Deck the Malls

In a few weeks, Christmas will once again be busting out all over on American TV screens. Old and new movies and specials, holiday-themed episodes of regular series, decorations on the sets of morning news shows: No nook or cranny of the schedule will escape. Television is different in the month before Christmas. Networks air 40-year-old children’s programs in prime time; moribund old chestnuts like the musical variety show come out of hibernation; and at no other time of the year are the messages of TV commercials so fully in sync with the messages of the programs.

Through most of the year (except perhaps on Super Bowl Sunday), TV ads are seen by viewers as necessary evils—annoying interruptions. They break up the story. At Christmas, though, the message of the program and the message of the commercials are often identical, sometimes right down to their songs, symbols and characters.

In fact, advertising invented some of the key characters that now populate the programming it interrupts. Santa Claus himself, once a confusing amalgam of St. Nicholas, Washington Irving, Clement C. Moore and Thomas Nast, didn’t become the “real” Santa until Coca-Cola introduced its Haddon Sundblom illustrations in the 1930s. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, of course, was invented in 1939 for a souvenir booklet distributed by mail-order giant Montgomery Ward—the equivalent of today’s Toys R Us giraffe.

Christmas gives advertisers a lot to work with. The Magi brought gifts to Christ, after all, and Santa brings gifts to everyone. It’s a holiday whose traditions are linked to buying stuff, and those traditions go back a long way. Killjoys who claim that Christmas has become too commercialized and that the “reason for the season” has been buried in presents forget that Christmas had a predecessor. The ancient Romans had their own holiday season that stretched from the winter solstice in late December through the New Year, about which one Roman writer wrote in the 4th century: “The impulse to spend seizes everyone. People are not only generous themselves but also toward their fellow men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.” Since the New Testament made no mention of the date of Christ’s birth, the early church grafted the nativity celebration onto an already existing popular holiday. Dec. 25 was linked to shopping before Scrooge, before Santa and even before Christ.

Perhaps the chief source of inspiration for Christmas TV, however, is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, consistently one of the most valuable weapons in the arsenal of the holiday-industrial complex. Hundreds of TV-series episodes, a sackful of film adaptations and rip-offs and, of course, the Grinch have appropriated this 160-year-old story, and for good reason. It’s the perfect Christmas tale for the industrial age, providing a model of behavior that ties redemption to capital expenditure. Given moral instruction by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, stingy Scrooge is redeemed only after he wakes up and starts tossing around shillings like there’s no Christmas Tomorrow. Spending money is established as a universal means to express goodwill.

Ads at Christmas, then, are not only consistent with the shows; they complement them. Who hasn’t been moved by It’s a Wonderful Life or How the Grinch Stole Christmas with a nagging sense that we are not as selfless as George Bailey or the Whos-down-in-Whoville? The programs inspire guilt; the ads suggest a way to escape from that guilt. You could sell just about anything right after the last scene of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

A holiday ad from a greeting-card company several years ago: An old woman is sitting alone at Christmastime. She’s knitting something, but whoever she’s knitting it for is nowhere to be seen. A somber voiceover asks, “Remember Aunt Hildy? She made your first party dress. We wonder who you forgot to remember this year.” If the program presents the problem (greed, a lack of “Christmas spirit”), ads provide the solution (buy presents, send cards, call friends and family on a new mobile service provider).

With a strong focus on home, family, nostalgia and generosity, Christmas TV creates an uncomfortable emotional state that provides the perfect environment for ads. This, in the end, is the genius of Christmas TV. Once a year, the so-called crass commercialism of TV is justified. Business as usual is absolved—sanctified, in fact—when surrounded by stories of a holiday that identifies the purchasing of gifts with the achievement of grace.

God bless us, every one.

Robert Thompson, a regular ‘Adweek’ columnist, is trustee professor of popular culture at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication, where he also directs the Center for the Study of Popular Television.