There Are No Real Winners in War on Christmas

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

News from the frontlines in the War on Christmas this year shows that the American Family Association, representing the word "Christmas," has claimed a decisive victory on the marketing front.

Randy Sharp, director-special projects at the AFA, said that in the past five years the group has seen the percentage of retailers recognizing Christmas in their advertising rise from 20% to 80%. Struggling to find big, national retailers on which to focus its efforts -- or ones that might listen at any rate -- the group settled on Dick's Sporting Goods. It's sin? Hosting a "Holiday Shop" on its website. Within a week of the AFA announcing it was targeting Dick's, the retailer gave in.

Though its protests and boycotts verge on bullying and don't sit well with us, the AFA has a point. This is, first and foremost, the Christmas season. The overwhelming majority of those hitting the stores in late November and early December are folks shopping for Christmas. Retailers shouldn't be afraid or ashamed to call a Christmas sale a Christmas sale -- especially if the entire store is decked out in overt Christmas imagery.

So how did "Holiday" briefly usurp Christmas?

To hear outraged pro-Christmas forces tell it, it was a craven show of politically correct thinking by marketers afraid to offend non-Christians with overt religious imagery. Never mind that we can't actually recall Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians or others demanding that Christmas be replaced with holiday.

We'd bet on a mix of two other options. One is that marketers -- especially those in urban areas with more multicultural populations -- simply wanted to be seen as inclusive. They weren't excluding Christians, they were simply trying to be polite. The other, more cynical explanation, is that they simply wanted to rope more consumers into buying. After all, why settle for Christians buying Christmas presents when you might be able to elevate Hannukah into a major occasion for Jews? So what if it isn't one of the High Holy Days -- its proximity to Christmas makes for convenient marketing. Add in Kwanzaa, and you've got a holiday season.

Whatever the reason for the switch to holiday, certain Christian groups weren't happy about it. For its part, the AFA said it wasn't offended by inclusion -- say Happy Hannukah all you want -- but by the generic use of the word "holiday." Its stance is that retailers should not profit from Christmas if they refuse to clearly acknowledge it.

So the troops were mustered.

The "extreme backlash" to generic holiday messaging likely caught retailers off-guard, said Ellen Davis, a VP at the National Retail Federation. Now, phrasing around the holidays is much more strategic. "At this point, it's a conscious decision. It's not just whimsical phrases being tossed around in the marketing department," she said.

We'd say that it's a shame that the holiday -- er, Christmas -- spirit has to be reduced to careful examination in the C-Suite, but let's be honest: This is marketing. Considering these programs break during the most crucial buying time of the year for retailers, execs should be choosing their words carefully.

Ironically, the AFA in winning this battle may be losing a wider war. By browbeating retailers into replacing Holiday with Christmas, they can be seen as contributing to the crass commercialization of a religious celebration. This is something many faithful Christians have been concerned about for decades now, watching as one of their holiest days has its soul replaced with blinking lights, ringing cash registers and Santa Claus.

Put the Christ back in Christmas is their refrain. Efforts by the AFA and others have done little more than put the Walmart back in Christmas.

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