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Image: Ad displaying holiday sale in San Francisco
Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images
Advertising “holiday” products irks some consumers, who want retailers to get into the Christmas spirit.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/4/2008 3:02:17 PM ET 2008-12-04T20:02:17

Two things stoked Erin Nash’s anger when she trolled the malls last year. First, most stores trumpeted their “holiday” sales. Second, every sales clerk robotically wished their customers “Happy holidays.” The word “Christmas,” Nash felt, had been discarded by the retailers like a wad of crumpled wrapping paper.

So the Fort Benning, Ga., resident took a yuletide stand.

“It became a test to me: I began wishing cashiers a ‘Merry Christmas’ to see if anyone would actually wish me a ‘Merry Christmas’ back,” Nash said.

None did.

In another city, at another mall, wherever Michelle Hesse encountered Christmas music or “Merry Christmas” greetings at certain stores, she privately cringed and vowed not to return.

“I just oppose people saying that their God is better or the only one. And I get that mostly at Christmas,” said Hesse, a stay-at-home mom from Lake Charles, La. “I have noticed (I get) looks when I do not reply with ‘Merry Christmas.’”

As American shoppers embark on their annual shopping binge — amid the Grinchiest economy in decades — a prickly marketing question splits American consumers and stores: “Christmas” or “holiday”? Like shoppers Nash and Hesse, various retailers hold conflicting theories on how much Christmas spirit should be injected into their advertising campaigns and their in-store environments.

Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and Target all recently brought back or bumped up their Christmas-friendly language. The word “Christmas” can be seen throughout the Web sites of all three retail chains, either in marketing themes or product descriptions: “Your one stop Christmas shop,” “Christmas ribbons” and “Christmas décor.”

Banana Republic, by contrast, is using a “Most wanted for holiday” sales pitch, and if cyber-shoppers type “Christmas” into the retailer’s online search box, they get “0 results.” Sister company Old Navy is employing a “Home for the holidays” message. A similar “Christmas” search of Old Navy’s online merchandise returns only one mention: “Christmas tree sleep sets for baby.”

And then there’s Best Buy, which has tried to find a gentle compromise between the two seasonal poles. Two years ago, Best Buy’s advertising excluded any reference to Christmas, leading spokeswoman Dawn Bryant to explain: “There are several holidays throughout that time period, and we certainly need to be respectful of all.” Now the electronics chain is mixing a “Happier Holidays” logo with its “Merry Christmas” gift cards and has filmed TV ads in which its employees talk about “Christmas.”

“As far as balance, it’s hard to do,” Bryant acknowledged. “We test our advertising, both with our employees and our customers — and not just the advertising that people see on TV, but also the slogans, the themes, the visuals, the artwork, the whole marketing package.

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“We do revisit this every year: Did it feel right? Were our customers happy? Were the employees satisfied calling out one holiday vs. another, or Christmas specifically?” Bryant said. “It’s definitely an art, not a science.”

At the Gap Inc., which includes brand names Banana Republic and Old Navy, the choice between “Christmas” and “holiday” in marketing language is driven by diversity.

“We’re a global retailer. We strive to appeal to a broad cross-section of consumers in a way that’s respectful to a variety of traditions and faiths,” said Gap spokeswoman Louise Callagy. (Gap’s “Merry Mix It” ad campaign, for example, features musicians wishing viewers a “Merry Christmas,” and Old Navy is airing commercials that mention “Christmas presents.”)

Customers and focus groups may indeed steer the stores as to how Christmassy they get in their catalogs, Web sites and cash-register conversations. But there are other pressures at play, namely certain religious groups. Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo., not only urges retailers to give Christmas equal billing alongside more-generic holiday messages, it also grades the chains on their seasonal performances.

Among the five stores that Focus on the Family now lists as “Christmas offensive” — asserting that they have “abandoned” Christmas — are Old Navy, Banana Republic and Bloomingdale’s. Another 10 stores are rated as “Christmas Negligent,” implying that have “marginalized” Christmas in their sales vocabulary. That clump includes Best Buy and Toys “R” Us. Finally, 18 retailers have earned the Christian group’s “Christmas friendly” stamp, including Wal-Mart and Target.

Three years ago, Target was among several chains that were threatened with a boycott from Christian groups for leaning so heavily on “holiday” advertising. After that, the retailer changed its approach.

“This is not a boycott by any means,” said Sonja Swiatkiewicz, the director of issues response at Focus on the Family. “What we’re hoping to do is provide a shopping guide. Consumers would just like to understand that retailers know that the reason they’re buying presents this time of year is because it’s Christmas, not an unspecified winter holiday.

“It’s not saying retailers can’t use ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Happy Chanukah’ or other types of greetings. It’s just so that Christmas is being included.” And, Swiatkiewicz added, to ensure “they’re not calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree.”

Do the big chains listen to this brand of church-based lobbying?

“I would say we respond,” said Gap spokeswoman Callagy. “We have a customer service division that responds to our calls as we get them. And we would just reinforce to them that we focus on the joy of the holidays with specific reference to the various holidays.”

That’s the political tip-toe stores know they must walk when their aisles are packed with divergent customers like Hesse and Nash, who clearly shop to their own tunes — mostly likely, “Frosty the Snowman” for the secular crowd or “Silent Night” for the devout consumers.

“As someone who is not a Christian,” Hesse said, “I think people need to be aware that this is America, and there are many different faiths here.”

But Nash plans to force the Christmas issue again this year, daring the clerks to give her a traditional Christmas greeting. Depending on their response, she either will patronize that store again or possibly ignore it in the future.

“I will probably be tempted to ask them if they are not allowed by their employers to say ‘Merry Christmas,’” said Nash, who started her challenge in 2007 when her husband was deployed with the U.S. Army in Iraq. “Here he was, overseas and fighting for his country, and someone’s basic right to wish (a shopper) ‘Merry Christmas’ was taken away by corporate America.”

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