Saturday, December 1, 2012

Marketing the Christmas Spirit

Every year, several of the residence halls at my college decorate their suites and hallways according to a certain theme, usually pretty elaborately. And every year, my brilliant theme idea gets rejected: A Cynical Christmas.

In the first suite, we would have a shopping mall filled with flashy, neon advertisements and cranky people fighting over the last Furby (heaven help us all that this trend has returned). In the second room, we would have a war-torn ghetto with a waif-like freshman huddled under old newspapers with headlines of death and destruction on them. Happy 50s Christmas music would be playing ironically in the background. Then we’d have a hospital wing—complete with holiday Jell-o—and finally, a nursing home where everyone would forget what they were supposed to be celebrating.

Fun, right?

Actually, I understand why most people wouldn’t enjoy this theme. Besides poking fun at the genuine suffering of others, it’s a bit too…cynical. Sometimes, though, that’s just how I relate to the world. Fortunately, I have two separate cynics inside of me, and sometimes when they duke it out on a particular issue, the idealist cynic wins.

Not sure how that works? Allow me to demonstrate.

Let’s take the topic of “Christmas spirit.” It’s in almost every holiday special, but sometimes it’s hard to define in real-life terms. Do people really become more joyful in December? Are they really more likely to say smile at strangers, drop money in the Salvation Army bucket, and compliment young moms on their adorable children like some sort of picture print by Currier and Ives? Do people really feel anything like peace on earth or goodwill to men when most of them think of Jesus as that plastic baby in a nativity scene?

The first cynic in me wants to say, “No.”

But I have a counter-cynic who argues with this first-reaction cynic and says, “Maybe.” The evidence? Not the touchy-feely stories on the news about someone adopting a kitten from the animal shelter on Christmas Eve or whatever. Not statistics (because even the counter-cynic knows that statistics can be completely made up). Not the frantic shopping rush that we pass off under the sneaky label of “generosity.”

The biggest proof, to me anyway, that people are less selfish at Christmastime is that marketers have to change their strategy in December. If you don’t believe me, watch the top ten Superbowl commercials. Then watch the top ten Christmas…sorry, I mean holiday commercials.

During eleven months of the year, advertisers can make blatant appeals to our selfish sinful nature. Why buy Doritos, shampoo, or beer? Because people will like you better, your appearance will improve, and you’ll be happier. At least, that’s what you can infer from the amount of beautiful, likeable, happy people using said product.

But around this time of year, things change in a pretty noticeable way. Instead of subtly saying the “good life” involves sex, popularity, and being 20 pounds underweight, these commercials say the “good life” involves family, togetherness, and childlike faith.

First-reaction cynic responds to this with, “They’re using emotionally loaded concepts like family and generosity to sell stuff. The commercials are more sappy than heartwarming. And the childlike faith is in a fat old man who gives presents. How is that okay?”

My counter-cynic replies, “Because it’s progress.” My view of human nature is low enough that any movement toward things that are good and true is worth celebrating. The sentimental feelings around Christmas wander into much more Christian territory than the blatantly self-centered motivation for buying products that dominates every other time of the year.

We’re caring about the right things for the wrong reasons, sure. But something in us still knows what the right things are. Christmas commercials show them: doing good deeds to random strangers, caring more about the person than the present they bring, thanking the military who sacrifice for us, enjoying the beauty of nature, making good food and eating it together. We don’t always act like those things are good. But in December, we do, and marketers know it.

In my mind, at least, it’s like Satan has to compromise just a little: to get us focused on materialism again, he has to motivate that materialism with values he borrows from God. That’s the only way he can sneak it by us at this time of year, because we’re thinking more about things that matter.

Obviously, the best thing to do would be to embrace the values without accepting the fast-paced commercialism of the season. Most people won’t do this. Marketers know that. Both of my cynics know that.

But the counter-cynic, the idealist cynic who has to deal with reality but doesn’t have to like it, hopes that I can do this, even if it’s just in little ways, that I can enjoy some of those sappy clich├ęs of Christmas without being consumed by stress or greed.

And that I can resist the urge to go buy a product just because its spokesperson was a cute child in footie pajamas.

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