From the 12 Days of Christmas to a multi-billion dollar windfall.
For time in eternity, Christmas has been sold to us as the most magical time of the year. For some, it’s the memory of our father’s painstaking efforts to create something resembling the paws of a reindeer on the deck, or the waft of mother’s gingerbread baking in the oven; or perhaps the tradition of reading The Night Before Christmas before bedtime on Christmas Eve.
But once we grow up, the feelings usually associated with Christmas become very different. Simple childhood delight gives way to feelings of stress and anxiety, and the sense of being overwhelmed by the constant and relentless pressure to buy, buy, buy!
So the question has to be asked, at what point did a really nice story become consumerism out of control? And, why is it that we’ve become incapable of getting off the bandwagon?
Enter consumer behaviour 101 …
Globally, the advertising industry has created a multi billion dollar revenue stream around ‘selling Christmas,’ through creating needs we didn’t know we had and then offering solutions we didn’t know we needed. The release of annual Christmas-themed television ads with production budgets larger than the royal wedding, the multiplicity of ‘Get Christmas sorted’ brochures, special edition magazines etc. are all designed to sell to us the concept of what a perfect Christmas looks like and create an implicit guilt if we don’t buy-in. The quintessential notion of Santa dusted in snow with a sac full of candy, a rag doll or a wooden train, topped off with an orange and bottle of coke, has given way to jet skis, the latest iphone, a SMART TV or five nights in a luxury resort.
There are three drivers central to the bid to sell Christmas – Pressure, Emotional Manipulation, and Tradition. Without these key drivers Christmas may just pass as it was once intended to – an intimate family affair with very little impact from the outside world – however, when combined they create a whirlwind of fantasy and coercion that ensure people engage with the ideal Christmas (according to the gospel of optimal consumerism).
Starting immediately after Black Friday, the Christmas decorations go up, Christmas advertisements are released to thousands of likes on social media, and the countdown to Christmas has begun. From then on we are bombarded with messaging about the perfect gift for Christmas, the perfect make-up look for an effortless Christmas appearance, even the perfect outfit for your dog to wear in their family Christmas photo. All of these things are designed to create a sense of urgency and to pressure you into purchases in order to achieve the unattainable. And then suddenly it goes from ‘what I need to do’ to ‘how do I compare’ – and voilà – Christmas has now become a competition!
Every piece of advertising produced around Christmas time, down to the Christmas decorations in shop windows and the incessant noise of Snoopy’s Christmas on repeat play, is designed to manipulate our emotions – to make us feel festive, and then lure us into heightened buying behaviours. In recent years annual Christmas advertisements from large conglomerations such as Coke or John Lewis have been hugely popular. Featuring cute pets, a beautiful love story, or a wistful old man, they are crafted to elicit an emotional response from us which then positions these companies and their products front and centre in our view of what Christmas must be.
Perhaps the company who best exemplifies their influence over Christmas is Coca Cola. Since the 1920’s when an a department store advertisement depicted a red Santa drinking a bottle of coke, Coca Cola has been heavily intertwined with Western Christmases. From sponsoring Christmas in the Park, to creating the very image of what Santa looks like today they have huge influence over our Christmas traditions – if you’ve ever wondered how the bottle of coke ever became a thing at the bottom of every child’s Christmas stocking, well now you know! Coke is perhaps the smartest example of advertising over the 20th and 21st centuries.
The question still remains though, why do we repeatedly engage with all this hype around Christmas despite being able to rationalise what’s actually going on?
It is basic psychology that what we grow up with and what we are presented with almost inexhaustibly will shape our view of the world. What Christmas means to us, the big family affair, the beautifully decorated tree and wrapped presents, and the jolly red Santa that visits our children each year are the ‘joys’ we have been skillfully and deliberately trained to want and will go to great ends to achieve.
No matter how stressful or expensive Christmas is, we’ll still sit around amongst unwrapped presents on the 25th of December and celebrate, while the advertising agencies count their Christmas bonuses and companies add up their profit, congratulating themselves on a job well done.