards the end it would be too far-fetched, but that abrupt break makes two connections at once. Firstly it shows that a bag isn’t the messiah, and second it suggests men don’t understand how important a bag is.

It does something else, which I am pandering to in writing this, it gets people talking: is it outrageous? Is it blasphemous? Is it a symbol of our decadence? Or, at the other end of the spectrum I expect it to spawn a slew of Christmas sermons using it as a cultural reference point to explain the real meaning of Christmas. It’s almost so obviously inviting that I can’t help but wonder if it was as much designed to be latched onto by Christians as a springboard, as produced to be denounced. Either way it’s a win-win situation for Mulberry, people are watching a handbag being opened. I didn’t really know who or what Mulberry were until this morning, so that’s already worked in one regard.

If I was to preach a Christmas sermon on this I’d return to Joe’s ‘It’s just a bag comment’. As he says that to looks of ridicule from the assembled crowd, so too do we too often say to baby Jesus, ‘it’s just a baby’. But the shepherds who came to worship knew it was more than that. The wisemen who brought gifts for the baby knew it was. Mary did too. And on the night after Jesus’s birth an angel of the Lord appeared Joseph to tell him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to keep them safe. We might like a new handbag for Christmas but would we become refugees in a foreign land to keep it safe?


Ecclesiastes and Emmanuel: God with us in all times and seasons

The time when love came to earth. Love not in gifts of gold, frankincense or myrrh. Love not in the adoration of the angels, or the presence of the shepherds. Love not even in the parental pride at a new born son.

But love in a God who came to be with us. It feels like that is the only refrain you can hear this year. Maybe it is the horrific shooting in Connecticut that lingers in the shadows, casting doubt on any joy that could be shared. Maybe we have lost our own loved ones in unpublicised tragedy. Perhaps it is the difficult relationships, awkward lives we lead. Maybe we have been rejected from jobs we wanted. Maybe life is harder than we ever hoped it would.

The message of Emmanuel. A constant refrain that does not fade.

The first time I ever spoke in any kind of church service was my Granddad’s funeral. It was a few years ago, and like now it was the run up to Christmas. This tragedy, an expected one unlike the Newtown shootings, was tinged with similar sadness. Someone who you loved dearly would no longer be with you.

My Granddad had lived a long life, and senile dementia had made his last few years especially hard. When I spoke with my Mum of plans for the funeral I had the sudden and definite sense that I wanted to speak. I had never done anything like this before, my sister was the prodigy preacher in our youth church.

When I moved house a couple of months ago I found the typed text interspersed with scribbles of red biro telling the tale of last minute edits. It was Ecclesiasties and Emmanuel. The times that come and go and the God that is always with us.

I was nervous as I spoke. A Methodist chapel in South Yorkshire is not my normal church environment. A congregation of family some of whom are not Christian, and members of the local community with whom he had attended each week until his final years made it too hard.

There was a cycle of reinforcing theology that pushed me forward. God was with me as I spoke of God being with us.

Speaking in public isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I am not confident in my voice, I am reluctant with my words, unsure if people will like or agree with what I say. I am always hesitant when I have to do it, even when I choose to the reluctance does not go away.

Unsurprisingly many of life’s challenges come with such a hesitancy, an uncertainty of whether to proceed, whether the goal is worth the cost.

But sometimes there is also a knowledge that this is what you need to do. So you get on and do it. There are moments in life when you are able to push aside the rationality and reason and do what you know you have to do.

My wrong turns do not become any righter, but I slowly learn that I have a God and a Father who does not abandon. Not even in the hardest of times. Not even in my most recalcitrant of ways.

Beyond belief – God speaks

The planning meeting broke up and God pulled Gabriel to one side. “We’re going to need some help on this one. Not so much a pre-announcement announcement, but an announcement to warm up for the pre-announcement announcement.”

“That’s a lot of announcing,” joked back Gabriel.

“Well they’ll be someone who comes before Jesus to prepare the way on earth, but we need to soften up the ground for those who are going to give birth to Jesus and to the one who prepares the way.

“I want you to go and tell the men and the women who will bear both my Son and my messenger. But play nice Gabe, don’t freak them out too much. They’re precious souls and they need some reassurance.”

“So should I just take the one flaming sword?”

“No flaming swords, but I think you might need a couple of tricks to get Zechariah to play ball. Maybe just strike him dumb for a short while. To be honest seeing Elizabeth pregnant will be enough of a shock, I remember when we made this play with Abraham and Sarah back in the day, they took it well enough in the end.”

Gabriel started to rehearse his lines, he was also pretty stoked to be able to get back down to earth, even if he wasn’t packing and it was just for a couple of brief deliveries – it made for some variety from supervising the Heavenly Gardeners.

For Elizabeth it was the joy of bringing longed for good news, and the added bonus of some quiet relief from the infernal jabbering of her husband. He had needed some forthright persuasion just as God suggested, but silenced enforced by the hand of God made him see what was going on and the gift that God had given.

Mary. She was the stunner. Just a little slip of a girl, liable to be blown away by a misdirected wafting of Gabriel’s wings. And he did his usual ‘don’t be afraid’ routine, and for some absurd reason it worked. To be honest, he could have probably swung his swords as he entered the room and she would have greeted him with the same unnerving peace. Of course she was confused, baffled, bewildered, the whole non-sex related pregnancy is enough to set anyone wondering if mental health treatment didn’t need to rapidly advance a couple of millennia.

But Mary took it all in her petite stride. She didn’t howl and scream, she didn’t refuse the truth that was about to become her son. She turned and worshipped God.

Joseph was in a bit of a predicament, after the magnanimous actions of his betrothed he was caught either having to pretend they’d copulated already or she’d been off with another man. Or stick to the lines given him by Gabriel and become the mocking boy of Nazareth. And boy, did he man up when the time came. He stuck with her.

Gabriel headed back to his gardening duties stunned that God’s hair brained scheme might work out after all. It might not have been the way he would have done it, but God seemed to have a handle on the situation.

Heavenly strategic planning

God called together his partners and senior advisers for the annual heavenly strategic planning session.

“Right, this year I want us to step back and going forward do some big thinking. I want us to push the envelope, get some four dimensional blue sky thinking going on. Let’s pre-prepare for a holistic incentive driven marketing plan. We need a product evangelist and some 360 degree thinking before getting this into the product pipeline.”

Some of the angels were a bit staggered by the change in tempo. Usually the annual meetings were a formality, meeting to agree that they would continue with the plan as they had for the past 400 years.

“I’m serious,” God went on, “it’s time to move things along. I’ve been watching and waiting, and the time has come for something a bit different. I’ve got a few ideas I want to bounce off you, but let’s have an idea shower to get the juices flowing.”

Michael was never one to keep quiet when given the opportunity to have a say. “We’ve got this new Roman dimension to play with. It’s been sixty years since our people lost their independence, but the Romans seem quite happy to delegate power, maybe we can work with that?”

“Maybe we just need to be a bit more proactive,” piped up Eremiel, “we’ve got one of ours on the throne, why don’t we just send some missives to Herod so he can get with the programme?”

It was Raphael who sounded the note of caution. “I know we work with all sorts of people, I can still remember that strategy session when we came up with the donkey ploy – we really got Balaam with that one. But, Herod? Really, I think we’d have to pull off something pretty spectacular to get him in line. Why don’t we try something new, find a new leader, get someone who will stand up for the people, maybe even take the throne from Herod?”

“Yes, we could really give people the freedom they want, maybe we should have backed Judas Massabaeus. This time we can go down and give them a helping hand – I’ve been sharpening my flaming sword just this morning.” It was Eremiel who remembered back to the last time the Jewish people had their freedom.

“No, that’s not how we’re going to do it. It is time for an intervention. Not just nudges and hints, the time has past for gentle shifts in emphasis. Now is the time that God comes to earth.” It was the Holy Spirit that spoke into the growing confusion of ideas and schemes.

“That’s more like it, we’re going to wield so holy might!” Eremiel was already halfway to the door to get his sword.

“It’s just me that’s going. It is time.” Jesus started towards the door and ushered Eremiel back towards his seat.

“And it’s not going to be with flaming swords. Not this time. It would be easy to win by might but it would be meaningless. We come as the lowest of the low. We come in a form unrecognised by the high and the mighty. We live to serve the world we created.” God closed down the conversation in that way people sometimes do. For now the final word had been spoken.

The deafening sound of silence

In Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic he talks about the time when you cry out to God, when you summon the energy to convince yourself he might in fact be there, and you are met with nothing but silence. To more precise, not quite silence, more like the empty static at the end of an old vinyl record. Almost the sound of where something should be but is not.

It’s the silence that intimidates because there is a voice that should be there. It is the silence heard when a young man goes into a school and shoots a score of children, their teachers and his family. It is the silence we hear when we want something to hear.

I had the idea for this post, and the series I will post each day this week, before the shooting on Friday. But the tone would have been different. It might have been slightly hectoring against the tendency to commercialise Christmas. I might have made the point that Advent is to be a time of waiting, but in fact we spend it rushing to and fro frantically doing all the things that we do not need to do. Only to be able, for those few precious days, relax and do nothing. We precede inactivity with a frenzy rather than waiting and then moving towards action.

In a way I suppose I have done what I said I would not, even in the act of saying I am not doing it.

Silence is a funny thing. It leaves things open. I could have just not said I was ever going to discuss anything else. Any break to the silence, any interruption, changes things. When someone speaks they cannot unspeak. It’s not about hearing what you want to hear, silence isn’t waiting to get the answer you want. Silence is waiting.

Silence is pregnant. There is something about silence that is temporary, otherwise it would be unremarkable. It is a pause, a step before something is said. It is the pregnant expectation that something is coming.

Silence is hard. We want answers, we want reassurance. When there is violence and hatred, and exploitation and suffering we want someone to say everything is okay. The outpouring of grief could cause people to cry ‘where is God at a time like this’, but those voices are pre-empted by those ready to tell whoever will listen exactly where God is. For a few it is he who sits in judgement orchestrating actions to punish our decadent ways, for others it proves his absence. For some it shows he is distant, unconcerned with the tragedy that befalls us all at one time or another, but particularly acute in a corner of Connecticut this weekend. For others he is there with his arms flung around the parents grieving the loss of children that will not see another Christmas Day.

For four hundred years the people of Israel lived in the midst of such deafening silence. A God who had spoken through their forefathers and prophets appeared to have left the stage. They wanted answers.

But the attentive could still here static in the background. This was not an absent God, he had not walked away.

Silence leaves room for hope.

Godbaby controversy

A few weeks ago the Church Ads group released their plans for their annual advertising campaign which continues the theme ‘Christmas starts with Christ’. The whole point is to encourage the public to think about Christ amid the festivities, presents, mince pies and mulled wine.

The adverts tend to be arresting and they tend to be controversial and this year’s is no different with the BBC and the Daily Mail reporting shock at this image of Jesus promoted by the church. Words like blasphemous and irreverent abound.

Firstly, the picture is a little freaky. It also doesn’t look particularly Middle-Eastern. Secondly the cries and wees slogan is a little base.

But while both these can count against it l, they also work in its favour. The image grabs your attention and the words remind you of the humanity of Jesus, of his incarnation – he was one of us.

The test will be whether it work, when on the billboards and bus stops it provokes conversation and gets people talking about Christ at a time when he is often neglected. I also think it provides a challenge to the church, do we like our god clean and sanitised? I don’t think it does what it is criticised of doing – making Jesus a laughing stock or reinforcing the idea that he’s not real, just a toy good for a bit of diversion.

One final thing that’s of interest: yesterday afternoon I got a call from the BBC looking for someone from the Evangelical Alliance to go on this morning’s breakfast show to talk about the adverts, and they expected we’d be speaking against the ads. They certainly divide opinion and we’ve had lively discussions in the office, but I found it slightly disconcerting that the evangelicals were the go to people for a voice ‘against’ something.

Simon Jenkins gives his defence of the advert.

And the Beaker Folk point out why it might not work.

Bishop of Bradford Nick Baines explains his not quite so enthusiastic support for the ad.

Here’s the slightly less provocative version of the ad