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Holidays on Thin Ice: Brands' Greetings Get Scrutinized

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Merry Christmas. Or should that be Happy Holidays? For marketers, deciding the choice of a greeting this season would tax even the wisest of men.

Evoke Christmas and you may alienate some consumers. Don’t say it, and you’ll incur the wrath of the Christian right as Best Buy, Kroger and Victoria’s Secret have learned this year. The finger-pointer in this case is the American Family Association, which considers greetings like Happy Holidays and other variations not to be enough. Its threat comes in the form of a consumer-led sales boycott and petition—a movement it has launched for the past four years—against companies that use the phrase Merry Christmas sparingly or not at all.

This year’s offenders include Barnes & Noble, Staples and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Macy’s, Walmart, Sears and Lowes are among those being recognized as “Christmas-friendly” since they use the word.

In the middle of the pack are companies like Starbucks, Toys ‘R Us and Whole Foods, whose Christmas efforts are deemed “marginal” or not enough. The AFA has posted a list of who’s “naughty or nice” on its Web site. (Gap and its Old Navy and Banana Republic brands were singled out early in the season, but the AFA withdrew its boycott after the retailer ran a Christmas-themed ad.)

The AFA’s charge is unusual in the sense that marketers often get called out for something they put in the advertising, said Stephen Hoch, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “It’s just comical,” he said of the boycott, as “the standard criticism of retailers during Christmas is that they’re exploiting it.”

The AFA, however, is sticking by its claims. Randy Sharp, a special projects director at the Tupelo, Miss., group, said it isn’t singling out advertisers for using other forms of holiday expressions over Christmas. The problem, he said, arises when “you lump us in with other pagan holidays, like the Winter Solstice. That is where companies offend us because in choosing to be politically correct and not offend anyone by being generic, they’re offending the greater segment of people.”

The tussle, indeed, represents the fine line marketers face in beckoning consumers to their stores this season. The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, predicts a 1 percent drop in holiday sales this year to $437.6 billion. And the last thing companies want to do is to insult consumers who would otherwise step foot in their stores.

Besides, “there are a whole bunch of different holidays that all occur in December—for religious and nonreligious people. No one owns December the last time I checked,” Hoch said.

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