Getting what we want, when we want it, has never been so simple. While multinationals, often accused of exploiting the vulnerability of consumers, have transformed the ability to confuse the line of demarcation between desire and necessity into a real art, the participation in mass consumption increasingly assumes the connotations of a collective rite. The element that most of all has undergone the influence of consumerism, is undoubtedly the celebration of holidays, which changed from being an opportunity to pause from commercial activities, into an engine for the national economies. The commercialization of Christmas and Easter, but also the creation of ad hoc holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, have worldwide exported not only boxes of chocolates, red-nosed reindeers and pumpkin-shaped lanterns, but mainly an apparently unstoppable cultural transformation.
The driving force behind the rise in mass consumerism in Europe, as well as in the rest of the world, is largely attributable to the phenomenon of Americanization, that is the ‘manipulation of preferences‘, as defined by the economists Alberto Bisin and Jess Benhabib. For many scholars, however, the exclusive blame of the American culture is a limiting approach, since it does not take into account the receiver and its freedom to internalize and recontextualize a certain cultural model. According to the historian Richard Kuisel, for example, Americanization must be accepted as a natural historical process: after the Second World War, in fact, there has been a noticeable increase in mass consumption among Europeans who, idealizing the standard of living of Americans, wanted more comfort and a carefree life even for themselves. It is therefore the effect of the American Soft Power, or the ability to “induce others to do what you want, making them want to be like you,” as the political scientist Eric X. Li explained to the BBS Community during the Innovation Talk Soft Power is Dying – Softly.
It is commonly assumed that marketing is responsible for the consumer society and for its hedonistic lifestyle. However, this is an inaccurate and highly simplistic representation of complex dynamics: marketing does not create or invent desires, but gives them a form. In fact, materialism has been part of the human condition long before the first commercial appeared, limited only by the widespread poverty of the past. But the global economy, which supports material progress, has gradually introduced new norms to reflect broader social trends and to justify growing consumerism that would otherwise have been considered unfavorable. “The value given by society to parsimony can be in conflict with the constant drive towards consumption that feeds our economies. The legitimacy of the purchase given by the high cultural value of the festivities, especially the religious ones, goes to balance what could be perceived as unpleasant materialism,” explains Bo Cassel, professor of sociology at MidAmerica Nazarene University.
The marketing of the holidays has therefore changed the way in which the families spend the festive period and how much time they dedicate to the purely religious celebration of some events. But regardless of whether they are the product of religious traditions or the result of an intelligent advertising campaign, one element in particular links all the festivities overwhelmed by mass consumption: the ritual of the gift. The celebration of religious feasts has always contained elements of consumption and indulgence, but the habit of giving to others during the holidays dates back to the nineteenth century, when the act of giving began to define the social status and was considered sophisticated and cosmopolitan. Other celebrations are mostly corporate creations, so much so that in the United States, recurrences created mainly for commercial purposes are called Hallmark holidays, taking its name from the company that created its own empire with the sale of greeting cards and themed decorations. Festivities such as Tax Day, Grandparents’ Day and for some even Valentine’s Day are of this caliber, while the very latest Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Small Business Saturday seem to have the sole task of stimulating purchases by exploiting the attractiveness of sales.
But how does a recurrence, regardless of its origins, manage to find a place on the calendar of half the world, becoming also an indispensable economic engine? According to On Amir, Marketing professor at the University of California and consumer behavior expert, the holidays create behavioral norms, which in turn derive from our expectations. Obviously, the holidays mainly need to get a grip on consumers and their emotions, thus becoming an enormous source of income for national economies. Suffice it to say that, only in the United States, about $ 200 billion a year are spent on the 7 major holidays. Since “festive” consumerism has now taken the upper hand in many economically advanced societies, it is natural to ask whether it is a negative phenomenon or not, considering that consumers themselves actively participate in this process, transforming traditions or even importing new ones.
Christmas, which became an official holiday in the United States in 1870, has obvious and deep religious roots, but it was mainly the commercialization of American culture – through music, movies and advertising – to give it the form we know today.
The image of Santa Claus was created in 1823 in a poem by Clement Clarke Moore and the children soon begin to visit the department stores to sit in the arms of the elderly bearded man. In 1874, the Macy’s department stores began to decorate the shop windows, presenting desirable gifts to the public, while a year later Louis Prang, called the “father of the American Christmas postcard”, began printing the first greeting cards. In 1931, Coca-Cola began to use the character created by Moore in its advertising, dressing him in red and finally creating the myth of Santa Claus.
The polarity of American culture has progressively exported this new image of Christmas first in Europe and then all over the world, even in countries where the link with religion is weak or even non-existent. In Bangladesh, for example, December 25 is a national holiday even if only 0.3% of the population is Christian, while in Egypt Christmas is gaining popularity as a secular holiday. Even in China, although the roots of Christmas are little known, the celebrations made famous by the movies have arrived in large cities, where theme parties are popular and young couples are used to exchange gifts as on Valentine’s Day. In Japan, the Christmas lunch par excellence is based on fried chicken, thanks to a successful advertising campaign created by KFC in 1974, while on the streets of the main cities numerous choirs sing the ‘Ode to Joy‘ in German.
Observed in the United States and Canada, the feast of Christian origin that celebrates the pilgrims and Native Americans gathering together for the good harvest of 1621, became a national holiday in the United States as early as 1843. Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday of November until 1941, when President Roosevelt changed it on the fourth Thursday of November to take advantage of an extra week of shopping. “The official Thanksgiving date has been carefully orchestrated by leading retailers to ensure that it maximizes the number of shopping days before Christmas,” said Michael Soloman, director of the Consumer Research Center at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
The festivity of lovers has acquired romantic connotations just in the Middle Ages, while the practice of giving loved ones gifts and greeting cards began in 18th century England, when love was commemorated by writing on a card the name of the beloved person. The international fame, however, is due to another legend born and widespread in the Anglo-Saxon countries, according to which San Valentino, bishop of Terni in 197 a. D., dedicated one day of the year to a general wedding blessing.
The marketing of the holiday is mainly due to the confectionery industry and the promotional activity put in place by the florists. In Japan, for example, there is no romantic custom of couples’ dinner or exchange of small gifts, but it is completely linked to the consumption of two chocolate brands, Giri-choco and Honmei-choco. The latter are given exclusively by girls to many people, not only to their beloved. In Denmark, Valentine’s Day is celebrated with the exchange of joking cards, while in the Philippines on February 14th, pompous mass marriages are celebrated.
Motherhood has been widely celebrated throughout history, but Mother’s Day becomes an official holiday in the United States only in 1914. Father’s Day has been officialized in the United States in 1972, to complete Mother’s Day. However, its popularity was limited until the New York Associated Men’s Wear Retailers intervened to support its promotion.
For decades, Father’s Day has met resistance, both from consumers and governments, who have seen it simply as a way of trying to replicate the success of Mother’s Day. However, persistent publicity has created expectations and new rules of behavior, ultimately confirming Father’s Day as a legitimate celebration, which requires a certain ritual of gifts and expenses.
Historically, Halloween has represented the day when honoring religious figures and praying for loved ones who have passed away. Like other religious festivities that have evolved within American society, Halloween still has close ties to its historical roots, but it has also undergone significant commercialization and is an incredible internationalization supported by pop culture and Hollywood.
In Great Britain and Ireland, where the festivity originally came to life from the Celtic tradition, Halloween has traditionally been celebrated with children’s games, scary tales and carving of the turnips. The latter were lit from inside by a candle and the lanterns were exposed on the window sills to ward off evil spirits. The current use of pumpkins is a relatively modern innovation imported from the United States, as well as the bizarre tradition of “trick or treat”.
In Japan, Halloween is a purely commercial occasion, which is gaining more and more strength because it responds to the Japanese’s passion for costumes and, contrary to Valentine’s Day and Christmas, has no romantic connotations and is therefore suitable for everyone. Even in Sweden, although it has its roots in Celtic tradition, Halloween is best known for its pumpkin-shaped decorations and scary costumes. In this country, the holiday became part of public life in the 90s, finding fertile ground in a period of the year in which there are no other occurrences to break the monotony of the darkness that embraces the country. In Germany it is now 1/5 of the population to celebrate the night of the spirits and Dieter Tschom, consultant of the association of shopkeepers and self-proclaimed ‘Halloween’s father in Germany’, defines the festival as a godsend for merchants, in the hands of which it brings about 200 million euros each year.
Although Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, parades to celebrate it are now held all over the world, with no obvious explanation for why the Irish national holiday is so widely celebrated. The modern version of the festival is largely an American export, where the parades began to appear in the nineteenth century, as Irish immigrants started to assert their cultural and political presence in the society. On the other hand, in Dublin it was not possible to witness this type of celebration until the 1990s.
Today, the link with the traditional St. Patrick’s Day lies only in the green color and in the Guinness’ merchandising, while each place has transformed the rest of the celebration in a unique way. In New Orleans, for example, one of the major centers of Irish immigration, the festival is celebrated since 1809 and is characterized by a battle with vegetables. At Montserrat, a small Caribbean island, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with the ‘freedom run’, a race that commemorates the failed slave revolt in 1768. In Japan, the annual festivities are organized by the non-profit association Irish Network Japan, which brings together a group of Japanese and Irish volunteers. In 2013, the party was even celebrated in space at the International Space Station.
The Black Friday is the day dedicated to shopping for a combination of reasons. Being the first day after the last major holiday before Christmas, Thanksgiving marks the unofficial beginning of the Christmas shopping season. In addition, many employers offer their employees the day off as part of the Thanksgiving weekend.
The day after Thanksgiving has long marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, starting with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of 1924, an event used by the retailer as a live advertisement before the Christmas holidays. In their heyday in the middle of the 20th century, these parades sponsored by local or national dealers attracted huge crowds of shoppers in major cities and many smaller towns. Over time, Thanksgiving parades came to mark the unofficial start of the Christmas season. Today’s Black Friday looks a little like the chaotic pilgrimages to city centers of the first two thirds of the 20th century and is now concentrated in a handful of purchase cathedrals and in online retail.
The culture of consumption is often accused of having contributed to the disintegration of the family, values and morals. However, as the Georgetown University researcher Vincent J. Miller states, the United States remains, while retaining copyright over consumerism, one of the most religious among the developed capitalist societies in the world. Religion and traditions seem to still have an important weight for many Westerners and for those who emulate their lifestyle, with the difference that many people have allowed mass consumerism to accompany the celebrations of the holidays, rather than to cancel them.
What many forget is that large marketing and advertising companies have long been preparing for the growing anti-consumer movement. As more and more people blame mass consumerism for a wide variety of things, marketers around the world have already responded to anti-consumerism by promoting their pure, clean and simple product lines. A neutral or no-brand packaging, organic and traditional ingredients and a promotion that speaks about back to basics: this is the recipe with which the global industry is exploiting the general sentiment of consumers. By always staying a step ahead.