Marketing Has Destroyed the Holidays. This is Our Apology.

On behalf of the entire marketing industry: we’re sorry.

We’re sorry that commercialism has stripped so much meaning from the holiday season. We’re sorry that you’ve been getting pummeled by the big corporate holiday spirit since September. We’re sorry that special offers and one-day-only sales and ads upon ads upon ads are diluting a season that was once so focused on family and togetherness.

We’re sorry.

We know that a vast majority of marketing professionals don’t see the harm in all this, but we do. We know that the holiday marketing push will continue to start earlier and earlier, and you will feel pressure to buy more, and spend more, and more, and more. And yes, it’s true that the holiday season has always been rooted in commercialism, but a certain Shakespeare quote comes to mind: He whoso hath too much of any good, of that same good he shall soon be bereft.

Well, sorry to say, but we’re bereft AF…

a brief history of holiday marketing

Not to get too Scrooge-y on you, but just to paint a picture of how marketing has systematically dismantled the holiday season, let’s take a quick jaunt down memory lane.

Christmas wasn’t celebrated in the United States until about 1840, when German immigrants introduced the holiday in the Northeast. In fact, prior to 1840, the celebration of Christmas had been outlawed in many states, since so many Americans used the holiday as an opportunity to get drunk. Some things never change, I guess…

Around that same time, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol gained popularity and personified the holiday, introducing the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present…and giving marketers an image of Christmas to really dig their Krampus-like claws into.

In the early 1900s, the proliferation of mass advertising—coupled with advancements in mass production—changed the face of the holidays forever. In the ‘20s and ‘30s, marketers—informed by new theories in consumer psychology—sold a “Christmas experience” where children were gleeful, and families were together, and all anyone needed to do to to achieve this seasonal bliss was buy this-or-that product…

As the holiday season became more standardized, popular musical artists released Christmas songs that further reinforced what Christmas was supposed to look, feel, and—now—sound like.

Major department stores started merchandising for the holiday season—artistically egregious displays that showed consumers what holiday decorations should look like, and festive catalogs smeared with images of Santa to help generate interest in their inventory of gifts.

In the booming post-World-War-II period, advertisers started targeting children for the first time.

The term “Black Friday” was coined in the ‘50s, after shoppers rushed into Philadelphia the day after Thanksgiving to do their holiday shopping, and police officers were barely able to control the chaos and shoplifting that ensued. Of course, as the “Black Friday” sensation spread across the nation over the course of the next few decades, marketers told consumers a different story about how the day came to be: so it went, Black Friday marked the day when retailers who had been operating at a loss (in the red) all year, finally started to generate a profit (in the black). But that’s just marketing bullsh*t.

As technology evolved, marketers began leveraging a wider array of media channels to hit consumers with their ads: storefronts, billboards, newspapers, radio, catalogs, TV, and—eventually—online advertising, social media, email, and more, more, more. The amount of ads that consumers are exposed to during the holiday season has grown exponentially. Some research suggests that consumers see tens of thousands of ads per day!

At some point over the last decade or two, the whole damn holiday season just became one big watered-down mess of marketing mayhem.

Black Friday sales start weeks or months in advance, and most of the advertising around it is just gimmicky garbage. We have new made-up shopping days, like Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday. Just since 2002, holiday spending has doubled in the United States, rising from $416B to $936B, all while 12% of our country’s population lives in poverty, 22% of Americans don’t have any savings, and 45% of Americans would not be able to cover a surprise $1,000 expense.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen prices rise dramatically on the basic necessities we need to survive—food, fuel, shelter, etc.—and fewer Americans than ever are reporting that they are able to live comfortably, never mind contribute to savings or retirement.

The problem is that marketers are just turning a blind eye to all of this. Ho ho ho, happy holidays, buy this thing (but for more money than usual, because our executives need bigger bonuses and we don’t really care about your well-being as a human).

Can we get a little sensitivity, please? We don’t want to believe that there is no morality left in marketing, but—more than ever—it seems that’s the case.

**Puts soapbox away**

how to be part of the solution (and NOT part of the problem)

Especially for retailers, foregoing a holiday marketing program in the name of morality isn’t really a viable option. However, there is a way to be sensitive to the financial stress that most Americans are experiencing, without sacrificing your seasonal sales.

It’s all about striking a balance, right?


make your special offer truly special

Years ago, I worked with a client who offered holiday shoppers a free $20 gift card with the purchase of a $100 gift card. What a great promotion. The $20 gift card was a real, actual gift card that could be redeemed on any product or service, anytime.

Then the next year, they changed it to a free $20 gift voucher. They added an expiration date, and changed the fine print so the voucher could only be used on services costing $100 or more. They printed it on business card stock, instead of loading the balance onto a real plastic gift card.

The next year, the voucher was only valid on services costing $150 or more. And they wondered why they weren’t selling as many gift cards as they had been in the past.

The lesson here is: make sure your promotional offer is valuable. Don’t wrap it up in fine print and make it impossible to redeem. The goal is to truly help shoppers stretch their holiday budgets further—or maybe even leave them with a little budgetary leeway to treat themselves to a little somethin’-somethin’. Maybe you won’t make quite as much money, but you’ll still make some money… while also making someone else’s holiday season all the more merry.


express sincere gratitude

One of the greatest gifts you can give is a sincere expression of gratitude. This could be as simple as sending a handwritten note to your most loyal customers, or as complex as hosting a customer loyalty event with wine and hors d’oeuvres and swag bags—or something right in the middle, like offering an extra discount or extra special promotional offer.

A quick piece of advice: sending a simple pre-printed holiday card is fine for the masses, but for your most loyal customers, take the time to write a personal note by hand. This will go a long way.


Give back in a meaningful way

The holiday season is rife with opportunities to give back. Getting involved in a philanthropic mission can bring depth and meaning back to the season. Making a donation is simple, and there is no shortage of charities to give to. However, there are other ways to make a difference during the holiday season:

  • Donate a portion of proceeds to a relevant charity: you can limit this to the sale of specific products, or include all sales
  • Host your own fundraiser: have customers bring in food donations for a food pantry, or gifts for local families in need
  • Volunteer in the community: pick a cause and set a date to get your whole team together for a paid day of volunteerism

practicing what we preach

Birdhouse Marketing & Design may be in the minority, but we strive to be the change we want to see in the world. We help our clients communicate authentically, keeping the spirit of the season at the core of their holiday marketing strategy.

If you want gimmicks and ploys, we’re not your people. If you want to genuinely add joy to the holiday season, we can help you with that.

You May Also Like…

Beyond the Bouquet: Unconventional (Yet Successful) Valentine’s Day Marketing Campaigns

This Valentine’s season, we’re ditching the heart-shaped clichés. Instead, we want to explore some Valentine’s Day marketing campaigns that went beyond roses and chocolates to fully capture the hearts—and wallets—of their audiences. Like life, Valentine’s Day marketing is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get. From Tyson Foods’ quirky “Chicken Nugget Bouquet Contest” to zoos naming cockroaches after exes to 1-800-Flowers’ “Galentine’s Day” marketing campaign, which promotes February 13th as a day to celebrate friendship, we’re diving into the most unconventional, laugh-out-loud marketing strategies that redefined the V-Day marketing game. These campaigns prove that Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be all about romance…

TotalBoat-aly Awesome: Influencer Marketing Done Right

My partner is a social media influencer. He documented the process of building the 38’ wooden sailboat we now call home, from stump to ship. He cut the trees, milled the lumber, collected scrap lead to melt down for the ballast keel, and handcrafted every. single. inch. of our floating abode. In the process of doing so, he picked up a cool 180K subscribers on YouTube, and now makes a living running his channel, Acorn to Arabella: Journey of a Wooden Boat. In terms of influencer marketing, I’ve seen what works, and I’ve seen what doesn’t…

Written by Robin Agricola

Robin is the founder and CEO of Birdhouse Marketing & Design. She holds an MBA with a focus in Marketing from UMass Boston, as well as undergraduate degrees in Marketing Communications and Creative Writing from Emerson College. She founded Birdhouse Marketing & Design, LLC in 2012, and the rest is history.

November 17, 2023

If You Liked This Article, We've Got Great News for You

We have so much more where this came from! Subscribe to our email list for marketing tips, tricks, and advice—straight from our experts to your inbox.

You've successfully subscribed to our email list!