Ho, ho, ho: Christmas advertising starts earlier and earlier

Australia Beach Christmas

With only a mere 105 shopping days till Christmas, the holiday advertising season kicked off September 9.

Earlier and earlier

It used to be that Christmas-gift advertising had the decency to wait until after Thanksgiving to start running.

Then the norm became after Election Day. Then after Halloween.

“In years past,” writes Advertising Age, “it’s not been unusual for retailers to begin digital promotions or social media efforts well in advance of the holidays. But TV ads have typically been kept under wraps until late October.”

Last year, Target broke its holiday campaign a shockingly early October 7. Its commercial “featured an upbeat tune with the cheery chorus ‘Are You Ready?’ and an oversized version of Target mascot Bullseye trotting through snow-covered streets with a shopping bag in his mouth.”

But even that, apparently, wasn’t early enough for Kmart.

Just one week after Labor Day, and barely after the start of the school year, the Sears-owned chain launched a 30-second television spot for its Christmas layaway plan. In it, a human-size gingerbread man sneaks up on a woman working in her office cubicle. “Don’t let the holidays sneak up on you,” the voice-over says. It goes on to explain that if you start laying away money for gifts now, Kmart will waive the normal layaway fees.

Firstest with the mostest

Kmart’s thinking may have been colored by the fact that retailers are predicting an unusually soft fourth quarter – a natural consequence of an economy where job creation is barely enough to keep up with population growth, the majority of new jobs are part-time and more people than the entire population of Pittsburgh have dropped out of the work force, despairing of ever finding jobs again.

“There are limited budgets today, and retailers are aware of that,” said the National Retail Federation’s Kathy Grannis in what may be a major understatement.

Even though they don’t talk about it, some 12 percent of consumers begin their holiday shopping before September, another 6 percent in September itself, and 20 percent in October – 38 percent in total – according to NRF figures.

So it’s entirely possible that Kmart’s marketing strategists remembered the old saying about the early bird and the worm.

A history of jumping the gun

As far back as 2008, Kmart advertising has been off the mark before the starting gun was even loaded.

“Retailers try and rush the season every year,” Ad Age wrote at the time, “but Kmart is taking it to a new extreme, introducing ‘Early Black Friday’ sales beginning this weekend. In moving Black Friday up from its traditional date the day after Thanksgiving to Nov. 2, some 26 days early, Kmart hopes to combat a dismal economy and slumping consumer spending.”

Since the economy is just as “dismal” now as five years ago, Christmas advertising right after Labor Day follows the same logic as Black Friday advertising right after Halloween.

Unwelcome reception, lame response

There’s also a certain logic in starting layaway advertising early, since it takes a certain amount of time to lay away the total purchase price in small weekly installments.

While acknowledging the necessity of layaway ads coming early in the holiday shopping process, AceMetrix EVP-marketing Jonathan Symonds still calls Kmart’s six-to-eight-week-early start “eye-opening.”

Executionally, Kmart’s latest commercial is a tasteful break from their series of “Ship My Pants” and “Big Gas Savings” double entendres. But that didn’t stop consumers from taking offense at the timing.

Almost immediately consumers took to Kmart’s Facebook page to complain about the early arrival of a Christmas ad. The brand has been thanking people for their feedback and noting, “We’re just really excited for the holidays and layaway!”

A Kmart spokeswoman noted that the ad is being “tweaked,” though she declined to comment further, adding that Kmart is not ready to start talking about its holiday plan and strategy just yet.

The new normal?

Especially in an economy where retail dollars are harder and harder to come by, Kmart could possibly set off a chain reaction of early Christmas sales pitches.

“It will, by definition, create a slightly earlier cycle,” Symonds says. “As opposed to right before Halloween, it will have the impact of pulling the season up by a few weeks. But it won’t start the race today.”

“It’s anybody’s game right now, wheels are definitely in motion for a very promotional holiday season,”  Grannis agreed, warning that “This might give new meaning to the phrase Christmas Creep.”

Whether it does or doesn’t, one thing’s for sure: The timing is definitely creepy.

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