Jumbo nation*

This year’s most talked-about ad on Greek TV offers a crash course on modern Greek culture in the crisis years. It’s an Easter ad for a toy store that is totally unsuitable for kids.

Easter is the Greek family holiday. Most Greeks use the time to revisit their “roots” in their chorió (χωριό, their ancestral village) and engage in traditional activities. It may be the one time a year they go to church, for the candle-lit procession of the Epitáfios (Επιτάφιος) on Good Friday and the Anástasi (Ανάσταση, the mass of the Resurrection) on Holy Saturday. At midnight they will light their candles with the Holy Light which has been flown in from Jerusalem with the diplomatic honours of a head of state, engage in the semi-competitive sport of bumping red-dyed hard-boiled Easter eggs, and eat mageirítsa (μαγειρίτσα), the traditional offal soup served after the service. On Easter Sunday, they will bicker with their extended family over how to roast the whole lamb or kid on the spit, and the kokoretsi (κοκορέτσι), the offal skewer (yes, more offal), remember the few steps of traditional dancing that they know, bicker some more, and heave a sigh of relief when it’s time to go home again. It’s like American Thanksgiving – but with offal.

These are things you need to know to appreciate the Jumbo ad.

The ad starts with two women sharing the Holy Light, their candles equipped with a protective cup bearing the instantly recognisable logo of Jumbo, Greece’s biggest chain of toy stores. One of the women’s eyes widen as she recognises Angela Demetriou, high priestess of the Greek laïkó popular music scene. Angela is modestly dressed, in black glitter with a flatteringly high neckline (she is now in her 60s), the up-lighting from the candle illuminating her impeccably made-up and botoxed face to best effect, like a camp Mary Magdalen at the wake, a cut-price Angelica Huston at the wedding scene in Prizzi’s Honor. The Anástasi, normally a cheerful occasion where people light one another’s candles and bump eggs while dodging illicit firecrackers, is like a funeral procession for Angela. Pathetic fallacy. She sings in her best 60-a-day voice to the tune of her breakthrough hit “Ποια Θυσία” (“What Sacrifice?”), bitterly addressing her absent man who has gone to spend Easter in the chorió with the other woman, bumping their Easter eggs (oo-er) dyed with a recipe stolen from her, while she is alone with not so much as a shred of crackling from the Easter lamb for consolation. Through the windows we see happy families gathering around the steaming offal, but Angela walks alone. Fans in the congregation shower her with flowers, as they would in a nightclub. All of a sudden she is confronted by a (much younger) man dressed in his best suit. “You?!”. He offers her an egg. With a flash of a knuckle duster emblazoned “Lady” (her nickname – because she’s classy, geddit?) she takes the egg and offers it for bumping. She looks him defiantly in the eye. Then comes her punchline:

“Hit. Hit like a man”.

Unsurprisingly, equality organisations are calling for the ad to be withdrawn on the grounds that it promotes gender stereotypes and incites violence against women; others just don’t find it funny. It will certainly encourage hyperactive 6-year-olds to parrot the punchline until they’re blue in the face while pulverising hard boiled eggs (and one another) and trampling eggshells into granny’s carpet. In that respect it’s more likely to incite corporal punishment of minors, which is also an offence.

Angela herself is not a woman one would consider hitting, “like a man” or otherwise, without expecting to suffer consequences. She claims to have been the victim of domestic violence when she was younger – “Yes, there was a man who abused me, and he regretted it bitterly… A man who lifts his hand against a woman is not a real man.” In 2010 she was arrested at the nightclub where she was performing over debts arising from number of bounced cheques; it later emerged that a shady associate in the protection business (the “godfathers of the night” – νονοί της νύχτας – as the media like to call them) pulled strings with the police to speed up her release. With friends like these looking after here interests, you definitely wouldn’t want to lift a finger against Angela.

Angela herself is a colourful character, sincerely adored by some and ironically appreciated by others. Her art form is low culture – if rembétiko (ρεμπέτικο) is the Greek blues, Angela’s laïkó (λαϊκό) combines the down-home redneck values of country music with the arriviste in-your-face bling of hip hop – and its gender roles are similarly ossified. Men are macho, if broken-hearted; women are feminine but hardened by a lifetime of no-good two-timing scumbags. The economics of the laïkó (commonly referred to as bouzoukia, after the instrument, or skyládiko, dog-song, after its extensive use of melisma) revolve around live music venues of dubious licensing status, which in turn provide a fertile ecosystem within which tax-dodging, money laundering, contraband alcohol sales, organised crime (see above) and a whole host of underground activities thrive. As a result it is increasingly shunned as emblematic of the Greek mindset responsible for the current crisis: big-spending superficiality, anomie and the associated political language of corruption (for further evidence, see our previous post on the organised crime boss who was also immortalised in adland). A perpetual denizen of the tabloids and the gossip shows, it is well-known that Angela herself is not the sharpest tool in the box, once explaining that the black market in pirated CDs is so named “because they’re sold by black people”. A good portion of Greek cyberspace is populated by listicles of her epigrams. A diva, a survivor, a strong woman maybe, a guilty pleasure perhaps, but certainly not a role model.

The ad is for Jumbo, a big box store which specialises in toys. The spot, as you can probably tell by now, is only indirectly aimed at children. Easter is a time for gift-giving in Greece; specifically, children traditionally receive gifts from their godparents (godfathers in the original, more innocent sense). The de minimis gift is a decorated candle for the Anástasi; adults carry plain white, but children’s candles are a vehicle for ritualistic display and conspicuous consumption, more often than not featuring non-religious tokens such as toy trucks (for boys) and flammable Barbie Dolls (for girls). No children’s candles appear in the ad. The spot is cocking a knowing wink at its captive market, the poor beleaguered godparents, who sometime over the coming weeks will have to drag themselves up their own consumerist Golgotha to a toy store in search of a candle that they hope will not be a toxic fire hazard, to fulfil their duty as moral guardian. But whether it’s health and safety or moral tutelage that is your priority, Jumbo is probably the last place you should be looking.

A Greek company, selling cheap (mostly Chinese) imports, Jumbo has been one of the biggest winners of the Greek crisis. No matter how desperate their circumstances, no parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or godparent wants the children to “go without”, even if it involves compromising on quality. Even the refugee crisis has been a gift to Jumbo, as their shopping bags pile up at donation points, full of cheap toys, nappies and toiletries donated by well-meaning Greeks. Between 2012 and 2014, as Greek households’ purchasing power retreated by 30%, the share price of Jumbo AE on the Athens Stock Exchange (ticker BELA.AT) galloped to a 500% increase and the company had an annual turnover of half a billion Euros. Despite retreating somewhat in the intervening years, it is now almost back at its all-time high.

The “joy industry” (as the founder refers to discount toy retail) has its risks, and in the course of its 48-month vertiginous ascent Jumbo paid €435,ooo in fines for offences ranging from selling unsafe products, anti-competitive selling practices and exploitative employment conditions. In one year alone, the Greek food standards agency ΕΦΕΤ issued the company with fines totalling €30,000. Even as the Easter ad hit the airwaves, ΕΦΕΤ ordered the recall a line of Disney-themed chocolate biscuits from Jumbo’s shelves. For Jumbo, this is just the cost of doing business, as they continue their expansion across the Balkans.

This is just the latest in a series of advertising campaigns for the store chain which have carved out a trashy-ironic niche all of their own. Jumbo ad campaigns are the only ones made for Greek TV that appear to have a real budget, their trashiness is invariably clad in high production values and they fequently feature B- and C-list celebrities, presumably on the run from the tax-man or the debt collectors. The same advertising agency was responsible for the campaign ads for Panos Kammenos’s nationalist Independent Greeks party (ANEL), which ironically featured more children and toys than most Jumbo ads (little Alexis and his train set, little Alexis with his broken left arm) and secured him enough votes to scrape into Parliament and back into coalition with Syriza. “Mr Jumbo” loves it, and is even said to write the lyrics to the accompanying songs himself (all too believable, as they invariably have the hollow ring of the boss’s jokes). Even if this spot gets pulled, it will have achieved its goal through notoriety.

Most commentators (particularly foreign ones) look for the artistic expression of the Greek crisis in the political graffiti and the lyrical street murals of the counter-culture. I sometimes think the Jumbo ads say so much more about who we are and how we ended up here. A rich, multi-layered trove of contemporary Greek cultural references. But totally unsuitable for children. As are the products that they sell.

*τζάμπα λαός (tzámba meaning free, as in gratis, but by extension worthless, wasted; laós meaning nation, people).

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Jumbo nation*

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