There are times when the only response to a news story is a dumbfounded : “What were they thinking?!” That was my response to the news that Greggs, the high street bakery and convenience food chain, had this week released promotional material for their branded advent calendar with a picture of a sausage roll replacing Jesus in the manger. I know that you may find this hard to believe too – so I’ve included the marketing image here.
Aside from the obvious crassness of placing a pork-based food product at the scene of a Jewish birth (thus achieving the double-whammy of offending both Jews and Christians), it’s not even a particularly attractive image. (Let’s be honest, Greggs sausage rolls are ok, but they’re not a patch on the chicken bakes!)
Wholly predictably, the campaign launch prompted outrage amongst Christian groups. An Evangelical Alliance spokesperson accused the company of deliberately courting controversy, generating “processed outrage to sell processed food”; while the Chief Executive of the Freedom Association called for a boycott of Greggs products “to protest against its sick anti-Christian advent calendar”. (As an aside, is it just me who sees the irony in a representative of an organization of the Freedom Association calling for a boycott of anything? Oxymoronic much?)
A spokesperson for Greggs issued a standard response in cases of this type : “”We’re really sorry to have caused any offence, this was never our intention”. In truth, though, it’s hard to see how anybody with even half a brain cell could have thought that substituting the baby Jesus with a sausage roll was eve going to be anything but offensive to those who believe that this was a divine event. How did the marketing strategy meeting go? “Um – guys. Are we sure about this whole sausage roll instead of Jesus thing?” “Yeah, man – why not? It can’t be offensive. Look if you write ‘Lord Jesus’ backwards – Susejd rol – why, it almost even spells sausage roll.” “Oh hey – that’s so cool – no-one’s going to mind about it now.”
Some Christians sought to see the funny side of the whole thing, arguing that religions and their adherents need to be able to laugh at themselves as part of a mature understanding of their place in the world. Writing in a letter to the Guardian, the Very Rev Richard Giles stated that : “When a faith tradition loses the capacity to laugh at itself, it is on the slippery slope to the hardline fundamentalism which brooks no comment or criticism.”
Others turned their ire on the Christian organisations whose outrage had served to propel the story into the mainstream media in the first place. One such piece was written by Peter Ormerod. In a really well argued piece he states that “anyone who claims to take Jesus seriously should really be finding literally hundreds of other things to get outraged about instead. There’s child poverty; there’s the rise in food bank use; there’s environmental degradation; there’s the surge in hate crime; there’s profound inequality; there’s warmongering; there’s slavery”. And his conclusion is surely the only sensible one : “At the heart of Christianity is a critique of religion itself. It tells us that God is not who, what or where any of us ever believed God to be. We’ve long buried this radicalism under layer after layer of cloying sentimentality and deadening pomposity, to the point that it’s taken a sausage roll to remind us of its significance. And for that, if not for the steak bakes, thanks be to Greggs.” I have to say, I can’t agree with him about the steak bakes, but for the rest, I’d suggest he’s spot on.
So where does that leave Greggs? I somewhat spitefully suggested earlier that their marketing team may not have been the sharpest tools in the box when coming up with this campaign. But if you stop and think about it for a moment, the coverage that they’ve achieved has been astonishing. I can only assume that as the story was picked up by the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Independent, and a whole host of other media outlets, so sales of sausage rolls, pasties and cream-filled Belgian buns were sky-rocketing.
In the final analysis, then, this particular manufactured outrage wasn’t so much mis-advent-ure as genius marketing.
(With thanks to J. for the inspiration for today’s post)