It's October and you're on the phone having a catch-up with your family. Your dad – your sweet, furious dad – is giving you an earful about how he's seen a box of mince pies in ASDA. "It's getting ridiculous!" your mum joins in. "We've only just had Halloween and the Family Circle boxes are on offer already."
It's a commonly-held belief that Christmas comes earlier every year, along with all the other once-a-year festivities. Valentine's cards come out as soon as you chuck your Christmas tree into the neighbour's skip; Easter eggs immediately after that; and on and on, until all holidays overlap into one big commercial mess.
But is there actually any truth in this? Are people just idealising a past in which capitalism had less of a stranglehold on society – in which they had less of an understanding of what exactly capitalism was, because they were stupid children – and forgetting that we've been subjected to all of this seasonal bullshit since birth?
Consumer research professor Avi Shankar points out over email that, from a marketing perspective, John Lewis' adverts are widely regarded as the "official beginning" of the Christmas season in the UK. The same Christmas season that, by the way, does not start earlier every year.
Since John Lewis' "Sweet Child o' Mine" Christmas ad of 2009, the brand's adverts have come out around the same time of year for the past six years, between the 6th and the 12th of November. The two ads before this year's – 2014's penguin-hanging-out-with-the-kid set to Tom Odell's "Real Love", and 2015's miserable Man on the Moon – were the earliest of the bunch, both out on the 6th, while this year's Buster the dog disaster hit us on the 10th (maybe they thought their feels would be buried in the misery of the lead-up to, and results day of, the US election).
Supermarket Lidl has kept up a similarly regular schedule for its ads. In 2014, its Christmas ad was released on the 6th of November; in 2015, it came out on the 1st of November; and, in 2016, the 12th of November.
Similarly, a quick look into Google analytics will show you that the word "Christmas" starts buzzing around the internet pretty much the same time every year: August. In 2014, John Lewis said that since the 3rd of September that year, the most searched term on their site had been "Christmas". As such, they responded by giving it the first navigation tab, in September. All of this is stupidly early, yes, but suggests consumers are as hungry to get going on Christmas as the advertisers are.
"I guess there is an impression that if you get your advertising out early, you'll have an impact," says Richard Perks, Director of Retail Research for global market research company Mintel. "But when it comes to merchandise in store, there's a problem for retailers: you get through the summer with all these seasonal items, and then you've got this awful dead patch between October and November. What on earth do you do with that promotional space? Take somewhere like a department store – we don't want gardening furniture in October, so what goes there? Christmas items. In between that time, there's back-to-school and Halloween, but they're pretty tiny, really. Everything is headed towards Christmas. That's why people get this impression that Christmas merchandise is in the stores so early."
It makes sense; once retailers have stopped offering barbecues and cocktail shakers, the natural progression is to slyly shift towards marketing the warm and cosy, there to ward off the impending dread that comes with only seeing 30 minutes of sunlight a day. But does all that change our behaviour as consumers?
"When you carry out consumer research on these matters, it's always the same number of people who buy presents throughout the year, and the same people who leave it to the last moment," says Richard. There's no easy way of characterising this behaviour – it's just the way the population splits. Some people are just more organised than others, and some people wait 'til the last minute to see if they'll get a bargain. But the number of people who say they actually wait until the Christmas sales to buy their Christmas presents is actually very small indeed."
Sorry to offer general disappointment to dads everywhere, but: the so-called "Christmas Creep" – the merchandising phenomenon in which retailers exploit Christmas by moving up the start of the holiday period – isn't real. It's been an "extended shopping period" for over a century, and we've been complaining for just as long.
So if Christmas ads haven't been coming any earlier, perhaps it's their tone that's been taking people by surprise. They want you to cry, to feel happy, to sell you emotion. That's the point of the dog (or the penguin or the polar bear) – John Lewis is trying to sell you love. And a trampoline and homeware and shoes. But mostly love.
"As Christmas has become more and more commercial or profane, it's no surprise that some companies and brands have decided to try and make Christmas special again, or sacred," says Avi. "John Lewis 'own' this territory. However, we have to remember that the reason they produce highly emotional adverts is because they're trying to sell us stuff. They are, in effect, the new Coca-Cola."
Ultimately, just because it's the same old brainwashing from corporate interests, doesn't mean we're any less susceptible to their cute Grandpa crying on the moon. Maybe that's why we're so irritable about it – time is going ever quicker, we're ageing and we know we'll be fucked by John Lewis until the end of our days.
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