Sainsbury's Ad Director: If Hollywood Can Make War Films, Why Can't Brands?

Ringan Ledwidge Discusses His Controversial Christmas Spot for Supermarket Chain

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Ringan Ledwidge of production company Rattling Stick is one of the industry's most-respected directors, with past work including celebrated ads such as "Three Little Pigs" for The Guardian, Axe's "Susan Glenn" and Lynx's "Getting Dressed."

Ad Age's Creativity caught up with him about his most recent project– Sainsbury's holiday ad via AMV BBDO, which recreated the Christmas Truce of December 1914 during World War I.

Ringan Ledwidge
Ringan Ledwidge

Did you have a particular vision of how you wanted the Sainsbury's spot to be?
I didn't want it to be all about the football match – originally, that was a bigger part of the brief. The game is just one aspect of the sharing message. The important fact was that a group of men that had been shooting at each other suddenly came together. I also made more of the moment when the soldier puts his hands up and stands up in the trench – that moment is a reminder of the violence that's going on.

You had a relative who died in World War I yourself? Did that make it more of a personal connection?
My great uncle, Francis Ledwidge, was an Irish war poet who was killed in 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele. He's studied in Irish schools today. And I did grow up knowing a lot about him, so, yes, I did feel a personal connection. His poetry was less about the war and more about home and basic normal things, stuff that everyone takes for granted. Normality to these men was a privilege, and again I tried to bring that to the ad in the moment where the two soldiers meet.

The ad has attracted its share of controversy (over 240 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, although these were not upheld). How much was it on the radar that this would be a delicate subject to pull off? And that it might offend some people that a brand was using the war for commercial purposes?
That was definitely in my mind, and I wouldn't have become involved if it weren't for the support of the Royal British Legion in the project. They were closely involved in every aspect of the shoot and everything had to be signed off by them. But you have to ask yourself: 'How come it's fine for a big studio to do a movie about the war, and make a lot of money for a huge corporation, and not for a supermarket?' It's an anti-war film and just because it's financed by a brand doesn't take away from that. If anything, the fact that it's going out during "The X-Factor" and will be seen by a young audience makes it more important. Rattling Stick has been inundated with emails and calls from schools wanting to know more about the film. So yeah, it's an easy target if you want to attack consumerism, but my feeling is the positives outweigh the negatives.

One striking thing about this ad was how much people were sharing it on social media. What do you think social sharing has done for advertising -- does it allow advertisers more creative freedom to do long-form content?
Definitely. This ad started out as a two-minute film and ended up as 3:20. The Nike ad I did this year ("Winner Stays") was 4:20. Even I thought that was crazy at the time, but so many people watch it online and share it. When YouTube came out, everyone said it would be the death of commercials, but it's totally wrong. It's made it a really exciting time for creativity. And production companies are changing as a result -- you have to be a lot more nimble and have diversity to what you do.

Your portfolio of work seems very eclectic - is there one particular genre that appeals to you?
Not at all -- I still choose what I do purely on the idea. For example I did the Dead Mouse Theater spots straight after Sainsbury's. They couldn't have been more different, but the idea really appealed to me.

What other work have you admired recently?
I'm traveling eight months of the year, so I don't get a chance to watch as much as I should. But I always look out for Dougal (Wilson, of John Lewis penguin fame). And Lance Acord is also someone I really respect.

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