Stuart Elliott: “Season’s Greetings” in September; Here Comes “Christmas Creep”

By Stuart Elliott Stuart Elliott Report Archives

To everything there is a season, according to Ecclesiastes, and few take that more to heart than the denizens of Madison Avenue. It's not that they're especially religious, mind you. It's that they never miss an opportunity to sell somebody something. So advertisers, agencies and the media industry pay close attention to the calendar, celebrating one seasonal milestone after another to borrow interest from events that are important enough to consumers to be intrinsic parts of their lives.

You could call it an easy, even lazy, method of marketing, and you wouldn't be wrong. Making fun of corny, obvious examples of seasonal selling has become a cottage industry, as evidenced by the fun folks have with cheesy, dumb ads for Presidents' Day with Lincoln and Washington touting mattress discounts and car deals.

Yet it's hard to pass up a chance to grab some of the tens of billions of dollars of shopper spending at stake. So cue the seasonal promotional frenzy, particularly when September rolls around each year.

It's true that car makers no longer wait until September to bring out new models. And television series these days are introduced 12 months a year, not only in September. However, the idea that the auto and TV businesses come back to life every September is a powerful one that fuels enormous amounts of ad spending this time of the year.

Those habits may remain hardy because the school year still starts in September in much of the country, generating a sense of renewal among grown-ups -- and a need to buy kids clothing and supplies among parents. Also, a new pro football season begins each September, giving marketers in important categories such as beverages, cars, financial services, technology and telecommunications a reason to crank up the spending machinery again.

And crank they must to pay what the networks are charging for commercials during the 2015-16 NFL season: The highest rates for any shows of the new TV season. The most expensive 30-second spot in any regularly-scheduled program is during "America's Game of the Week" on Fox, according to Advertising Age, at $689,225. The most expensive 30-second spot in any prime-time program is during NBC's "Sunday Night Football," at $665,375 -- with some spots being bought in the scatter market for more than $700,000.

In a demonstration of how the rich keep getting richer, another big ad category suddenly is crashing the party: fantasy sports. The two biggest forces in that field, DraftKings and FanDuel, are each spending tens of millions of dollars for thousands of television commercials every week, reports, including $31 million during the week of Sept. 7 to run about 9,000 national spots. They're also all over the Web and in print media, too, such as a four-page ad unit touting DraftKings, billed as a "Special Promotional Issue Cover Jacket," that was wrapped around ESPN the Magazine.

There's another rationale for the "Buy, Buy, Buy" tune that Madison Avenue starts singing so loudly in September. Once Labor Day is out of the way, it's roughly a 15-week mad dash to the year's finish line -- Christmas, where, everyone hopes, potential pots of gold await. The efforts to encourage consumers to open their wallets during the holiday shopping season, always intense, have gone into overdrive since the Great Recession because the uneven economic recovery requires more heavy lifting to woo dollars from the working class and middle class.

Not only has the huckstering become increasingly fierce, it now begins earlier than in previous years, a phenomenon known as "Christmas creep." The goal is to pull demand forward by stimulating retail volume before Black Friday in case unforeseen circumstances -- for instance, a prolonged shutdown of the federal government -- shake confidence enough to keep people from shopping in stores or online. Better a dollar in the bank in September, the theory goes, than two that never may be deposited in November.

Traditionalists decry the premature decking of the retail halls with Christmas decorations before Halloween or, as Walmart and Kmart did this year, offering holiday layaway programs before Labor Day. But consumers seem to believe they need a little Christmas sooner than before: One in seven American adults, about 32 million in total, already started holiday shopping by early September, according to a survey reported by USA Today. The early birds include two demographic groups highly prized by marketers, parents and millennials.

Well, then -- though Advertising Week hasn't started, season's greetings!

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