Few events encapsulate our infatuation with a well-told story as much as Christmas. As a culture, we are dependent on stories as a tool with which to negotiate our daily lives and make sense of the world around us. In particular, we love magical ones because they allow us to temporarily suspend our disbelief and revel in the joys of doing so.
This is something that the best brands manage to channel by tapping into our desires, memories and aspirations. All humans are ultimately bound by the same core emotions – whether it’s our wants, anxieties or fears. Brands aim to encapsulate these so that we can relate to them and, as a result, choose their product over the others on offer.
Our desire to have the “perfect” Christmas, for example, is captured in a number of supermarkets' advertising. Whether it’s Marks and Spencer offering us “Magic and Sparkle” or Sainsbury’s showing the power of the community coming together after a family’s Christmas morning disaster – these adverts bring to life the feelings that we associate with Christmas and evoke in us the festive spirit.
The Magic Formula
The way we are swept up by these ideas – suspending logic and revelling in the season’s pleasures – is what makes Christmas magical. It starts when we’re children. The underlying narrative of Santa Claus, which provides tangible rewards for believing in magic, is the most obvious example of Christmas magic at play. The notion of flying Father Christmas and finding presents under the tree that were not there the night before makes the magic of the story seem real.
The religious story that Christmas is based on has miraculous connotations, too. The virgin birth, the star that led the Magi to the baby Jesus, the bestowing of gifts to the messiah and the fulfilment of a prophecy. These stories told to us by our loved ones as children, which we may have even performed in a nativity play, ingrain within us a trust in magic as real.
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Arguably, the notion of goods as containers of symbolic meaning can extend back to this period beginning with the nativity. Here, the gift-giving ritual was performed with the purpose of communicating adoration toward a cherished relationship.
The commodification of the season should not eclipse the greater importance we place on tradition and ritual. That is, how we use gifts suffused with meaning to demonstrate our affection to our loved ones. The Currys PC World advert encapsulates this desire to receive a gift we really like – one that required love and attention to buy. It involves Jeff Goldblum comically stepping in after a husband buys his wife a jigsaw puzzle and explaining why this was not a good present.
Christmas Is For Adults, Too
Much of the magic around Christmas stems from childhood. But there’s also lots in it for adults, who are the ones doing most of the present buying. As adults, we have the desire to suspend our disbelief, abandon rationality and, once again, experience the joy of believing in the Christmas story. As adults, however, we need help in doing this – and help comes all too readily from advertising campaigns.
While we might consider these campaigns as vehicles designed to stimulate needless materialism, our capacity for agency might also allow us to interpret these seductive ads as stories, designed to re-invigorate our belief in magic.
A brand’s ability to harness the magical narrative of Christmas allows us to gaze into the commodity mirror and suspend disbelief as we engage with the traditions and rituals that breathe life into the magic. Furthermore, it offers adults the chance to play the part of the magician, as we weave this pervasive cultural narrative and authenticate it for our children, allowing them to feel the same joy we felt at their age.
But it is crucial that we maintain the distinction between magic and materialism. While sometimes shrouded in vapid commercialism, as a culture we must retain our focus on the tradition and ritual of this time as we, in the company of those closest to us, revel in the non-rational bliss of what it is to believe in magic, at least for a little while.
About The Author
Patrick Lonergan, Lecturer in Marketing and Communications, Nottingham Trent University. His research and teaching interests are firmly located within Consumer Culture Theory. A core argument that pervades my work is that we cannot continue to understand aesthetic consumption with a sole focus on the consumer through a representational lens.