If I tried wishing a happy Valentine’s Day to everyone suggested by the greeting-card aisle, I fear I’d run out of love. On a recent visit to a big-box store in the Washington, D.C., area, I saw greeting cards slotted into categories including “wife” and “husband,” as well as, among others, “daughter,” “son,” “parents,” “grandson,” “young grandson,” “friend,” “teacher,” and, for the undiscriminating, “anyone.” There was even a card that third-wheelers could send to their beloved beloveds. The inside read, “The two of you make such a special pair!”
Valentine’s Day’s combination of tenderness and consumerist angst isn’t just for couples anymore—it’s for everyone. The National Retail Federation, a trade association, projected earlier this year that purchases for spouses and significant others would account for the majority of Valentine’s Day spending in 2020, but only barely: Their share of total spending on the holiday is estimated to be 52 percent, which is a drop from 61 percent 10 years ago. Now the other near-half is expected to go to nonromantic relations, such as friends, co-workers, and even dogs. Just over a quarter of the consumers surveyed said they planned to buy a Valentine’s Day gift for their pet.
These platonic Valentine’s Day offerings are not a recent innovation—my grandparents, bless them, have sent me a store-bought, grandson-specific Valentine’s Day card every year for as long as I can remember. But people’s varied expressions of nonromantic love on Valentine’s Day have lately inspired a shrewd new push on the part of marketers, particularly greeting-card companies. “We've seen this trend continue around Valentine’s Day really being more about love, which includes romance, but also includes loving your kids, loving your girlfriends, loving your family,” says Lindsey Roy, the chief marketing officer of the greeting-card company Hallmark. “We want to make sure that we have options to reflect what our consumers want to say to each other and who they want to celebrate.”
These more flexible options can be sincere (“You are loved”), or hokey and, like a distressing number of other greeting cards, alcohol-themed (“Happy Zinfandel-entine’s Day!”). In the past five years or so, Hallmark has also started producing cards for “Galentine’s Day,” which celebrates female friendship and falls on the day before the holiday it riffs on. One example: “Happy Galentine’s Day from your most inappropriate friend.” (The company told me that what Roy calls its “cultural-anthropology insight team” hadn’t picked up any companion trend among men, but a spokesperson said, “We’re definitely seeing it open up to friends of all genders, with what people call ‘Palentine’s Day.’”)
Two other Galentine’s Day cards I recently came across (from Carlton Cards) read “Fries before guys” and “Let’s hang out, paint our nails & dismantle the patriarchy.” These seemed like convenient two-for-one deals: They were commodifying not only friendship, but female empowerment as well.
Angeline Close Scheinbaum, a marketing professor at Clemson University who has studied consumers’ perceptions of Valentine’s Day, told me in an email that she picked up on “the early phases of this marketing expansion” about 15 years ago. One common complaint about the holiday, she said, is its “perceived exclusion” of people who aren’t in a relationship, and in this regard, “the expanded positioning of love is a smart event-marketing strategy.”
On one hand, more cultural encouragement to express warm feelings is inarguably good; even if I feel some ambivalence about buying Valentine’s Day material for others, receiving that annual card from my grandparents is touching. Moreover, reducing the emphasis on romantic love on a day that makes so many single people feel lonely is a welcome change—it feels like an overdue acknowledgment of the genuine affection people feel for many others in their life, especially given how often those people are regarded as secondary to romantic partners.
On the other hand, this is a holiday that weaponizes people’s love to make them buy things, so it comes off as a bit opportunistic for marketers to view cherished nonromantic relationships as another revenue stream. Additionally, buying things for friends and co-workers only contributes to a nasty cycle of compulsory spending—you wouldn’t want the Galentine’s Day card your friend sent you to go unrequited, would you?
When I asked Roy how she’d respond to the criticism that Valentine’s Day is overly commercialized, she said, “At a time in our world where it feels like there’s so much negativity, any opportunity for people to tell someone that they love them is a good thing.” It’s a fair point, and in truth, there are far more pernicious consumer goods to sell than pieces of sturdy paper imprinted with clichéd messages of love.
Valentine’s Day has long been an unwelcome prompt for many single people to reflect on their love life, but the celebration’s expansion beyond romantic love is a mercilessly equal-opportunity development. It takes the worst part of the holiday—the obligatory commercialism—and foists it upon everyone who cares about anyone.