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'Poppy bling' too much of a good thing?

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
Harry Potter star Emma Watson at Thursday's World Premiere of "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows" in London.
Harry Potter star Emma Watson at Thursday's World Premiere of "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows" in London.
  • Traditional paper poppies given glitzy-spin with crystals, gems
  • "Poppy bling" worn by celebrities to raise awareness with younger crowd
  • November 11 marks Armistice Day in the UK and around the world
  • Campaign criticized by some for being too "showbiz"

London, England (CNN) -- When the cast of the latest Harry Potter film walked the red carpet for Thursday's London premiere, they were accompanied by a special accessory: "Poppy bling."

That is the name given by the British media to the souped-up version of the traditional paper poppy worn as a tribute to fallen and injured soldiers every year around Armistice Day on November 11.

In the last two weeks, flowers studded with Swarovski crystals and gems have also made it onto the lapels, waistbands and wrists of stars of the country's biggest prime time TV hits, "X-Factor" and "Strictly Come Dancing."

It is high-profile product placement more traditionally associated with the world's biggest brands, and a deliberate strategy of the Royal British Legion to target a younger crowd.

"These are the most high-profile entertainment platforms in the UK today and by having the poppy prominently displayed on those programs we're appealing to younger people who perhaps aren't aware of the significance of the poppy who now begin to question what it's all about and whether they should wear one," said Robert Lee of the Royal British Legion.

I don't mind what a poppy looks like -- the glitzier the better.
--James O'Hare, poppy seller

This year's campaign was launched two weeks ago with a concert by British girl band, The Saturdays. The group sang again Thursday in London's Trafalgar Square before the traditional two minutes' silence.

The glitzy approach to this year's appeal has disturbed some former servicemen. On Friday, six signed a letter to British newspaper The Guardian complaining that this year's Poppy Appeal "was once again subverting Armistice Day."

"A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars. This year's campaign has been launched with showbiz hype. The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored," they wrote.

The British Legion is unapologetic about its shift in emphasis to the younger generation, saying it anticipated some criticism from older, more traditional supporters.

"Of course we wouldn't say we've subverted the Poppy Appeal at all. What we're doing is contemporizing it and making it appeal to a new generation of supporter," Lee said.

He added: "The people who are being injured in Afghanistan today are not 70 years old, they're 17 to 22 years old and it's the younger generation who is going to have the obligation to care for them for many decades to come."

Lucy Noakes, a cultural and social historian at Brighton University, says the emphasis on the younger generation represents a shift back in time to the original UK Poppy Day.

In Flanders' fields the poppies blow; Between the crosses, row on row
--John McCrae

"Until really recently we've associated Poppy Day with past wars and with old men but if you think back to the origins of Poppy Day in the 1920s it was about young men. It was young men who were being killed, it was young men who were being injured, young men who were being lost in the First World War. So in some ways what's happening today is nothing new. It's going back because we're unfortunately involved in yet another war," she said.

For poppy seller James O'Hare it makes no difference who buys the poppies, as long as they sell.

"Anything that sells poppies is a good thing. I don't mind what a poppy looks like -- the glitzier the better. If they spend more money for that, thank you," he said.

O'Hare has been selling poppies in central London for 16 years. He described sales at Oxford Circus Tube station Thursday morning as "brisk, very busy," and his customers as "all ages."

He paused when asked if he had ever heard of The Saturdays. "No, I haven't. I didn't see it -- I was too busy getting my tins ready," he said.

Poppy-wearing began in the UK in 1921, one year after the flower was named the national emblem of Remembrance in the U.S., according to the Royal British Legion. Poppies are also worn in other countries including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The idea of a poppy as a symbol of remembrance was inspired by a poem by John McCrae, a doctor who served with the Canadian Armed Forces in the Flanders and Picardy regions of Northern France during World War I.

He wrote:
In Flanders' fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below

One line in a poem has now become a multi-million pound money-spinner in the UK.

This year the Poppy Appeal aims to raise £36 million ($58 million) through the sale of around 45 million poppies, to beat last year's record £35 million ($56 million).

The poppies sell for an average of £1 ($1.60) each. Just £10,000 ($16,000) is expected to be made through the sale of merchandise including poppy jute bags, air fresheners, bath oils, umbrellas, T-shirts, scarves and ties.

The "poppy bling" was made by jewelry designers Kleshna on commission by the British Legion and range in value from £10 ($16) to £180 ($290).

The British Legion's campaign to make them a must-have item for a new generation seems to be working. According to Robert Lee, it was the cast of Harry Potter who approached the organization for the gem-encrusted pieces.

Lee had this advice for the new generation who was considering wearing the poppy for the first time: "The right time to wear a poppy is when you feel like it. The right way to wear one is with pride."