Tuesday, December 17, 2013

From the Archives: Moms, are You Going to Win Christmas This Year?

I wrote this post two years ago. One fortunate side effect of studying for PhD exams while working full time (and having Netflix) is that I don't have to see as many commercials as I once did, so this particular trend hasn't been able to aggravate me as much this year, but I'm willing to bet it's still out there. 


I know that there are no shortage of eloquent explanations of frustration with the greedy nature of the holiday season (for instance, this NPR piece on the irony of A Charlie Brown Christmas--a film with an anti-consumerist message--selling as an overpriced app).

And, yes, I think we're all aware that Christmas-gift shopping can get a little hectic. We worry about how to teach our children the true meaning of the Christmas spirit and some of us curse under our breaths (and some of us just curse) when they start piping Christmas music through the stores in October.

But what's really got me going right now is the idea that Christmas is some kind of contest. We've got to win it! If we get the right things at the right price, we win! If we don't, well, let's not even think about that, because we're going to win!

And it's apparently a marketing dream scheme because it's everywhere:

  • There's the series of Target Black Friday commercials that show a woman obsessively working out in preparation for the sale. At one point, she's trying to psych herself up by telling herself "You will win this." By setting herself up as the "winner," even shopping for other people is ultimately about self-fulfillment. This mentality turns a potentially altruistic activity into a selfish one. 
  • In a similar vein, Wal-Mart's price guarantee commercial features a somewhat manic Christmas shopping mom who is extremely excited to hear that Wal-Mart will guarantee their prices. At one point she says "And then my kids will be like, 'You rule!'" while pointing to herself. Again, the goal is to "win" favor through the Christmas gifts. 
  • And one more mom who's going to win her kid's affection through gifts: in this Best Buy commercial, a woman isn't even happy to find her great deals at Best Buy. She is alarmingly stoic as the clerk tells her (light-heartedly) "Santa better watch out, huh?" Then we see her confronting Santa from the shadowy recesses of her living room, mocking him because there is no room left for him to leave presents. Here the idea of "winning" moves from an abstract concept to a more concrete one. This mom is literally defeating Santa Claus because she wants the glory for the things. 
  • Of course, these shopping moms can't be held completely responsible, especially when they're up against a world full of commercial children who are portrayed as entitled and greedy. In this Littlewoods (a UK-based retail company) commercial, kids use their school Christmas play to sing an ode to their mothers and the wonderful gifts they've given them. The moms beam with pride as their children point them out and list the great things they got for Christmas. The message is clear: if you get the right gifts, you're a good mom who wins your child's affection. If not, well, you wouldn't want to find out, would you? Go shopping. 
  • But at least the kids in the Littlewoods commercial are friendly and nice. Some other commercial kids are downright hostile. Take this eBay commercial where a young girl breaks into a snotty rant in the middle of a family rendition of "The 12 Days of Christmas" to chastise everyone for the horrible gifts they've given her in the past and to draw their attention to her very specific eBay list so that they don't mess up this year. 

This focus on competition depresses me, and it's even more frustrating that it's almost entirely moms portrayed in these commercials. We don't really need any more perpetuation of the crazy "supermom" who thinks she has to do it all. We also don't really need any more hyper-competitiveness between moms, who are already at each other's throats over everything from how to feed our children to what strollers they should sit in to how they should sleep. Not to mention, there are plenty of hard-working dads who (along with many hard-working moms) both make the money to pay for these mountains of toys and--yes, they sometimes do--go shopping for them themselves. These commercials make moms out to be slightly unhinged, vicariously selfish (because even though they're buying the gifts for their kids, their main concern is to "win"), and really annoying. 

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