Popular culture, Christmas and PR

290px-Charles_Dickens-A_Christmas_Carol-Title_page-First_edition_1843Popular culture is a key part of Christmas and talking with a friend yesterday, we shared a love of classic Christmas movies, and spoke about the number of new seasonal themed CDs that have been released this year. So this gave me the idea for post #8 in my 12 Days of Christmas series of posts.

As children we grow up with old and new Christmas stories. There’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Night Before Christmas, The Elf on the Shelf as a few examples.

There are Christmas television programmes that we remember as memory milestones – whether special comedy shows, seasonal editions of favourite shows, big stories in the soaps or even the Royal Christmas Broadcasts which have been delivered since 1932 when the Queen’s grandfather, King George V responded to an idea by Sir John Reith of the BBC.

Popular Christmas music tracks the passing of the years when we are able to link a song to a period in our lives. But as favourite tunes are played annually in the run up to the holidays, we recognise songs over the past decades. My personal favourite is Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Power of Love, although its presence on Christmas playlists is more about timing than content. Then I’d opt for the Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and the wonderful Kirsty MacColl, who was tragically killed in a pre-Christmas accident in 2000.

Then we have Christmas carols which are connected closely to all sorts of other aspects of popular culture – from shared experiences to inclusion in films, for example.  The  spectacular show offered at Thursford in Norfolk including carols sung by different choirs – and the audience –  is a magical element of my own Christmas past.

I have eclectic tastes in Christmas movies – from Die Hard and Gremlins, which are situated at the time of year to Miracle on 34th Street and Elf which are all about Christmas, and too many others to mention.

I adore the Nutcracker ballet, which is unbeatable as a Christmas treat. Then we have the great British tradition of Pantomimes, which are the epitome of audience participation. Oh no they’re not, oh yes they are!!

When it comes to adult literature, I could only immediately recall Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, which was first published 170 years ago. Goodreads has a number of Christmas related lists of books and Wikipedia helps out with a category of Christmas novels, which has a surprisingly small total of just 36 books.

It is interesting that film, music, television, children’s books and a specific genre of theatre dominate Christmas popular culture. I wonder if this reveals more about how Christmas is a group social phenomenon rather than an individual adult experience.

For me, popular culture is relevant to PR practice in many ways. In September, Elena Weinstein made the connection in a post on the Holmes Report site, linking to a New York Times magazine piece: What It Means to Be Popular (When Everthing is Popular) by Adam Sternbergh. This argues for a fragmentation of popular culture and considers whether or not popularity means mediocrity.

I’m not sure that popular Christmas culture can be equated with mediocrity as it seems to me that it is the best that lasts the test of time. I’m not sure about the argument around fragmentation as I feel we do need the mass connections for Christmas popular culture to retain any social meaning.

In many ways, those who operate primarily as publicists (see Judy Gombita’s PR Conversations post: Declaring Piffle on those traditional PR publicity arguments) view Christmas as a marketing opportunity. Their holy grail is to have the big seller at Christmas (in the toy world this has often seemed to be the “can’t get item”). Getting your promotional artefact accepted within the Christmas popular culture narrative can mean long-term repeat sales.

Connecting to popular culture ought also to be relevant for issues and causes. But apart from Dickens, who always had a strong social message, most of the other items I’ve discussed seem to lack that dimension. The Band Aid project, Do They Know It’s Christmas could be seen as an exception as a charity fund-raiser that responded to a BBC report of the Ethiopian famine of the early 1980s. This song seemed to also establish the popular culture approach of the celebrity charity single.

This song coincided with two other memorable Christmas singles – my favourite Frankie Goes to Hollywood track and Wham’s Last Christmas, the royalties of which were also donated to the Ethiopian famine appeal.

I think that PR practitioners are frequently involved in providing guidance when certain issues are tackled as strong story-lines in soaps over the holiday period. But overall, I wonder if perhaps PR practitioners are missing a trick here. If popular culture is connected still with a mass of people in an age of increased fragmentation, doesn’t it offer an opportunity for an impactful connection to an issue, cause or brand?

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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.