Guardians of Christmas reap publicity—and donations

Starbucks released new solid red holiday cups, a design choice that has upset some people. (RNS Photo courtesy of Starbucks)

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WASHINGTON (RNS)—December is fundraising season, the time when nonprofits hit the airwaves, Internet, social media and good old snail-mail with their most distinctive give-to-us pitches.

And for a few groups, those pitches are all about campaigns to enforce the words and images of “Christmas” in the public square. They seek to steer consumers toward retailers and brands that blare “Christmas”—emphasis on “Christ”—in advertising words and images.

christmas boycotts425Shoppers cross 34th St. in Herald Square in the Manhattan borough of New York. (RNS Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)But these Christmas credibility campaigns, such as the Starbucks red-cup-no-“Christmas” flap, don’t move consumers, experts insist. They sometimes jar corporations to tweak ads to protect their brand image. But they might score big on media attention, which can translate into donor dollars even if there’s not a measurable dollar’s worth of difference in national consumer behavior.

“Consumers are extreme examples of habit-forming people. We like what we like. And we rationalize that our one purchase is not going to have a huge effect. Even if we say we support a boycott, when push comes to shove, we do what we always did in the past,” said sociologist Brayden King, professor of management and organization at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

The more subtle measures of success for such campaigns, such as the American Family Association’s annual “Naughty or Nice” list, is the ability to sometimes shift corporations that want to avoid negative media attention, King said.

Highlighting “Christmas-friendly” companies

For eight years, the association has highlighted “Christmas-friendly” companies and cast a Scrooge shadow on those that don’t measure up. Even if a chain store carries Christmas items, if these are not labeled, promoted and advertised under the C-word, the company is dinged for banning Christmas—that is, banning Christ from the public square, in the American Family Association’s view.

“It’s about the birth of Christ, not just another holiday,” said Buddy Smith, senior vice president of AFA. That matters to “Christians who follow the Bible on biblical stewardship and hold ourselves accountable for how we spend our money.”

Smith sees success. The Naughty list this year is the shortest ever. Meanwhile, he said, “Walmart, Sam’s Club and Lowe’s, which had gone completely politically correct in not using ‘Christmas,’” have moved to the Nice list in recent years.

christmas gifts425Campaigns to “Keep Christ in Christmas” generate publicity but often make no dent in consumer behavior. (Photo: Kelvin Kay / wikipedia)Plus, the list has indeed boosted donations to AFA, said Smith. 

“Why not? People are very benevolent during the Christmas season, when God gave his only Son. We get lots of donations from our support base at the end of the year and we count on it,” Smith said.

“Like any nonprofit, we have employees to pay and electric bills. And if people are going to give us money, they want to know if our voice is making a difference.”

Publicity matters, said James Jasper, sociology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author of Protest: A Cultural Introduction to Social Movements.

“It’s the publicity that counts,” he said. “Every organization wants to show supporters it is doing something on the issue they care about.”

The “faith-driven” consumer

Chris Stone, founder and CEO of Faith-Driven Consumer, also takes an interest in promoting evangelical views with a list of Christmasy companies at, rather than a boycott of those that promote secular seasonal joy.

“Christians and faith-driven consumers are not the same. Only 25 percent of practicing Christians (evangelicals) are faith-driven consumers,” said Stone, who sets the number at 41 million of those whom he calls “biblically orthodox.” 

This group, he says, is driven by their Christian faith in deciding “where they buy, what they buy and what entertainment they consume.” The numbers are based on in-house polling by Faith-Driven Consumer.

He’s launched a new, year-round campaign for this subset of Christians—a comprehensive 100-point Faith Equality Index assessing companies’ treatment of these “biblically orthodox Christians.”

In this index, high points—and maybe a boost of consumer Christmastime attention—go to companies that hire, promote and accommodate the devout. So, a retailer’s Christmas-friendly ads are worth only five points, while the big points go for overall “engagement, public policy, philanthropy, operations and human resources” that align with conservative evangelical views.

Stone patterned it after similar indexes by the gay-rights oriented Human Rights Campaign, and black and Hispanic groups. In his view, the devout are “marginalized and excluded” in the marketplace and secular society and thus deserve to be “included in any company’s diversity rainbow.” Companies are paying attention to the index and consulting with him about “transformation,” he said, but he declined to name any companies.

The danger in all these forms of ratings is the potential for backlash, sociologists said.

King observes “for cultural products such as films and music, boycotts can lead to more consumption, rather than less.”

And sometimes they flop completely. King noted a Christian group with an ongoing boycott of companies that donate to Planned Parenthood gets little mainstream media attention and “could be the least effective boycott I have ever seen.”

Ineffective boycotts show loss of ‘social clout’

Worse, an ineffective boycott led by vocal evangelicals could, instead, reveal how much social clout they already have lost in the wider society, where about one in four Americans—and one in three Millennials—claims no religious identity.

Many of these so-called “nones” are pushing back against religious conservatives who wield claims of “religious freedom” to battle social changes they oppose, such as legalized gay marriage or the health care contraception mandate, said Michele Dillon, past president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion and a professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“The highly religious want to rally and remind people they are still here,” she said.

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