Sunday, January 3, 2010
Christian faith being used and denied at the same time
Merry Marketing: Stores give us something to believe in -- shopping.
By JAMES MARTIN, S.J.
I like Christmas as much as the next Christian. And by that I mean the Feast of the Nativity—the one with Jesus being born in a manger. The one Linus talks about every year on "A Charlie Brown Christmas." That Christmas I like.
The Christmas I don't like is the one most people don't: the commercial one. And this year what's been irking me are the slogans that companies are deploying in their December ad campaigns that hope to have it both ways: They're using religious themes without actually being religious. Call it faith-based advertising.
Some aren't bad. This year J.C. Penney's ads featured the slogan "The Joy of Giving." (Giving is, needless to say, laudable.) But many advertisers couldn't seem to decide how religious their ads could be. Most are eager to glom onto the highly profitable Christmas angle without being Christian, which would be a challenge even for Don Draper and his "Mad Men" copywriters. The cover of the Land's End catalog, which is bursting with preppy families who apparently divide their time between laughing dementedly, drinking steaming mugs of hot chocolate and petting horses, says: "Make it Merry!" Make what merry? Celebrating the birth of Christ or petting a horse?
Likewise, the Container Store, a packaging company, wanted to remind shoppers to mail in time for Christmas but couldn't quite bring itself to say the word. "Only 15 Days Left!" said one of its ads on Dec. 10. Fifteen days till what? Arbor Day?
"Magic" is another popular word on Madison Avenue: Pier One's catalog says, "Make Christmas Magic!" Sadly, all I can think of is Mary and Joseph standing around Harry Potter in a manger.
And this year the Gap's ads are just plain weird. Their TV commercials feature perky models rapping out the following ditty: "Go Christmas! Go Hannukah! Go Kwanzaa! Go Solstice! You 86 the rules, you do what just feels right. Happy Whatever-you-wannukah, and to all a cheery night!" But the models are clearly wearing sweaters and scarves in bright red, the traditional Christmas color. In other words, the Gap is selective about what gets 86ed. Actual religious beliefs? Those go. Holiday trappings that can move a few sweaters? Those stay.
The winner of this year's worst catch phrase is a tie: between Macy's and Eddie Bauer. Macy's shopping bags say, "A million reasons to believe!" In what? What does Macy's want us to believe in? That Jesus is the Son of God? (Imagine that on a bag.)
Nearly as maddening was the cover of this year's Eddie Bauer catalog, which proclaims "We believe." As with Macy's, I was eager to find out just what Eddie Bauer believed in. The Council of Chalcedon's fifth-century declaration that Jesus was fully human and fully divine? Not exactly. Page three professed the retailer's creed: "We believe in the world's best down."
Of course I know that this is the way marketing works. Retailers use anything to hawk a product. And I'm sorry to be a stickler, but it's strange seeing the Christian faith being used and denied at the same time.
Nonetheless, I try not to get too upset about it, because I don't want to let commercialism distract me from the reason to celebrate Christmas Day. Because I really do have a million reasons to believe.
Father Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of "My Life with the Saints" and 44's favorite "This Our Exile. "