- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

Santa Claus has been largely kicked to the curb in advertising this year, the victim of design trends and the de-Christmas-ization of holiday shopping.

Santa’s trendier relative, the snowflake, is the star of holiday marketing this year. Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy and Home Depot, among others have centered at least some of their advertising art around snowflakes.

“Some of this is probably a reaction to what happened last year about people being sensitive,” said Mike Gatti, executive director of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, a division of the National Retail Federation in the District. “There is more snow and trees than Santa Claus and religious symbols.”

But he added that holiday-specific advertisements may not show up until closer to Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, which starts Dec. 15.

For the past few years, retailers have faced boycotts from family and religious groups because they don’t instruct employees to say “Merry Christmas.” Retailers said they were trying to avoid offending non-Christians by saying “Happy Holidays” or leaving the decision to employees’ discretion. This year, retailers such as Wal-Mart and Macy’s have said they’re going to use more “Merry Christmas” in advertising.

Retailers have turned to snowflakes for a variety of reasons: because they’re appropriate for the time of year, can be used longer than ads that naturally die on Dec. 26, and are not potentially offensive.

“It’s not controversial and that could be why [we’re seeing more of it], you’re just not sure,” Mr. Gatti said. “We know that the retailers have gone back to the staff and said you could say, ‘Merry Christmas.’ Why would the ads go in a different direction?”

The move toward the snowflake isn’t necessarily a slap at Santa Claus, Christmas, Hanukkah, warm weather climates or anything else.

In general, advertising can be cyclical, Mr. Gatti said. Certain colors and designs become trendy and tend to appear in a lot of advertising. This year, the snowflake is the big winner.

“All of the designers don’t copy each other,” Mr. Gatti said, “but even on the TV ads, you’re seeing a little bit of it, too — the sameness.”

Santa hasn’t lost all of his endorsement deals. He can be found in the background of some holiday guides and his Christmas tree is included in the background of several retailers’ advertisements. He still makes an occasional appearance selling M&M; candy on television and on Macy’s Web site.

At Best Buy, Santa makes an appearance in one of its commercials, but the focus of the marketing campaign is the idea of a gift.

“Certainly we acknowledge the time frame we’re in, giving gifts and the holiday season,” said Kelly Groehler, a Best Buy spokeswoman. “From a marketing standpoint, we’ve gone with ‘wrap up the wow’ — that it’s going to be a great gift.”

One major exception is Coca-Cola, which has brought Santa Claus back in force for its 75th birthday. He had largely taken a back seat during the last few years in favor of Coke’s winter polar bears, though he has always been on the company’s holiday bottles and in select advertisements, spokeswoman Susan McDermott said.

“Last year in particular, there was more focus on the polar bear and less focus on Santa,” she said. “This year, he’s all over the place.”

Santa hasn’t been on a television commercial for Coke, which is largely credited with popularizing today’s image of the jolly old man, since 2001.

But for his 75th year, Coke has put its original image of Santa — done in 1931 by Haddon Sundblom — on display at Jazz at Lincoln Center concert hall in New York.

The company is not running any holiday television commercials this year — a move a spokeswoman says is attributed to the short time span they can be played. But she says Santa isn’t going anywhere.

“Santa is an icon associated with our brand during the holiday,” Ms. McDermott said. “We have absolutely no intention of stopping that ever.”

Mr. Claus could not be reached for comment.

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