Advertisers and their agencies preparing for Christmas are invoking a mix of memory and imagination, writes Faris Yakob.

It’s a running joke, especially in the UK, that Christmas arrives earlier every year thanks to advertisers. The endless jostling for share of voice during the most important shopping period of the year drives brands to begin communicating ever earlier to find cheaper media and more attention. This triggers an avalanche of pieces and punditry examining the strategy or, more commonly, deriding the commodification of culture. And look! Here’s another one! Well, perhaps, but this year is different, isn’t it? 

Those of us inside the industry, of course, have to host Christmas in our heads even earlier, in order to deliver the aforementioned advertising anachronisms. And those who wish to influence us have to get their stockings up before ours. 

Pinterest was the first to offer me visions of sugar plums this year. Primacy was the point because the report is titled “Earlier than Ever: Holiday 2020”. I appreciate that there is confusion around whether we, individually and for advertisers, should even mention the rebranded winter solstice we pretend was the birthday of a popular prophet. 

Nothing is easy in communication nowadays but perhaps that’s because we have only recently begun to embrace the idea that we are communicating with diverse, not homogenous, audiences whenever we use broadcast media. Or perhaps it’s because everyone is algorithmically primed for outrage. Regardless, it’s the job of the communicator to understand audiences, so it’s on us either way. 

According to the report, “historically, people on Pinterest start making holiday plans in September. This year, they started searching and saving for the holidays ... in April.” Their insight elves believe this is because 2020 is rubbish so people crave something to look forward to. In the absence of certainty about the duration of our current situation, we at least know Christmas will occur, without chance of cancellation. Pinterest research suggests families in particular are focused on making this year’s holiday period feel special, by making it feel as normal as possible but better and on a budget. Equally, since back to school advertising is down 70% this year [Kantar], media companies need to drum up business. Insight reports are knowledge marketing.

Advertising is always about the future. No matter how fast the response, it is always trying to make something happen in the future by accessing your attention in the present. In this reading, advertising is the carrot of capitalism, endlessly exhorting people to buy, which is necessary in order to keep consumer-driven economies on the endless upward curve we have decided is crucial for our collective success. The criticism is that it conditions us to live “in desperate need of the future”, in Alan Watts’ insightful phrase, constantly running on the hedonic treadmill of consumerism and so always unsatisfied, no matter what we buy. This endless, rapacious hunger we stoke in people is the grist required for the mill of economic progress. We are driven to constantly aspire to whatever image of the good life the media and its customers are currently glorifying.

However, advertising’s relationship to time, status and our emotional states is more complex than that. We can easily reverse how we think about the logic flow. Advertising builds brands which create symbolic value in the consumption of products and the majority of advertising in mass media is for everyday products which aren’t beyond the reach of many. That’s why you use mass media, for the most part. Thus creativity converts the mundane into the magical, increasing satisfaction in consumption. There is evidence to support this, most famously Dan Ariely’s analysis of the ‘Coke Blind Taste Test’ in the 1980s, which demonstrated that people in research prefer unbranded Pepsi, but branded Coke. Looking at neural imaging data changed how we understood those results because it suggested the experience of drinking a branded beverage is different, cognitively, in a way people consistently express preference for. 

Having mentioned Watts, this splaying across time made me think of advertising in the currently fashionable frame of mindfulness. [We’d prefer its opposite in action, mindless buying, but inevitably we need to get some amount of some form of cognition from our advertising audiences to have an impact. However, as CPG and cigarette manufacturers know, if you can create habitual purchasing, you are laughing all the way to the analyst call.]

Advertising is, bear with me, like mindfulness in the sense that it is about focusing attention on a moment. It leverages memory and imagination [which are much the same thing, used differently], pulling the past and future together into the present to encourage you to buy presents. 

Living in desperate need of the future means one can never enjoy it when it arrives because it has transmuted into the present, which we have lost the ability to savor. However, it makes sense that we wouldn’t be enjoying this present very much anyway and yet another way advertising works through time is by stoking anticipation, letting us enjoy our dreams of the future as consolations during difficult times. This isn’t unique to pandemics because categories like travel have long known that anticipation is often the ‘best part’. 

Travel, of course, has been particularly devastated and uncertainty makes it hard for consumers to feel good about buying a trip in the future to dream on. One reason is because airlines charge prohibitive change fees. Delta, American & United announced Christmas will come early by abandoning change fees [only for domestic flights in the USA but it’s a start]. United’s CEO said "When we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of this fee is often the top request,” but it’s hard to believe this wasn’t the case before the pandemic. 

Change fees are a particularly egregious abuse of customers from the airline oligopoly and United showed no interest in breaking step before they faced a crisis. Once one moves, the market must follow, in order to maintain market share. Robin Hood’s stock trading app triggered a similar shift by allowing people to buy and sell shares without fees.

There is a widespread belief in the English speaking world that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters signifying “danger” and “opportunity”. This is incorrect, like much folk knowledge we retransmit to each other. The second character means something more like “change point”. A crisis means danger and change, which may create opportunities. However, If some consequences of this year include forcing brands to cut back on the hidden or otiose fees that too many seem to use to stuff their stockings, that’s something to look forward to.