Christmas Advertisements

You may cringe at the idea that Christmas advertisements are a legit Christmas tradition. But they’re undeniably part of the atmosphere of the season…and have an interesting history behind them.

image of A Kodak Christmas Ad from 1900
A Kodak Christmas Ad from 1900

Fun links

  • Genuine Chit Chat: In this episode we hear from Mike, host of Genuine Chit Chat. Check him out on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts
  • Christmas in America: The book by Penne Restadt, the expert guest in this episode

Music from this episode

Episode transcript

Brian’s brother 0:06

Brian Earl 0:06
laser tag that’s the one I was thinking of there. Because I don’t think any of us had the Ruxpin.

Brian’s brother 0:11
No, no, we didn’t have laser tag either

Brian Earl 0:14
didn’t we?

Brian’s brother 0:15
No, I always I always wanted it.

Brian Earl 0:18
My brother Chris and I are taking a little stroll down memory lane. We grew up in New England mainly during the 80s. The best decade to be a kid at Christmas. The best decade period if you ask me. Rubik’s cubes and et and Star Wars and Teddy Ruxpin and he-man and Pac Man Atari, Michael Jackson and transformers. I mean, seriously, I feel sorry for anyone who wasn’t decayed during the 80s. It was to use an 80s phrase, totally awesome. And the Christmas season would kick off every year with the arrival of those thick, glossy paper catalogs from Sears and Service Merchandise. We doggy are the corners of pages that displayed Ewok villages, magic tricks sets, remote control racecars and robots. We’d stare and dream and drop not so subtle hints to our parents. It was just as much a part of celebrating the season as trimming the tree, hanging stockings and making cookies. Now you may wince at the idea that advertising is a proper Christmas tradition. With Christmas being as commercial as it is, a lot of people see them as an unwelcome distraction from the true meaning of the season. But I can’t deny it. I have very many fond memories of the christmas tv commercials and print advertisements that I grew up on. And whenever I’m in the mood for a quick dose of nostalgia, and that’s pretty often this time of year. I love watching those old commercials. There’s a ton of them available on YouTube. And I’ll bet you’ve got one or two favorites of your own. For better or worse, Christmas advertising is part of the season. And it’s here to stay. But how it got here in the first place. That’s the part I find interesting. It’s part of an interconnected web of economic and cultural and technological forces coming together around the same time. And as with so many of the customers that are part of the Christmas season, we can thank the Brits for it. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas past.

Brian Earl 2:29
We’ve already touched on Christmas advertising on the show. Last year, we talked about how the modern image of Santa was created or at least perfected by Coca Cola, and how Rudolph started out as a promotional giveaway for the Montgomery Ward department store. Those things happened around the 1930s in America. But let’s go back in time to England in the early 18th century. For most of its history, Christmas was not a gift giving holiday, or even one that had any commerce associated with it. But Around this time, there appeared one of the earliest forms of a mass medium designed to bring in money at Christmas news boys and lamplighters and watchman would print out flyers to give to their clients asking them to remember these workers during the season. At this point, gift giving was still only a small part of the Christmas celebration. If it was any part of it at all. They were mainly for children, and mostly food and small handmade items. But English merchants were starting to catch wise. In By the mid century, they were placing ads in popular magazines, targeting people shopping for children and servants. As manufacturing increased. In average incomes rose and store bought gifts became more and more socially acceptable. Christmas and commerce and the advertisement fuels it all became part of an expanding cycle of creating and fulfilling demand and cashing in. Here in America, we saw the same thing starting to happen in the mid 19th century. And I touched on this last year in the episode about wrapping paper, store bought gifts and Christmas trees were just recently becoming a normal part of the Christmas season. In general, we were producing more goods than we could consume. So there was a shift toward developing new markets for selling them. This would involve coming up with novel ways of cultivating desire. I wanted to know more about that idea. So I talked to Penny Rhestadt, the author of Christmas and America and an American history lecturer at the University of Texas.

Penny Restadt 4:27
the development of the department store becomes important. So one of the first ones is want to makers in Philadelphia that also fields and in Chicago and other stores. They’re built on a model of a cathedral. So if you go into watermakers even now you walk into it, it’s now a Macy’s. But you look up and it goes up for the atrium is quite high. And there’s this huge pipe organ on the second floor. And the idea was to get women to come into this space. And there are all sorts of glass cabinets and good lighting. And it just kind of presented things as being beautiful.

Brian Earl 5:10
By the late 19th century, there was a growing middle class printing was very inexpensive and manufacturing capabilities had skyrocketed. It was the perfect mix of conditions for advertising in general, and for Christmas in particular, to take off. And these things have a way of taking on a life of their own. For example, due to increased advertising and manufacturing, more people were buying toys. The demand was so high that more and more toy stores started to pop up, which of course, would rely on Christmas sales to stay afloat, which in turn meant they’d advertise at Christmas. But not all advertising came in the form of flyers or magazine ads or posters. Merchants would create storefront displays to attract attention from passers by Macy’s in New York had a special Christmas window since it opened in 1858.

Penny Restadt 6:00
And as that window dressing came along, becomes more of a design task. Now that passer by going down Fifth Street in New York City goes, Oh, look at that, and you can’t touch things. But it does create this world of fantasy and desire that is out of reach. But I’m really keen on this idea of advertisers creating desire, so it’s not necessarily having the thing. But it’s that anticipation, which is also what Christmases,

Brian Earl 6:31
none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the widespread availability of plate glass starting in the 19th century. Displays at stores like Macy’s and Wannamakers, attracted people by the hundreds of thousands of stores competed to outdo each other. Getting back to the idea of print ads, things really started to take off after the Civil War. By the 1890s, they were a nationwide phenomenon, fueled in part by the fact that some periodicals were circulating nationwide now. This was all new, but it gave advertisers a much wider reach. And for the first time, the public was seeing standardized Christmas images. By the turn of the 19th century, the transformation was complete. Christmas was the biggest marketing season of the year.

And yes, nowadays, the ads really do seem to start earlier and earlier each year. For years, I was told that it only seems that way that advertisers and retailers generally started putting Christmas stuff out right after Halloween. And the catalogs would start arriving around that same time. But I’ve seen Christmas merchandise in some stores in the late summer. Maybe that doesn’t count as advertising and the way we normally think about it, but still, but no matter how early or late it starts, there’s no denying that Christmas ads are part of the overall atmosphere of the Christmas season. I love the atmosphere of the Christmas season. And so does Michael Burton in England

Michael in England 7:58
with Christmas woven really feeling recently is the atmosphere of all that the whole atmosphere of Christmas is just it’s just beautiful. You know, the majority of people are actually off work. And it’s just great. Everyone around just everyone’s a bit more chilled out. You know, there’s almost the magic in the air that people always say, you know, and Christmas for me I’d say is just all about a time about togetherness you really need to spend time with your family. I mean people that you love as a family, people who make you feel something make you feel loved. You know, a lot of hugs, hugs are always good. You know, whether you listen to this at Christmas or not give people hugs, not random strangers in the street that you’ll not be very funny to watch. I don’t think many people would appreciate you randomly or like no warning at all coming up to them, hugging them, but, you know, tell people that you love them, you know, things like that. I think to me, that’s really what Christmas is about is the atmosphere, the love and just togetherness. Have a great time. really enjoy this Christmas with yourself and people you love.

Brian Earl 8:51
Michael is the host of a podcast called genuine chit chat, which features honest conversations with interesting people. Check him out wherever you get your podcasts and hey, if you happen to see him on the street, give him a hug. Tell him I said it was okay. Well, now it’s your turn. What do you love about the season? What are your plans this year? What’s your favorite Christmas commercial of all time? I want to share your thoughts on Christmas, whatever they may be right here on the show. record a voice memo on your phone and send it to Christmas pass Okay, before we close this episode out, I have a programming note for the season. And then I have a little request for you. First, the programming note, I just want to let you know that this season. I’ll be delivering two episodes per week. They’re going to arrive on Mondays and Thursdays. This is the first episode of the season and it’s arriving on a Thursday, thanksgiving Thursday. And by the way, Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you had a great day. And I hope you’re as excited as I am that the holiday season is now officially on. So that means the next episode is going to arrive on Monday. Now the best way to make sure that you don’t miss any episode. So is of course to subscribe to the podcast, you can find Christmas passed on most major apps and platforms like iTunes, Google Play, you name it. And now I have a little request for you. You see, you’re a sophisticated person because you listen to podcasts. And I mean that most of the survey data show us that most people do not listen to podcasts or even know how to find one. But at the same time, I get your tweets and emails all throughout the year telling me that Christmas podcasts are part of what you look forward to about the season in the same way that you look forward to Christmas songs and Christmas movies. So if you know someone who might like to listen to a Christmas podcast, it would be great if you could tell them about it, but it would be even better if you could help them download one. Show them where to find podcasts and show them how to subscribe. It’s easy to forget that most people don’t know how to do these things. You can think of it as your way of helping to spread some Christmas cheer. And I’d sure appreciate it. Okay, now let me tell you that Christmas Past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian Earl. Thanks to Penny rheostat Michael Burton, and my brother Chris, search for Christmas Past podcast on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to follow along and find more info about the show at Christmas Past And you can drop me a line anytime at Christmas Past and I reply to every message I get and if you like what you hear, I’d love it. If you could tell a friend or leave a rating and review these things help the show a lot more than you might think. Thanks for listening and I’ll see you next time.