Last September, Kmart aired a Christmas ad 105 days before Christmas. AdAge said it was the “earliest ever kickoff to holiday marketing,” and an analyst the publication reached out to called Kmart’s extreme timing “eye-opening.” “This might give new meaning to … ‘Christmas Creep,’” another retail expert added, using a phrase coined in the '80s to refer to retailers' practice of starting holiday marketing earlier every season.
A year, it seems, is just enough time to forget exactly when Christmas ads begin to appear. Holiday marketing has reliably started at the same time for over a century, as Paul Collins has noted in Slate, so it’s really less of a creep and more of a hard line. Contrary to AdAge’s proclamation, some ads have run as early as August.
Commencing the holiday-shopping season early was originally a retail contrivance in the late Victorian era, Collins explains, but over the years, the habit became culturally ingrained thanks to the help of other movements: It’s been championed by progressives (shopping early put less strain on the labor force during the holidays, lessening the need for child labor) and the federal government (September shopping relieved the shipping bottleneck that would arise during the holidays).
Calling attention to the inching-up of holiday marketing has become a tiresome ritual. Canada’s Saskatoon Star-Phoenix reported on the gripes of British retailers in 1954, and Florida’s Evening Independent wrote in 1968 that Labor Day was earlier than ever for Christmas season to kick off. Bemoaning the encroachment of Christmas ads is just a necessary, collective sigh before it’s agreed that the holidays can be discussed in earnest.
The media's concern that Christmas advertising comes earlier every year is unshakeable because it's a trope that allows for easy September news stories; for all the commotion, most people don’t actually seem to mind that advertising begins in September. Two-thirds of people surveyed in a Bain & Company poll last week reported few, if any, negative feelings about it. One-third even said that the ads put them in a good mood. This receptiveness jibes with the National Retail Federation’s consistent finding that almost half of Americans start shopping for the holidays before Halloween.
Businesses, for their part, have good reasons to stretch ad campaigns out to three months. Making sure that people start shopping early can, during peak shopping periods, lessen the need for overtime wages and for hiring a temporary workforce.
Christmas ads, and their timing, probably are fretted about because of how much is riding on them economically. It’s well-known that late December is the most lucrative time of the year for holiday sales, but the distance between it and the next-most-lucrative occasion—back-to-school shopping—is massive. It’s been estimated that the winter holidays make for nearly one-fifth of retail revenues every year.
So, don’t complain when, in the next month, the radio starts playing Christmas music—we’re currently three weeks into the holiday season.