Overpriced gifts, over-stressed bill payers and over-indulgence do not a merry Christmas make, writes Pete Martin
Did you sit there on Christmas Day, knee-deep in ripped, crumpled wrapping paper? For a fleeting moment, your heart may have felt as empty as your wallet. Then, with the snap of a mint thin, it’s on with the jollity before you could even begin to wonder: “Well, how did I get here?”
For sure, Santa’s sleigh did not carry you to this crisis of consumerism. You were not dragged round the shops by Prancer, Dancer, Dasher, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner und Blitzen. Even “the baby cheeses meek n mild” never asked anyone to clutter up our lives with the most carefully price-pointed, socially-acceptable gifts which an emerging markets sweatshop can produce.
So what strange forces impel us to behave in a most peculiar way for 21st century human beings?
Did your economic actions make someone cut down a lovely living tree, so you could bring it indoors, festoon it with baubles and artificial lights, and watch it die in your centrally-heated home? Did you really want to splurge on the blandest, over-priced, bird-based foodstuff and gorge yourself on brussels sprouts? Surely, it would be better to sit down to a plate of chipolata sausages wrapped in bacon, aka “pigs in blankets” – since they’re the only Christmas fare the average human carnivore truly enjoys?
So, here’s the perfect post-Christmas moment to contemplate the folly of the season to be jolly – derived from jól, the Old Norse word for Yule. It’s so deeply embedded in our culture we can’t see its confusions. Were the past few days a religious event? Was it party-time? Or a financial nightmare? For most, it’s probably somewhere between a holiday celebration and a chance to express fellow-feeling.
If that were all there were to it, Christmas would need no more than us sharing a festive jug and a manly hug. But you can see the cultural forces ranged against such a modest proposal. Who wants to be a Scrooge, a Grinch, a killjoy?
Yet, we’re dimly aware of the absurdity of expressing our love for our children through consumer electronics. Of course, we wish to give a gift that’s relevant to the recipient, something they desire and will cherish. But giving an item with the right perceived value, that’s what we stress about.
Why? Because the price of love is linked to some very basic human drives.
In pre-historic winters, food was scarce and your kin were cold and dying. Today, we still protect our little tribe through generosity with food, drink and warmth, and perhaps even a pair of socks. In a similar way, we feel the need for social acceptance, for ourselves, our offspring and elderly. That’s why we fear social exclusion and why any kind of stigma is harmful for our wellbeing. For safety, we want to be welcomed by a wider social group: to be included in the gathering where symbols signal belonging, and today’s fashion labels may be the price of entry. By display of spending power, we seek status too. It’s social climbing, as well as sexual competition.
As a result, one of the human challenges in gift-giving is that our in-built value meter is wonky. Take a £3 t-shirt, add a hilarious heart-warming message and it becomes worth £25 to us; make it a designer t-shirt in a fancy store and it retails for £50. Of course, there are limits. The price of most everyday items is anchored in experience – you wouldn’t pay £50 for a bottle of ketchup because it’s festive branded. Yet, experiments with bottles of wine show how flexible, or even wobbly, our perception of value can be. Cost is one of the quick, easy ways we judge quality. So, when people are shown the same wine with different prices, they believe the bottle with the higher sticker is better. Stranger still, when sold the same wine at a higher price, they actually enjoy it more.
Considering the deep irrationality of Yuletide, it’s tempting to blame capitalism since that saves us from blaming ourselves.
Year after year, the first signs of Christmas commerciality seem to appear earlier and earlier, as the holiday itself becomes hollower and hollower. Yet the run-up to Christmas can be a strangely quiet time in an ad agency. Clients for whom Christmas is crucial will have put their festive marketing plans to bed much earlier. Indeed, the more important the festive sales period and the bigger, more professional the marketing organisation, the earlier they will sort out their Christmas season. M&S like to have all of their Christmas ideas wrapped up by April; John Lewis shot their snowman TV ad in July.
But, surely, there’s no-one dumb enough in this country, never mind in the Cabinet, to believe that retail is the real answer to our economic woes. It must take more than an animated snowman on TV, a few plastic decorations in the shopping mall and Noddy Holder yelling “It’s Chriiiiiiistmaaaaaas!” everywhere to make us rush like lemmings over a personal fiscal cliff once a year.
But for some brands selling to you is not even half the battle. There are products – for example, single malt Scotch whisky – which rely heavily on the Christmas gift market, shifting as much as half their entire year’s sales in a single month. Their main challenge is supermarket distribution, followed swiftly by discounting.
Nowadays, supermarkets exert almost total control over the food and beverages which get into your home. The problem for producers is that there is only so much space on a supermarket shelf.
Let’s say the store only commits enough “facings” for ten different makes of malt whisky. A couple of well-known names will be a shoo-in, especially if they are linked to other big booze brands. For the also-rans, it’s a question of “deal or no deal”. Only those willing to offer deep discounts and invest in advertising get to play. It looks like a lovely bargain to you – but it’s always a kick in the Christmas walnuts for the producer.
So, it’s not just you who finds Christmas stressful and economically unviable. Christmas sucks so much money out of the economy in so many useless ways that it’s debatable whether the season of goodwill is any good for any of us.
In the early 1990s, Yale University economist Joel Waldfogel argued that Christmas is economically unproductive. He reckoned that playing Santa makes our spending 10-30 per cent less efficient. First, we overpay for goods at Christmas because it’s a time-limited occasion that’s overladen with social meaning. Second, we often pay good money for gifts which our friends and family would not buy for themselves, or pay what we paid. So, if the average Scots household spends almost £1,000 on Christmas – including around £200 on food and drink – that’s up to £600 million “wasted”… ho ho ho.
It’s no laughing matter though. Times have changed since the original mid-winter solstice festival. We may have stopped smearing blood all over the temple walls, but for many people the financial impact can be just as gory. We’re often spending money we don’t have, on things we don’t need. If we were merely giving each other a lovely tin of Borders Ginger Chocolate Biscuits or a crate of Williams Brothers beer, we would at least be contributing to Scottish employment and business development. As it is, Christmas may come but once a year, but arrives by the containerload from the Far East. It’s the ultimate “no return” retail policy.
So, in Scotland, can we keep the spirit of the season alive, and find new, more rational ways to celebrate? Without a hint of humbug, I hope so. Remember, there are only 362 shopping days left till Christmas. • Pete Martin is creative director at ad agency The Gate Worldwide