Today is Thanksgiving, and that means turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, football, family and friends. It also means that tomorrow is the official start of the Christmas season – although some jumped the gun (“a wag of my finger” to any business who has had their Christmas decorations up and holiday music playing for the last few weeks). It also marks the annual return of what I believe to be effective nostalgic advertising — whether it’s the ever-present Coca-Cola Polar Bears (more here, here, here, here), the rash of "Home for the Holidays" commercials, or the idyllic carriage rides (one more).
Now, the question is, what do these commercials really do? None of them have much to do with the products being sold, but for whatever reason, those darn polar bears make me want to drink a Coca-Cola (which I do about twice a year). I think the answer is the mental associations that these types of advertisements create. To me, branding and trademarks are all about generating positive associations. We can’t help but draw a positive association with each of these particular brands because of positive associations we already have with the images in these commercials. They make us think of, and almost yearn for, this particular time of year when everyone and everything seems to be better. There’s no more fitting example than the last Coca-Cola commercial above. When a seal pokes its head above the water, the polar bears give it a Coke, rather than (warning — Thanksgiving pun coming) gobbling it up for a tasty snack.
While some people may have a problem with these commercial giants wedging their way into our holidays by tugging on our "ahhhhhhhh" strings, I don’t necessarily. I see these particular advertisements as a polite addition to the merriment of the season. They’re not force-feeding us. They’re simply saying, "We know you’re enjoying the holidays, but while you’re at it, why not think of us." This brings me back to those who got a wag of my finger in paragraph one. I guess I can understand the thought process: people spend more around the holidays; if you bring the holidays sooner, people start spending sooner. But, when I hear Christmas music in a department store the day after Halloween, it has two effects on me. First, it gives me a strong negative association with that particular retailer. And second, it begins to dilute the positive association that I have with the holidays and advertisers generally. Rather than envisioning the retailers and businesses as polar bears wanting to share a Coke because it’s the giving time of year, I see retailers wanting to share a Coke to lure me in and finish off the kill.
The holidays are almost like The Goose That Lays the Golden Egg. They can provide much needed boost, but I think it needs to be approached cautiously. The "holiday spirit" isn’t something to be created. Rather, it’s something to be harnessed. Happy Thanksgiving!