'Christmas' or 'Holiday'? Wharton Expert Says Pluralistic Route Is Best

Gap It happens every year. One or more religious groups calls for a boycott against retailers that use the term "holiday" instead of "Christmas" in their advertising during — well, that season at the end of the year when many faiths have special days and retailers sell more goods than they do at any other time of year. For 2009, the target is Gap, the San Francisco-based retailer that also owns the Old Navy and Banana Republic clothing chains. The American Family Association of Tupelo, Miss., is urging its followers to boycott those stores because "Gap has refused to use the word Christmas in its television commercials, newspaper ads and in-store promotions, despite tens of thousands of consumer requests to recognize Christmas and in spite of repeated requests from AFA to do the same." 

But retailers should not lose sleep over how to label their marketing at this critical time of year, says Wharton marketing professor Stephen J. Hoch, who also directs the school's Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative. "The U.S. is a pluralistic country with many religions, almost all of which have religious events that occur sometime during December," says Hoch. "The generic term "holiday" clearly is the most inclusive term, even though Christmas is a fairly generic descriptor. Legitimizing a fringe group makes no sense, since as a society we already have been there and done that… . There are plenty of ways for individuals to celebrate their own holiday without imposing their beliefs on others through parochial complaints." Besides, he adds,"most mass retailers want to appeal to everyone."

By the way, as advertising columnist Dan Neil points out in today's Los Angeles Times, Gap does refer to Christmas in much of its advertising this season. "Surf on over to YouTube and watch Gap’s latest 30-second spot, titled “Go Ho Ho,” he suggests. "The spot — which is in heavy rotation on network and cable TV — features a group of insanely athletic dancers leaping and twirling and stomp-cheering around a white log-cabin set. They chant, 'Go Christmas, go Hanukkah, go Kwanzaa, go solstice… Do whatever you wannukkah and to all a cheery night.'"