As Halloween Approaches (Even in September)

Halloween is more than two months away, but already I’ve seen products and displays going up in a few places. For better or worse, the holidays creep further and further out from their actual date as retailers see opportunities to sell their goods. And to add to the impending spookiness that awaits us, I spent part of my Friday night watching a scary movie with my children, fully aware that it would necessitate cramming four people into a single bed, somewhere around midnight – I was, of course, proven right.  All of this has me reflecting on the socio-cultural significances of Halloween as a reflection of cultural transformation, even if it is a single night. Yes, even the simplest things start the mind wandering.

A few years back, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State’s Delaware County Campus, noted that parents need to realize that scaring our kids isn’t necessarily a way to mitigate kids’ fears of death and other things frightening.  Rightfully, she contended that Halloween is a time when we expose kids to behavior that is not the norm and that children connect the holiday with death.  The argument goes that we, regardless of who “We” are, typically distance ourselves from death and shield children from it, but in this case, young children encounter their fears when they face decorations of skeletons and tombstones. This can be scarring. This, of course, is bad.  Or is it?  Is it even accurate?

First, we expose our children to death regularly.  What we shield our kids from is pollution associated with decay.  In the case of Halloween, we are presenting our children with a sanitized, safe form of death that has none of the associations with contamination.  Second, children are exposed to death when they play video games, tune in to the TV or deal with the loss of a grandparent.  We may try to lessen the pain or deflect the underlying causality, but death itself is indeed part of a child’s upbringing, though it may not be as overt as it is at Halloween.  I will concede that we expose our children to death less than we perhaps did in the past, when people worked the farm together and were accustomed to things like slaughter, but to assume children are shielded from death is fantasy. We’ve simply changed the medium.

And should we even be shielding kids in the first place?  We often work under the assumption that it is somehow our duty as parents to protect children from any and all discomfort, but there is nothing out there to prove that doing so benefits the child. Fear teaches, particularly when it is safe.  Discomfort teaches, particularly when it isn’t overwhelming.  Children are, I would contend, smarter than we often think.  To assume they can’t make the leap between the literal and the symbolic is a bit obtuse.  While Halloween teaches children about death, it also teaches them about the nature of symbolism, rules of reciprocity, a sense of self-reliance, creativity and a host of other positive elements of personhood.

As my oldest daughter walked from house to house last Halloween with her friend from Egypt, getting treats from homes comprised of people from a wide range of nations (our neighborhood happens to have large south Asian and Middle Eastern populations) it struck me how important this holiday is, because it is so public and because it is wrapped up in a universal need to deflect the fear of death.  It is a holiday that encourages parents and kids of other cultures to join in the fun and feel like they are welcome and integral parts of the adopted culture.  It exposes the children and parents of the adoptive culture to people and worldviews they may not have otherwise interacted with.  The experience can be thought of as enculturation, the process by which a person learns the requirements of the culture by which he or she is surrounded, and acquiring values and behaviors that are appropriate or necessary in that culture.  This has often been conceived to be a unidimensional, zero-sum cultural conflict in which the minority’s culture is diminished by the dominant group’s culture, but it’s not that simple.  There is an exchange of sorts going on. There are a couple of ways a person learns a culture. Direct teaching of a culture is what happens when you don’t pay attention, mostly by the parents, when a person is told to do something because it is right and to not do something because it is bad. For example, when children ask for something, they are constantly asked “What do you say?” and the child is expected to remember to say “please.” A second conscious way a person learns a culture is to watch others around them and to emulate their behavior. But in doing so, they often alter elements of it and reshape the culture – culture isn’t fixed, after all, it is a matter of practice, negation and shared invention.

What this means is that Halloween becomes a way of learning and exchanging.  Day of the Dead decorations find new uses, costumes come to reflect the sensibilities of the minority population and new ways of defining and interacting with the world emerge.  And there are very real, very meaningful results.  Businesses alter their merchandise, retailers decorate differently and new modes of shopping arise.  People develop new interests and curiosity about their world.  So, yes, Halloween may indeed scare the children, but the benefits of being scared outweigh a night of belly aches and spooky dreams.


Who Are You and Why Do You Want My Candy?

Cultural traditions and celebrations represent a very important opportunity for retailers and overall manufacturers. But in a rapidly changing demographic mix, it is easy to forget that Halloween is a largely American phenomenon and can be off-putting for someone with no cultural context for the holiday. Just what is this day all about?  Is it a celebration of evil? What is acceptable to give these masked children demanding food at your doorstep? Why is the Pentecostal neighbor offering to take my child to a “Hell House”?  And the list goes on.

The tradition of Halloween has now become one of the highest revenue producing traditions in the United States, representing $21 billion dollars each year, with a median of $40 spent per family. This tradition is constantly growing, presenting the opportunity to expand our market share and increase revenue. Just as the rest of the U.S. culture is continuously being exported, so is Halloween. And Halloween is finding traction in Europe, parts of Asia and Latin America. The key is making sure that while a retailer speaks to the representations and myths of a culture already immersed in the shared meaning of the holiday, newcomers are in a position to embrace it as their own. It is about providing people with little or no familiarity with Halloween with the tools to make Halloween meaningful. In order to be able to increase the overall revenue during specific cultural celebrations, it helps to know the origins the transformations these holidays are going through.

In Latin America, returning migrants have taken Halloween to their nations of origin. Their time living in the United States allows for them to develop a variation of their culture, in which neither the traditions of the country of origin nor the traditions of the United States define them. These migrants combine traditions and create their own. The emulation of the Halloween tradition in Latin American countries highly influenced by the United States such as, Nicaragua, Mexico, El Salvador, Panama, etc., allows for U.S. providers to market Halloween products there as well.

For example, The Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) is a popular tradition in Mexico and parts of Central America, and is rooted on the Aztec tradition of honoring the dead. Aztecs used to honor the dead by talking to the spirits, dancing and celebrating death.  This celebration was dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead.” Spaniards considered the exposure of human remains as a sacrilege and tried to eradicate this tradition. A way of doing so was to coincide the date of the festivity with November 1st All Saints Day. Just as the Celtic celebration of Samhain evolved into Halloween, so did the Day of the Dead transform into something new.

While very different, the important point is that these two cultural traditions have certain similarities in the ways they are celebrated. These similarities, the migration to the United States and the development of a new U.S./Latin culture by 2nd and 3rd migrant generations, are once again transforming Halloween.  So what can you do to grow sales at Halloween?

  • Expand what you offer. This transformation of American culture requires companies to provide sugar and wooden skulls, flowers, portable music players and toys for the children that have passed away alongside pumpkin pies and costumes. This provides a cultural signpost inviting people to explore rather than shy away from the holiday aisle.
  • Use multiple languages in signage.  Using Halloween as a way of signaling inclusion in the larger American society helps build interest and customer loyalty. We frequently take for granted that consumers and shoppers will simply explore a well-dressed store front or aisle, but for many first and second generation consumers culturally-specific events, such as holidays, can signal that they are not welcome. Using multiple languages in signage serves as an invitation to engage with and become part of the general population. That invitation can build loyalty like nothing else.
  • Go beyond orange and black. Most retail displays incorporate colors and sounds that are associated with either the harvest (orange) or death (black) in Western societies. Expanding the color scheme to include colors associated with harvest time, death, and all things scary in other cultural systems helps draw associations with similar holidays in the native culture. For example, white and red are often associated with Día de los Muertos celebrations and will draw people into the aisles to shop.
  • Create “safe” areas of terror. The hormonal reaction we humans get from responding to a threat or crisis is what motivates us to “like to be scared.” This is the same “fight or flight” syndrome which guaranteed our survival in more primitive times. At the moment we are threatened, we have increased strength, power, heightened senses and intuition. The key is to sanitize that fear rather than causing people to run. Without a culturally-centered idea of Halloween, the holiday isn’t a safe type of fear, it’s just plain scary, causing people to avoid the retail environment altogether. Don’t make the most frightening elements of a display the first thing people encounter, rather condition shoppers to the experience by starting with less threatening imagery that becomes scarier as they move deeper into the shopping setting.

Companies and manufacturers can readily learn the type of food, music, clothing, toys, etc., needed to cater to a changing U.S. population. These differences need to be known and addressed in order to effectively increase profits and customer loyalty.

The knowledge and origin of traditions as well as the knowledge and prediction of human behaviors allows marketers to better speak to their market. During a recession the elasticity of products fluctuates, but when purchasing these products is attached to a deep cultural need, the economy will have little or no effect on these products demand. Knowing these cultural and psychological variables allow retailers and marketers to build loyalty and grow their businesses even during tough economic times. When the time comes to celebrate Halloween (or any holiday), it is your brand, your service, or your product that will win out.