Two years ago I noted that it was September 28 when the first Christmas catalog arrived in my mail box. This year the first catalog showed its pages on September 4, stretching the holiday shopping season to one third of the year.
The winner of this year’s award for first Christmas catalog to arrive is the White House Catalog, 72 pages of tchatchkes that have some connection to the White House. The catalog comes from the White House Historical Association (WHHA), which describes itself as a nonprofit educational association “for the purpose of enhancing the understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the Executive Mansion.”
And in America, what better way to enjoy or appreciate anything than to buy something connected to it!
How WHHA can come up with 72 pages dense with commemorative products is an exemplar of 21st century merchandising.
Let’s quickly dispose of the first few pages of the catalog, which display White House tree ornaments. Evidently every year since at least 1981, WHHA has designed and sold a unique tree ornament, typically dedicated to one of the presidents. This year’s is a model train elaborately chiseled with details in red, white and blue, dedicated to Warren G. Harding, who evidently loved trains. The past collection of Christmas ornaments and Christmas cards featuring the presidents or the White House take the catalog to 12 pages. The ornaments are clever and well-crafted.
But what about the other 60 pages? They are jam-packed with merchandising’s greatest hits. Let’s make two lists to illustrate:
|LIST OF PRODUCTS
||WHITE HOUSE RELATED THEMES
Evidently the White House Historical Association took these two lists and matched many products from column A with every theme in column B. For example, red room themed products include a letter opener, Limoges box, jigsaw puzzle, scarf and jewelry. The cherry blossom themed items include a bookmark, note cards, puzzle, Limoges box and scarf. Scenes from White House neighborhood offers us coasters, cocktail napkins, a tote bag, placemats, jewelry and a puzzle. The Christmas tree ceremony theme brings us another two jigsaw puzzles, bookmark and prints.
Oh yes, WHHA does dedicate some pages to books and art work, mostly portraits of presidents but also scenes of the White House and other patriotic fare such as Norman Rockwell’s “Statue of Liberty.” But mostly we see a succession of themes applied to the standard mix of items people buy as gifts when they go on vacation: mugs, note cards, tote bags, scarves and puzzles. There are even plush toy replicas of several presidential family pets.
It’s a merchandising plan that writes itself and makes the White House Historical Association Christmas catalog look no different in product mix from the catalogs of other museums, associations and nonprofit organizations.
What’s interesting is that other than the Christmas ornaments, the product category with the most items is the jigsaw puzzle. There are enough puzzles in the catalog to keep a family of four busy every evening for several years.
The ornaments are first rate, if you are into exotic Christmas ornaments, and several of the books go beyond encomiums of mealy patriotism. But for the most part what we see here is a cornucopia of schlock, which is Yiddish for the bargain basement, the cheesy and the coarse.
But it represents something more American than apple pie or gas guzzling cars. It represents the transformation of emotion into the purchase of a product—any product. The WHHA puzzles, bookmarks, mugs and tote bags are perfect stocking stuffers or small gifts for the seventh or eighth night of Chanukah. You can give them to whomever’s name you drew out of the gift exchange hat at the office. When you visit Washington, D.C. you can do all your obligatory souvenir gift shopping at one of the association’s two shops.
These are the throwaway presents that clutter the tables and walls, but also the drawers, closets, attics, basements and garages of much of America.
Although schlock they are, the relative worthlessness of the products is what gives them their special value, because it’s not the product that’s important, it’s the fact that a purchase was made. It’s the fact that a relationship, emotion or holiday was celebrated by buying something and then giving it to someone. Without the “buy” there is no emotional transaction. The advantage of cheap schlock is that it is so cheap and the reason it’s so cheap is because it is schlock. But as long as organizations make it, Americans keep buying it.