The PR meaning of Christmas

costa christmasThe meaning of Christmas can be analysed through studying its signs, symbols and stories, many of which could be considered from a PR perspective.

So #4 of my 12 Days of Christmas posts considers the semiotics of Christmas to examine symbolism of the season and how this is applied by PR practitioners.

Religious signs, symbols and stories are evident primarily through the Nativity narrative. However, the essential elements have been adapted for both commercial and social purposes. For example, many school nativity plays remain a festive tradition but have been professionally scripted to make them more inclusive, contemporary and/or fashionable. The meaning of Nativity plays has changed with greater competition and commercialisation according to media reports. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest schools need to undertake PR risk assessment in the face of media interest in signs, symbols and stories that make nativity plays controversial.

For others, the semiotics of Christmas are less about the traumas of childhood performances and more about spotting commercial signs of the season. Christmas adverts are not a new phenomenon, but today’s versions are a long way from this late 1970s’ Woolworths‘ television ad which features celebrities, but otherwise is all about products and prices. I’m sure many a dissertation will be written on the semiotics of supermarket advertising in 2013.

The master of symbolic associations at Christmas is Coca-Cola creating and conveying adverts where idealised family scenes are closely connected to the brand’s icons. In particular, the imagery of Santa Clause is seen as symbolic of Coca-Cola at Christmas, with the company acknowledging its “role in shaping the jolly, rotund character“. Taking the adverts into the experiential field, with a tour of the ‘Holidays are coming’ red truck offers a more personal connection with the brand’s Christmas symbolism.

The coffee shop brands similarly offer an experience of Christmas with seasonal drinks and recognisable cups. The Costa Coffee ones have been particularly noticeable. Indeed, a student recently told me that her friends see the emergence of the Christmas coffee drinks as an earlier indicator of the season.

These may be examples of marketing but are often promoted with PR campaigns and also act as symbols that build relationships and reputation of the brands.

We also create our own Christmas culture with rituals and symbols that relate specifically to our families or friends. We may not notice where this involves connection with organisations’ PR functions but this could be the case in terms of our shopping, entertainment and other celebratory habits. From pantomimes (featuring television personalities) to the holiday editions of television listing magazines and the battle of the Christmas number one single (increasingly manipulated by X-Factor), there is evidence of commercial symbols dominating the culture of Christmas.

The symbolism of Christmas is so strong that it is not surprising to see it evident in many different ways. Arguably an understanding of semiotics ought to be key to PR practice, although it is not given a great deal of focus in literature or qualifications.

It is not just in relation to marketing that the benefits of applying semiotics can be realised. Charities also use the season to associate their causes with the meaning of Christmas. Emotional imagery, heart-tugging images dominate the narrative. Other PR campaigns similarly connect to Christmas iconography for issues management. For example, fire safety and drink-driving campaigns use a range of semiotic principles.

Similarly, I recall a successful campaign by a student who worked for a housing association a number of years ago that used strong Christmas imagery to highlight the necessity to avoid debt (and pay rent) over the holiday period.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.