When you think of Thanksgiving, you might think of a stuffed turkey and cranberry sauce. Or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which has been around since 1924. Whatever the case may be, Thanksgiving marketing and advertising campaigns reach far back.
The modern history of Thanksgiving is rooted in marketing, with marketers creating rituals and cultural myths associated with Thanksgiving dinner, which shapes what we eat today.
By the 1920s, turkey had already become the one and only meat advertised. Appliances and tools to prepare turkeys were promoted, helping perpetuate the turkey tradition.
Initially, ads for the Eatmor Cranberry Company were published, and the brand dominated until Ocean Spray came in with their canned gelatin cranberry sauce in the 1930s.
The 1940s -1950s
For some reason, Jell-O was king in this time period. Between both World Wars, with their rationing and shortages, Americans loved their pre-packaged and instant foods. And advertisers capitalized on this by putting out recipes that used these products.
Some weird recipes that shouldn’t have existed but did:
Huh? I’m thankful that we’ve come a long way from these odd Thanksgiving traditions pushed by food companies at this time. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades in the 1950s looked more enjoyable at least.
Black Friday became the official start of the Christmas shopping season in the mid-1960s, after its name became famous in print.
The 1960s was also the decade when the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade came to life on television screens across the nation, in color. Consumers were still enjoying Jell-O products and putting mayonnaise on everything. Apparently, people enjoyed a nice, hot cup of Dr. Pepper in 1967.
The microwave exploded into popularity during this time period, likely to the chagrin of those less-adventurous type. Microwaves also cost $329-$500+ during this decade.
In the mid-1980s, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began increasing corporate sponsorships and letting companies, including McDonald’s, Unilever, Nestle and Anheuser-Busch enter balloons into the parade. Along the parade route, corresponding marketing teams hand out their merchandise to further enhance their message.
In the mid 1990s, Martha Stewart Living introduced the deep-fried turkey. According to the National Fire Protection Association, deep-fryer fires destroy over 900 homes, cause $15 million in property damage, injure 60 people, and kill 5 every year.
Other turkey trends introduced in this decade include brined turkey and Tofurkey.
While it seems like the last 100 years have been solely about food and cigarettes, more recent years have been largely based on emotional marketing.
The supermarket chain, Edeka, loves their emotional marketing. In this very sad but eventually heartwarming video, it shows a man essentially faking his death around the holidays because his family doesn’t come to visit him. When they show up to his house, the man says, “how else could I have brought you all together?”
The outdoor recreation brand, REI, approached their 2016 Thanksgiving marketing campaign by
boycotting Black Friday. They decided to shut down their retail branches, distribution centers and headquarters so employees could enjoy the great outdoors and invited their consumers to join them.
This same year, Starbucks launched their iconic red cup design challenge. They let customers design their own red cups, post the results on Instagram, and the winning cups would be shared on Starbucks’ social media channels.
The grocery franchise, Publix, promoted an ad titled “Celebrate More This Thanksgiving,” with the video concluding with, “in the end, all we really need more of is each other.”
Macy’s released their ad, “Old Friends: A Tribute to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.” It’s about the tradition of traditions during the holidays. It tells the story of a young boy and his experience seeing the parade throughout his lifetime.
Wild Turkey teamed up with Matthew McConaughey to “Give Back for Thanksgiving”, in an effort designed to thank the residents of Wild Turkey’s hometown in Kentucky. McConaughey, the Wild Turkey team and a group of volunteers delivered 4,500 turkeys around town.
This year, Target presented their Thanksgiving ad with “flickering lights, yummy bites, and cozy nights.”
Over the years, we’ve seen clear trends in Thanksgiving marketing tactics. The only consistent one is turkey and a reflection of the current year’s trends.
We’ve seen the shift from advertising and pushing products on the population, and instead, are seeing brands try to humanize and decommercialize this holiday.
What can we learn from this? Maybe to appeal to the humanity in our leads and customers, instead of forcing mayo-topped Jell-O on the masses.