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Pride, Juneteenth, and The Corporate Marketing of Holidays

Holidays are, by definition, designated days of commemoration or celebration, often recognized by the government, designed to honor historical events, people, or ideals. Some of them are days of major cultural significance, where people are encouraged to take a collective pause for reflection. But in the world of marketing, what are they for and, more importantly, who do they serve? 

To major corporations, holidays are, in large, about profits. Marketers have a knack for capitalizing on holidays to boost sales, tapping into the social currents that define our calendar – after all, a day off from work can become a day spent shopping. And to be clear, we’re not saying it’s right or wrong; it’s simply the nature of the business. Yet, amidst the frenzy, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, as if the true essence of the holiday is being overshadowed by commercial interests. This can add an unexpected layer of stress to the season, so it’s no wonder 62% of Americans experience elevated stress levels during these times. 

The constant barrage of holiday advertising can be particularly stressful for individuals with trauma related to these holidays. That can look different for everyone. Perhaps a blue-collar worker experiencing economic hardship might feel pressured to spend on Labor Day. Or those with family-related economic trauma may dread the relentless countdown to Christmas coming from stores and social media ads. Acknowledging these varied experiences helps us understand the broader impact of holiday marketing and reminds us to approach these times with empathy and awareness. 

An Overview of the Marketing Year

To fully grasp the impact of holiday marketing on individuals, especially in relation to economic trauma, it’s worth reviewing its historical evolution:

  • Christmas has a long marketing history, with Santa visiting children in department stores since 1862  and becoming an advertising favorite not long after that. Marketers placed Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer at the head of Santa’s sleigh in 1939.
  • Christmas gradually became a whole “holiday season,” enveloping Hanukkah’s chocolate coins, then Kwanzaa cards (which was created in 1966 to celebrate Black culture and community but has been gradually added into the general holiday marketing mix).
  • The marketing year now starts briskly with New Year’s Day and fireworks-themed merchandise, followed closely by Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a commemoration of the civil rights leader and movement which is now “celebrated” with retail sales. 
  • Soon after that, we shop our way through candy and flowers for Valentine’s Day, candy and stuffed toys for Easter, flag-decorated picnic supplies for Memorial Day (and mattress sales, which seems an odd way to commemorate fallen soldiers).

June: Pride Month and Juneteenth

Now it is June, which comes with two significant holidays: Pride and Juneteenth.

June is celebrated as Pride month for the LGBTQ+ community, commemorating the Stonewall uprising, promoting equal rights, and celebrating community. While many rainbow-hued products hit the market, do they really reflect the values of Pride? Sometimes, it’s done well, but more often than not, it’s just a rainbow label slapped on a product without genuine understanding or support. Corporations may be accused of “rainbow-washing” or “pink-washing” as a result, which refers to the practice of using rainbow-themed symbolism to show superficial solidarity with LGBTQ+ people while failing to support their rights or identities. This practice often involves selling products and offering minimal or no real support (financial or otherwise) for the LGBTQ+ community. In some cases, corporations may even engage in activities harmful to them.

Another June celebration, Juneteenth, known as “America’s second Independence Day” commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Traditionally a time for celebrations among Black communities in the south, Juneteenth has become a federal holiday since 2021, opening the door for marketers. Much like the commercialization of Kwanzaa, MLK Day, or Memorial Day, marketers are struggling to convey the holiday’s significance. They’re often missing the mark, and without input from Black sources, they run the risk of commodifying the holiday in odd ways as evidenced by incidents like Walmart apologizing for its Juneteenth-themed ice cream.

Marketing isn’t all bad, and there is hope for a meaningful approach. Corporations and marketers have the opportunity to use their marketing influence to genuinely celebrate these holidays. During Juneteenth, they can help promote Black-owned businesses and educate the public about the holiday’s history and significance. Instead of pushing more rainbow-colored merchandise to promote their own brands during Pride Month, companies could share knowledge, represent inclusivity, and collaborate with other organizations in the spirit of community. There is much for all of us to learn in this process.

Making Meaningful Choices

Sometimes marketing missteps are just silly, but other times they can cause real stress. Holidays emerging from difficult histories can evoke painful and traumatic memories, making marketing messages especially triggering. Marketers coming from outside the community might inadvertently cause harm, and those mistakes can be painful. This kind of advertising, which is both culturally insensitive and aggressively sales-focused, creates a doubly stressful experience for communities who celebrate these holidays; it compounds cultural and economic trauma through the lens of intersectionality. 

So here we are in the midst of this ongoing cycle of holiday marketing… How do you navigate the commodification without losing touch with the meaning of the holiday? 

  • If you are a member of the core community a holiday commemorates:
    Does this product make you feel more in touch with what is important to you about the holiday? 
  • If you aren’t a member of the core community a holiday commemorates:
    How can you use it as an opportunity to learn from members of the community? Are there ways you could support them economically? 

As we navigate this landscape, we should ask ourselves: how would I feel if a client of mine who is struggling with financial insecurity spends money on holiday commemorations? It’s important to discern when purchasing a holiday product is truly meaningful and when it is an unnecessary expense, but that is a choice to be left to each individual. By focusing on the messages that resonate most deeply with us and bypassing those lost in commercialization, we can honor the true spirit of each holiday and support the communities they represent. 

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