This article does not intend to criticise the value of national remembrance per se; most simply it is concerned with the socio-political consequences of its discursive exercise, military marketing and corporate-like promotion. What does the “Poppy brand” stand for and how is it promoted? How do branding strategies reflect and calibrate national identity politics? How is the national consumer asked to ‘rethink remembrance’ today and what geopolitical imaginaries is this likely to shape?
In light of the progressive commodification of national memory and in anticipation of the imminent ‘urban poppification’ for Armistice Day, I aim to unwrap the ‘remembrance product’ and critically assess its back label.
The Poppy Appeal
The Royal British Legion (RBL) launched the first Poppy Appeal in 1921 as part of a national fund-raising campaign aimed at supporting veterans and civilians directly affected by the First World War. Since then, every year millions of people across Britain have pinned the red flower to their lapel during the first two weeks of November leading up to the Armistice Day (today known as the Remembrance Day or Poppy Day) – a solemn occasion “to remember and honour those who have sacrificed themselves to secure and protect our freedom” (RBL, 2017).
The symbolic use of the poppy is inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae (1919), a Canadian army doctor whose verses moved the spirit of the post-war public. Poppies, as originally conceived, were hand-made by wounded soldiers at the Poppy Factory, symbolically called ‘the Factory of Remembrance’ – now a living memorial in the London suburb of Richmond (Gregory, 1994). In 1922 the success of the first Poppy Appeal exceeded the Legion’s expectations: publicity posters reading ‘Buy a Poppy for Remembrance Sake’ appeared all over Britain and around 30 million poppies were sold (Saunders, 2014: 119).
By the late 1920s, wearing the red flower had already become a central part of the public ritual of remembrance and almost a moral obligation towards the collective trauma of war still so fresh in the collective memory of the nation. Yet, as post-war pacifist movements started to gain momentum, questions over the tendency of the poppy to embody jingoistic sentiments and its inability to symbolise the regret over war casualties started to emerge. Most notably, in 1926 the Peace Pledge Union created a white version of the symbol, a visual pledge against war whose motto ‘No More War’ inscribed in the black centre of the flower replaced the prosaic ‘Haig Fund’ of the red precursor (Saunders, 2014: 157). However, just as the white poppy grew evermore popular, a new world conflict soon unfolded, thereby revitalising the significance of – or perhaps the need for – the remembrance poppy in Britain. After 1945, the symbol effortlessly became the emblematic protagonist of acts of remembrance, not only in commemoration of the two world wars but also of the British conflicts that followed.
Today, the fundraising appeal of the Legion represents one of the most successful charity campaigns in Britain and its red symbol is a banal accessory and urban adornment of the autumn. The image of the poppy, as a fragile but resilient flower that grows out of the broken ground of battlefields, both mirrors and calibrates national sentiments of loss, grief and healing. The Legion – self-proclaimed as ‘the national custodian of Remembrance’ – is the storyteller of such national tale of collective memory. By directing and zooming into the various scenes of commemoration, the charity makes the red poppy the guest of honour at times and an unnoticed participant at others. However, while its blood-red petals are firmly rooted in the national psyche of Britain as a bitter yet comforting symbol, in the last couple of years a recognised social pressure on public figures to wear the poppy, acts of rebellion against its geopolitical resonances and the increasing commodification of Remembrance have generated a new curiosity around the significance of the symbol. There are indicators that Remembrance-tide is destined to become a divisive issue, offering an entryway to contemporary dilemmas of national belonging and consumption culture.
The Remembrance Brand is both a concept brand – namely, it promotes the preservation of the abstract and symbolic value of collective memory – and a commodity brand – as it is associated to an actual service and trademark supporting ex-servicemen and women (Briciu and Briciu, 2016). While the poppy has long been an iconic national symbol, the Legion formally trademarked its brand in 2001 (GovUK, 2017), whereby inaugurating the marketing orientation of its fund-raising strategy and awareness campaigns. The relatively recent ‘poppification’ of Remembrance – namely, the visual protagonism of poppy-inspired products and the year-round promotion of the brand – seems to be the result of the progressive corporatisation and (charitable) commodification of Remembrance fiercely pushed by the Legion in the last few years.
The Legion launches a new Remembrance ‘collection’ every year, as most branders do. Throughout the years the brand has carefully mirrored events of popular geopolitics and its identity has been attentively designed around the context, goals and challenges of modern memorialisation. In 2009, for instance, the prosaic ‘For their sake, wear the poppy’ campaign was hazarded after the Iraq war, while a heavily family-oriented strategy was adopted in 2013, when families were reuniting after British troops withdrew from Afghanistan. Most recently, preparations for the 2014-18 centenary have marked the beginning of the new strategy of the Legion, which culminated in 2016 when the public was invited to ‘rethink Remembrance’. In this regard, in 2014 the Legion’s Marketing Director, Gary Ryan, affirmed: “From a PR perspective there’s no better time to make changes to our marketing than over the next two years” (Joseph, 2014). Then, I would add, there is no better time to start reflecting upon the social implications of such changes.
Remembrance for sale?
The poppy enjoys an impressive recall rate (97% according to the Legion’s website), yet in 2013 the Remembrance Brand ranked lower than newer bereavement military charities, such as Help for Heroes, in the Charity Brand Index (Third Sector, 2013). Consequently, the Legion launched a pivotal commercial strategy that largely marked the merchandising shift of the Remembrance Brand. A new Head of Trading, E-commerce Director and Events & Campaigning Manager were recruited, new commercial partnerships were created and order fulfilment services were outsourced (ECOMD, 2014). In 2014, the brand was relaunched under the LIVE ON™ trademark, in the hope to convey a refreshening image and emphasise the welfare work the charity carries out throughout the year but is not so well-known for (RBL, 2017c). Around the same time, the online ‘Poppy Shop’ went live, quickly becoming a key platform of retail that today sells a whole new range of products – from pieces of clothing (such as “I Love Poppy” t-shirts), home gifts (“Mini Poppy Jute Bag will have you looking good and feeling great”) and sport fandom accessories (“Premier League Poppy Pins: Show your support for both your team and troops”) (Poppy Shop, 2017).
The #PoppySelfie campaign, the ‘Poppy Rocks’ compilations, the Poppy Ale (donating 10p to the Legion for every pint you pour) are all examples of the innovative promotional solutions employed by the Legion. And as the Daily Mail notes, “[i]f you feel that paper and plastic is a little bit last year, there is plenty of scope to update your poppy before Remembrance Day” (Kisiel, 2010). The design and distribution of the new Poppy Pin came to almost replace the ubiquity of the cheap assemblage of plastic of the traditional poppy (Rawlinson, 2014) and the Legion itself describes the pin as their most successful product: “[T]he perfect culmination of product and brand” (Vizard, 2017). The so-called ‘bling poppies’ – fine jewellery and limited design collection also available on the Poppy Shop for up to £750 – attracted strong media attention, as they were endorsed by high profile figures and featured heavily in TV entertainment shows such as X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing (Rawi, 2011). Remembrance Festivals themselves were turned into entertainment shows, where glamorous artists annually perform prior to the two minute silence (Andrews, 2011).
As part of this growing commercial strategy, throughout the years the Legion has also developed and progressively strengthened meaningful corporate partnerships. ‘Cause related marketing,’ as advertised on their website, is described as the chance to link external corporate products to the Remembrance Brand, representing a commercial opportunity to “help increase sales, build customer loyalty, retain or recruit customers” (RBL, 2017d). In 2016 alone, Sainsbury’s (a core ally of the charity) raised over £3.2 million for the Legion through store collection and poppy inspired merchandise (RBL, 2017e). Moreover, in 2014 the retailer’s yearly Christmas TV advertisement was produced in partnership with the Legion and told the story of the 1914 Christmas Day truce between British and German troops in ‘No Man’s Land’ (Sainsbury’s, 2014). On the one hand, the moving advertisement sends out the hopeful message that ‘even in war there is humanity’, on the other it depicts a romantic idea of one of the most brutal battlefields of the conflict, and a charitable image of Sainsbury’s. While being described as “possibly […] the best Christmas advert of all time” (Pocklington, 2014), the promotional video made the top 5 most complained adverts in 2014. The Advertising Standards Authority (2014) received 823 complaints (none of which were upheld) objecting to the way war history had been co-opted by a supermarket with the ‘shameful’ complicity of the Legion.
In light of this diversified commercial strategy, in 2014 the Legion won the ECMOD Direct Commerce Awards (2014), in 2016 it received the Enterprise Award in the third sector and LIVE ON™ was voted as the UK’s most trusted brand (Third Sector, 2016). More importantly, the commercialisation of the brand lead to a double digit increase in income and order value (ECOMD, 2014). To use the words of the Head of Retail Trading, John Norton, the charity has sought “to create more varied products to take us into more places so more people can find out a bit more about what we do” (Vizard, 2017). Beyond the fundraising potential of this commercial diversification, the insinuation of material objects naturally contributes to the symbolic aim of the ‘national custodian of Remembrance’ to spread portable objects of memory. However, while the plain poppy has no immediate, practical function in the everyday life of the wearer and its role is almost entirely symbolic, fashionable or practically functional merchandise that simply happens to be poppy-themed arguably distract the consumer from the evocative image of the nation, lacking the same symbolic potential of a simple pin. In this view, such objects become an even more banal and stretched reminder of the nation and its collective memory. This might accentuate the distinction between the distribution of portable lieux de mémoire and the sale of simple commercial objects available in the Poppy Shop.
Despite that, Norton comments that the charity only took a “light approach” to retailing and marketing so far, and this new merchandising turn “should not commercialise Remembrance” (Vizard, 2017) like some critics pointed out (see Samuel, 2010; Wallop, 2014). After all, the Legion is simply keeping pace with the dominant culture of consumerism to raise funds for a cause the consumer supposedly supports. Interestingly enough, however, in the most recent version of the Legion’s website, the online visitor is faced with two options: to “donate” or to go to “the Poppy Shop”, each respectively matched by a love-heart and a shopping cart icon. The consumer, thus, is given the option to generously embrace the value of remembrance or to buy it. However, can the consumer actually buy memory, or even the national identity associated with it? If national traditions are ‘invented’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983), in the modern era of commercialisation they could arguably also be sold and bought. In their most recent strategy briefing, the charity explicitly seeks new ways to ensure that the public actually owns a personalised piece of remembrance and “get everyone to 2 degrees of separation from a personal connection to WW1.” As part of the ‘Every Man Remembered’ project, the consumer will be able to shop for a piece of remembrance as well as a personal war story to go with it. For instance, the Passchendaele 100 Poppy Lapel Pin – limited item produced for the centenary commemoration of the battle on July 2017 – not only is materially made of “the very essence of the battlefields that the brave men fought upon” (Poppy Shop, 2017), but also comes with a Commemorative Certificate illustrating the story of a fallen British soldier – 60,083 Passchendaele pins for the 60,083 soldiers who died in the battle.
With this wide commercialisation of the brand, since 2011 – when the factory in Kent began the mechanisation of production – most poppy items are now produced at industrial scale or outsourced to the charity’s partners (Saunders, 2014). Consequently, the ‘enchanted’ idea of wounded soldiers behind the production of objects of remembrance has been delusioned and, contrary to popular belief, even the vast majority of ‘traditional’ poppies are no longer hand-made by veterans. In this regard, an article published in the Legionary – the magazine of the Canadian Legion – remarks the crucial difference between veteran-made and factory-made poppies: “The disabled veterans in Vercraft and the Red Cross workshops are creating true memorials, while a poppy replica produced under ordinary commercial competitive conditions is nothing more nor less than an artificial flower” (quoted in Saunders, 2014: 134). The ‘emotional dryness’ of industrial production can potentially create an affective rupture between the producer materially making the object and the consumer. Only the Richmond factory remains still active as an almost entirely symbolic site of memory visitable by tourists. In this way, the visitor can still appreciate the material affection of the symbol through the preservation of its fetishised modes of production.
The Poppy’s Politics of Representation
For some, the increasing commodification of Remembrance jeopardises the ability of the poppy to be a meaningful part of the national material culture. For example, some of the Remembrance jewellery aforementioned are actually sourced from China, consequently the absence of the label Made in Britain can potentially disrupt the ability of such products to also stand for a hypothetical Brand Britain.
The UK does not have an official national day that unites the whole country and currently, in the search for one, Remembrance Sunday is one of the most quoted candidates (BBC, 2013b). As a matter of fact, Remembrance celebrations offer a powerful ritualistic language that still draws from the three traditional institutional pillars of the nation: the monarchy, the armed forces and the Established Church. According to Elgenius (2005), national commemorations are most powerful when religious elements are present, due the ‘sacredness’ of patriotic sacrifice and the religious symbolism of death. The grave music played by the massed bands (such as Beethoven’s Funeral March and Purcell’s Dido’s Lament); the silent and solemn behaviour of the participants, the official funeral clothing of public representatives all manifest the sacredness of this collective secular funeral. The red poppies on the chest of all participants emphasise the unity among the living and the red wreaths on the war memorials signal the connection with the dead.
Today, this ceremonial ritual of collective mourning still offers the (challenging) context to the Legion’s work currently aiming to reinvent the identity of the Remembrance Brand: “Forward, not backward looking. Life, not death affirming. Hopeful, not despairing” (RBL, 2016). In the attempt to update and rejuvenate the brand identity, the charity’s core strategy for the five years leading to its own centenary in 2021 aims to make Remembrance more generationally relevant and more ethnically inclusive. The Legion is well aware that most of its supporters tend to be over 70, white and male and this affects the perception of the brand. The ‘Women at War 100’, for example, seeks to highlight the historical contribution of the female corps and auxiliary work during the Great War, while giving adequate attention to new generations of service-women (RBL, 2017f).
However, if the significance and the work of the Legion has to carry on in the future, the engagement of young people represents a priority in the Legion’s approach to the centenary, especially in light of the inevitable and forthcoming extinction of the old guard of veterans. The challenge for the charity is to emotionally connect young people, who are distant from the idea of war, to new generations of young soldiers, who do not face mandatory conscription and fight in wars that the public do not always approve of (see Gribble et al., 2015). With this goal in mind, the awareness videos released in 2016 – as part of the ‘Rethink Remembrance’ campaign (RBL, 2017a) – overimpose the stories of old veterans with those of younger soldiers, in the attempt to shift the empathy from the former to new generations of veterans on which the Legion currently spends £1.7 million a week (Vizard, 2017).
In light of the evolving politics of representation in multicultural Britain, moreover, the dominant narrative of memorialisation has been challenged and new efforts have been made to bring back to memory minor battles, as well as the contribution of foreign nationals who fought alongside Britain. The ‘custody’ of Remembrance invested to the Legion is defined in the Royal Charter as applying to those “on active service to the Crown” and this extends to the Commonwealth Forces and the citizens of Commonwealth ancestries now living in the UK (McCulloch, 2017). While older memorials, like the Thiepval Memorial, often omit the names of black South Africans who contributed in the war, the Legion seems committed to ensure that UK BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) groups enjoy their equal right to have their fallen remembered. In this regard, Nigel McCulloch (2017), current Head of Remembrance and former National Chaplain to the Legion, in a conference on Remembrance, Memory and Commemoration, noted: “If Remembrance is to continue in a meaningful way, it must become more honest about history and true to the realities of the UK’s richly diverse society. At present, we acknowledge we’re not getting it right.”
The most recent audience research issued by the Legion intentionally seeks the opinion of BAME groups and highlights responses such as “The British Legion was just for the whites. But we all bleed” and “The front page is always a white man. They were the heroes. They saved the world. It’s like the movie Independence Day” (Good Innovation, 2017). The research, moreover, emphasises that Muslim respondents are particularly divided over Remembrance and do not feel confident in buying or wearing a poppy due to current conflicts and hostility – “It’s very us and them. It brings back all the UKIP feelings. It doesn’t unite. It separates people.” This should be no surprise given the delicate balance of Muslim integration in the post 9/11 climate, that largely draws upon the increasing perception of a ‘clash of civilisations’ (Huntington, 1993). These tensions are calibrated in the politics of Remembrance managed by the Legion, as well as in the contested politics of the poppy in popular geopolitics. For instance, in 2011 an activist from Muslims Against Crusades was arrested and fined for burning a poppy outside the Royal Albert Hall during Remembrance celebrations, as an act of protest against the British military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan (Guardian, 2011). This episode was later counteracted by a poppy-rich demonstration organised by the English Defence League (EDL), far-right group opposing “global Islamification” and standing “for English cultural norms” (EDL, 2017).
In prevision of the commemoration of the centenary, the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) has joined the Legion in the commitment of easing these tensions and raising awareness about the loss of Muslim lives alongside those of (white and Christian) British soldiers (Gadher, 2013). In 2014, in occasion of the centenary of the first Muslim soldier being awarded the Victoria Cross for Bravery, fashion student Tabinda-Kauser Ishaq, in collaboration with the ISB and the integration think-tank British Future, launched the first Poppy Hijab (Kenny, 2014). The headscarf – today on sale in the Poppy Shop for £22 – is meant to encourage those British Muslims willing to take part in Remembrance and raise awareness and appreciation about the 400,000 Muslims that fought alongside British soldiers. The Poppy Hijab effectively shows how the Legion has at least formally included the idea of ‘Muslimness’ in the material culture of national remembrance. However, as any highly symbolically charged symbol that evokes imaginaries of national belonging, religion and politics, the poppy headscarf has received some criticism from the Islamic community itself (BBC, 2013b). The item has been accused of perpetuating islamophobic attitudes, by suggesting that Muslim women need to visually ‘prove’ their loyalty to Britain and its rituals of remembrance.
The Legion maintains to oppose any exclusionary sentiment of remembrance and xenophobic understandings of the poppy products. Building on that, the charity claims that the centenary has also led to greater awareness over the joined efforts of non-Commonwealth Forces that were under British Command, those who operated with British assistance and former Allied Powers during the war: “The ability of Remembrance to draw nations together is powerful” (RBL, 2017g), adding that this cohesive power of memory is even more relevant today in light of the changing relationships of Britain with the rest of the continent. However, even granted that the Legion actually decides to share the domestic stage of Remembrance with the other nations and their casualties, it is still all about the memory of Britain and the friends of Britain, as one would naturally expect from a national, rather than a universal, brand. In this regard, the ‘What We Remember’ page on the Legion’s website reads: “The Legion advocates a specific type of Remembrance connected to the British Armed Forces, those who were killed, those who fought with them and alongside them” (RBL, 2007h). Consequently, one should ask whether it is Remembrance to ‘draw nations together,’ or war to draw national allies closer.
Building on the last point, the Brand consistently flags our country, takes pride in our sacrifices, mourns our victims who bravely fought for “our ways of life and freedoms” (emphasis added) (RBL, 2016). This language constantly signals the imaginative presence of the nation. The words ‘proud’, ‘sacrifice’, ‘bravery’ are closely associated with the brand, not only by the language and discourses directly employed by the Legion, but also by the people to whom they offer a platform to share their stories. Such patriotic resonances might not merely depend on the specific brand design promoted by the Legion year after year, but on a broader shift in the current culture of memorialisation.
Military Branding: Banal and Hot Nationalism
Billig (1995: 7) affirms: “In the case of the Western nation-states, banal nationalism can hardly be innocent: it is reproducing institutions which possess vast armaments.” When Armistice Day was first introduced after the First World War, it was meant to express a committed sentiment of ‘Never Again’. However, as the memory of old conflicts slowly disappears from the experience of the living, the Remembrance Brand has assumed new tones (Harrison, 2012). People are now asked to show gratitude and respect, while orderly pinning their poppy to “Support our Troops”. Building on that, this section will explore how the Remembrance Brand promotes a war culture of national sacrificialism and triumphalism, inevitably blurring the lines between banal and hot nationalism.
For the marking of the 2018 centenary, the Legion is currently looking for the development of a core theme, what they internally call the ‘Big Idea’. According to The Armistice 100 Brief (RBL, 2016), the message of the ‘Big Idea’ should be: 1) “Respectful for the service and sacrifices made”; 2) “Thankful for their contribution to our way of life and freedoms”; 3) “Inspired by their example”. The plan already involves ‘Thank You’ and ‘Hope’ campaigns, to show the gratitude for past and present sacrifice and send a message of hope for the future – a key aspect of the brand that is currently not sufficiently communicated according to their research. The campaigns will highlight how some of the lessons, achievements and creative expressions of the Great War are still relevant today: “Through the horrors of war some of the most beautiful pieces of music, art, poetry and literature have been produced” (Good Innovation, 2017). By highlighting the positive fruits generated as the result of harrowing conflicts, however, the Legion risks romanticising, if not even celebrating, the idea of war without ever condemning it. As a matter of fact, the charity declares to be strictly non-political and neutral regarding the causes and consequences of conflict, most simply “its concern is for those who have served the nation, often at great cost and sacrifice” (RBL, 2017g).
The ‘non-political’ silence of the charity over the nature of war is often a rather critical choice, and most of all a political one. By way of the example, the 2014 track song of the Legion reinterpreted (or perhaps ‘silenced’) the spirit of the original song ‘No Man’s Land’ (RBL, 2017i), arguably to fit the apolitical attitude as well as the commercial end of the Remembrance Brand. The song was originally conceived to build up a climax ending with the denunciation of war, however the Legion’s version left the most sentimental verses of the first part of the song, while cutting the following verses from the second half:
Do all those who lie here know why they died? / Did you really believe them when they told you ‘The Cause?’ / Did you really believe that this war would end wars?/ Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame / The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain, / For Willie McBride, it all happened again, / And again, and again, and again, and again.
The author of the original piece, who does not own the rights to the song, admitted that the Legion’s version negates the strong anti-war intention of the original lyrics, while giving a sentimentalistic tone to the story of ‘the glorious fallen’ from 1916 (Bogle, 2014). Subsequently, a petition was launched on change.org requesting that the Legion apologise for their reinterpretation of the song, which was critically labelled as “syrupy” and “jingoistic” (Banks, 2014).
It is somewhat ironic that an inspirational brand that exalts the bravery of ex-military personnel, never questions, or at least contextualises, how and why these soldiers need their support. To contrast such politically agnostic position, the Legion puts under the spotlight personal stories that potentially sentimentalise ‘loss’ and ‘sacrifice’ in the eye of a general public, who is already largely anaesthetised to modern and distant wars. For example, the selected citation reader at the Festival of Remembrance in 2016 was Beth, a 10-year-old girl who composed the poem “Why Do You Wear a Poppy Beth?.” The final verses of the poem read:
It is because of their sacrifice, /That we are free, you see / To proudly fly our Union flag, / For all the world to see. / And it’s because of those still fighting, / In wars across the world, / That I can sleep safely in my bed, / Free from any cares.
The poem carries on explaining that she wears the poppy “with pride” in honour of her father who died while serving in the Royal Navy: “Because my Daddy, my hero, bravely gave his life” (RBL, 2017). The Legion’s website, however, clarifies that Beth’s father died on a submarine while still in Southampton shot by a fellow seaman. Finally, it adds that Beth, a Sea Cadet herself, and her two elder brothers, also in the Royal Navy, are now proudly following their father’s footsteps.
The Legion affirms that they are simply trying not to show people as mere victims and they are offering a platform to tell stories that come directly from the veteran community. However, by only voicing those who are understandably trying to emotionally cope with the unfortunate consequences of war – perhaps by writing a poem about their heroic father – the Legion is contributing to create a culture of war sacrificialism, heroism and triumphalism. This potentially gives space for young people, such as Beth and her brothers, to project a role for themselves in the new war culture and take part in it. In this regard the act of telling some stories, singing certain verses, showing specific perspectives and omitting others is fundamentally a political act. Moreover, it is also worth noting that the Legion is actually giving space to highly politicised, if not political, matters. One of the ‘Stories’ on the Legion’s website, for instance, tells of the Queen’s unveiling of the Afghanistan and Iraq war memorial, reporting Sir Michael Fallon’s (Secretary of State Defence) words celebrating the monument as “a permanent reminder of the contribution and sacrifice […] towards the security of the United Kingdom and the interests of Iraq and Afghanistan” (RBL, 2017j). On the same page, a video produced by the Legion captures soldiers telling of their ‘proudest’ moment in war, such as: “When I first engaged with Iraqi people they saw us as saviours, they saw we were there to help them and save them” (RBL, 2017j).
Tensions over the progressive militarisation of the Remembrance Brand come to the forefront when looking at the Legion’s sponsorship from some of the global leaders in arms retail. Lockheed Martin UK, one of the largest arms company worldwide specialised in the development and production of long-range nuclear missiles, has sponsored the Young Professionals’ Poppy Rocks event in 2014 (WhitePoppy4Peace, 2014). Thales, a French arms company with a track record of supplying the world’s most oppressive autocracies, has adorned the London underground station at Westminster with a poppy-themed hoarding (Smith and Burnett-Stuart, 2014). The UK’s largest arms producer, BAE Systems, which this year has sponsored the annual Poppy Ball and annually hosts its own fundraising events, has been a long-standing ‘platinum corporate sponsor’ of the Legion (ibid). On top of that, in 2012 the then president of the charity, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, resigned after a press report accused him of using the charity’s network to lobby on behalf of arms companies and recorded him while describing the Remembrance Day as a “tremendous networking opportunity” for arm dealers (Smith and Burnett-Stuart, 2014).
According to critics, by accepting such sponsorships, the Legion is indirectly validating the business of war and it is ironic that a charity that helps the victims of weaponry would take money from their producers. In response to early criticism about BAE’s sponsorship – which is now maintaining a lower profile – the former Corporate Communications Director of the charity, Stuart Gendall, commented: “The British armed forces require equipment and BAE supplies much of that equipment. Without the best-quality tools to do the job, we would be remembering a few more casualties of conflict” (Tweedy, 2002). Of course, a few less on the British side potentially means a few more on the other, but this seems acceptable according to the internal hierarchy of death of the nation. Moreover, due to these debates, accepting such sponsorships is arguably poorly strategic from the perspective of banal nation branding, since suddenly the least ‘romantic’ sides of war, namely actual weaponry, become more visible and questionable in the mind of the public. On the one hand, this could reduce the popularity of the Remembrance Brand, given that banal nationalism has to only be passively upheld, while the ‘hot’ nationalism – towards which the new militaristic tones of the brand seem to point – requires a more active support and belongs to a narrower political spectrum. On the other hand, however, by making the banal less banal, this militaristic shift could also ease the transition from banal nationalism to ‘hot’ national activism. Despite that, the Legion declares that the brand is intended to be “[s]tirring and emotional, but NOT celebratory, jingoistic or militaristic” (capitalisation in the original) (RBL, 2016), while currently seeking feedback from respondents that would more closely identify with the white poppy.
This cultural shift of the Remembrance tale from ‘Never Again’ to the militaristic tones of war heroism is somewhat mirrored and confirmed by the appearance of a new major charity competitor on the market since 2007, Help for Heroes (H4H). The military charity has already reached £36.5 million in total income and has quickly won the support of the public. Their website shows almost exclusively white, and predominantly male, young military personnel and the words ‘sacrifice,’ ‘bravery’ and, of course, ‘heroes’ largely dominate. In this regard, the charity ‘clarifies’: “Help for Heroes considers anyone that volunteers to join the Armed Forces, knowing that one day they may have to risk all, is a hero. It’s that simple” (H4H, 2017a). They also have their own online shop, which today sells over 500 branded articles, since “we knew the public would like to ‘wear their support’” (H4H, 2017b). However, even the items on sale have a different tone if compared to the Legion’s friendly poppy-themed collection: the Union Jack features almost on every item, if only through the predominantly red, blue and white colours, along with ‘fearless’ logo t-shirt, military-patterned clothing for kids, and medal-shaped stationary. Contrary to the decorum and tact required from the ‘national custodian of Remembrance’, indeed, Help for Heroes is more entitled to proudly wave the flag of Britain. However, once again, this makes the banality of the poppy more effective, and the national(istic) sentiments of Help for Heroes more visible.
As Tamir (1993: x) notes: “The sanctification of suffering fosters hatred and mistrust, and – worse still – a backward-looking politics that perpetuates conflict.” Religious patriotism and the celebration of the glorious men and women who have fought and are still fighting for ‘Queen and Country’ not only sanitises and glosses the real misery of conflict, but creates a subtle war propaganda. It basically tells the public that regardless of personal views on the causes of war (of which the charity does not want to talk), ‘you ought to support our heroes, hence their wars’. However, as the Ex-SAS soldier Ben Griffin notes, “[t]here is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle, there is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about the deaths of countless civilians” (WalesOnline, 2013). This is not the same as directly promoting confrontation between nations through the design of a patriotic brand. However, metaphorically speaking, in this case banal nation branding looks a bit like designing the sport uniform for the national team: players do not know whether they will end up playing or simply sit on the sidelines, but they will be ready to compete in the name of the unique jerseys they are wearing.
This articile has appreciated that, in anticipation of key commemorations, the Remembrance Brand has three major goals: the engagement and the participation of individuals from different backgrounds; the engagement of young audiences; a greater, and perhaps new, understanding of the relevance of remembering the fallen and supporting the living. Based on the analysis of my research, while the Legion affirms that the Remembrance Brand has “no political, religious or commercial meaning”, I contend that: 1) the Remembrance Brand is not only highly politicised, it is inherently political; 2) while it is not a religious symbol, it promotes a form of sacred patriotism and 3) it is both commercialised and fetishised in its material and symbolic form.
The brand’s banal signalling of our nation, our memory, our dead inevitably helps create a reassuring sense of inclusion within the (ethnically diverse) national community. However, inclusion by definition implies exclusion and national brands and symbols, whether they remain banal or not, necessarily come to embody both sides of the coin – the Remembrance Brand and the poppy are no exception. By trivialising and glossing the idea of war, the brand perpetuates a militaristic culture that ultimately blurs the distinction between banal nation branding and the subtle promotion of antagonistic sentiments of ‘hot’ nationalism.
As in any paradigm of power exercise, the ability of persuasion of brands represents a double-edged sword which largely depends on their design, exercise and ultimately perception. So, make sure you know what you are putting in your cart of Remembrance before checking out.
Silvia Binenti will be speaking at our Annual Conference on Saturday 10 November.
The full version of this article was originally published by the UCL Migration Unit Working Papers (September, 2017).
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