The praise was instant and overwhelming.
“One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen,” said one impressed viewer. “The true spirit of Christmas” and the “best-ever” festive TV advert, said others on Twitter.
The 2014 Sainsbury’s Christmas commercial has moved many viewers to tears. When it was first shown the internet lit up with links and “likes”.
And in less than 24 hours the store chain’s official YouTube video had scored more than 1.8 million hits.
Inspired by the First World War’s 1914 Christmas truce, it shows enemies on the Western Front, divided by a snow-covered No Man’s land, singing Silent Night in two languages during a brief pause in the slaughter.
Then, with jumpers for goalposts, British and German soldiers slowly and nervously emerge from their trenches for handshakes and a game of football.
But as the distant shelling resumes, the two sides reluctantly retreat behind their barbed wire.
Back in his trench, one German discovers a bar of chocolate sneaked into his pocket by his British counterpart – the same bar which will be sold in Sainsbury’s stores with profits going to the Royal British Legion.
The ad was filmed over four days near Ipswich, Suffolk, using authentically re-constructed trenches.
The director, Ringan Ledwidge, admits he was intimidated by the sensitivity of the subject.
His own great-uncle, Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge, died at the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1917, aged 29, and his paternal grandfather fought in both world wars.
Ringan says: “It was nerve-racking making sure the tone was right. I wanted to make the Royal British Legion proud and it meant a lot to me personally, which is a very rare thing in advertising. I wanted to do the story and those men justice and make something that transcends products and advertising.
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“The message is wonderful. I think people forget Christmas is about sharing. What a powerful way to do that and pay respect to the guys who fought and make people think about them.”
Sainsbury’s say that although the events portrayed in the ad are fictional, they used real letters and diaries and consulted historians at the Imperial War Museum and the British Legion.
The advert has won industry praise too.
Don Parker, an expert at Bournemouth University, says: “Sainsbury’s have won the war of the ads. The timing of it is perfect with the centenary and with the Tower of London poppy event.
“They’ve made an emotional connectional with people. It was risky too. Remember, as soon as that touching scene was over the lads in the ad were shooting at each other again.”
Such was the attention to detail, a biscuit seen in a British soldier’s mess tin was made to a First World War recipe of water, flour and salt while the chocolate bar’s logo is the one used by Sainsbury’s in 1914.
Even the unknown actors were chosen from authentic locations – Bury actor Calum Austin plays a fictional Tommy from the Cheshire Regiment, while the main German is from Berlin.
“We chose actors who weren’t known so they didn’t detract from the story,” says director Ringan.
The RBL will receive 50p from every £1 bar sold of Belgian chocolate made in the town of Ypres, scene of one of the war’s bloodiest battles.
Legion’ fundraising director Charles Byrne said: “This campaign is particularly important – 100 years on from the 1914 Christmas truce, it remembers the fallen while helping to raise vital funds to support the future of living.”
While most feedback for the 3min 20sec ad is positive, others on Twitter claim it is “profoundly distasteful” and “terribly exploitative”.
The Advertising Standards Authority said there had been more than 130 complaints since it was first shown during Wednesday night’s Coronation Street.
Most said it was offensive to use First World War imagery to promote a business or that it was not clear from the outset that it was an advert.
Neil Kelley, an advertising expert at Leeds Beckett University, said it made him feel “unclean”.
He added: “It’s a lovely story from history but I find it upsetting they’ve used the First World War as a vehicle to promote a supermarket.
“The sentiment behind it, supporting the RBL, is sound, but there’s something that doesn’t sit right with the use of the war. It doesn’t bring home any of the horrors... I think there’s a possibility veterans may be aggrieved too.”
An ASA spokeswoman said: “We will carefully assess the complaints to establish whether there are grounds for further action.”
Sainsbury’s said the advert was meant to “raise awareness and funds during this centenary year”.
A spokesman added: “We recognise the Christmas truce is an emotive and cherished story... which is why we have worked with the Legion and experts to ensure we tell it with authenticity and respect.”
The 1914 Christmas truce also inspiration two long-ago pop videos – Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace in 1983 and The Farm’s All Together Now in 1990.
Taff Gillingham, co-founder of Khaki Devil, the firm that operates the Suffolk trenches where filming took place, disagrees with the advert critics.
He said: “If we think somebody is making a programme that’s disrespectful we just won’t be part of it. We’ve turned down plenty of stuff in the past.
“The Christmas truce is something very close to my heart and there’s no way we would’ve done it if it was insulting to the old boys. And all the old boys I knew... I think they would have loved it.”