Tuesday, December 18th, 2018 | 6 min read
“A Christmas Story” is many things: a holiday tradition, a wholesome slice of mid-century middle Americana, and the film that launched a million attempts to utter fragile just like Ralphie’s father (do we ever get his name?).
The 1983 release is also an insightful, if a bit tongue-in-cheek (err, light pole), look into the outsized role that marketing plays in our day-to-day lives. Let’s take a completely unnecessary look at what it can teach us!
The crux of the film – Ralphie’s desire for a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle – is illustrated early when he gazes at the treasured firearm in the window of a department store. The gun is displayed prominently and packaged with style, and we immediately recognize the branding’s power over our young hero.
Later, in his essay (or “theme” – a delightfully dated detail) about what he wants for Christmas, Ralphie recycles advertising copy in an endearing, kid-like stream of consciousness: “What I want is a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.”
He knows these terms because he’s read and heard them repeatedly. Red Ryder has succeeded in its targeting (heh) efforts, and one youngster, presumably among many, is under its spell.
As the movie makes clear, a powerful story can help a brand generate consumer excitement despite – or thanks to – parental protests that a product will cause its owner to shoot his or her eye out. Instagram is today’s version of the department store window, and bite-sized captions are the new packaging copy, but it’s still essential for brands to master those elements today.
While it centers on a charmingly antiquated scenario, another memorable moment in “A Christmas Story” could offer a lesson for contemporary brands of all stripes. Ralphie listens to his favorite radio show – “Little Orphan Annie” – with intense focus that’s heightened because his special decoder pen arrived in the mail earlier that day.
At last, he’ll be able to decode Annie’s nightly message. Ralphie realizes with dismay, however, that the top-secret missive is simply, “Drink more Ovaltine.” Even at his young age, he recognizes he’s been duped. “A crummy commercial?!” he blurts, indignantly.
While the fictional, 40’s-era marketing team at Ovaltine was smart to hitch itself to a show as popular as “Little Orphan Annie,” Ralphie’s reaction shows they took their branded content efforts too far, and produced something inauthentic that may have lost them a fan.
Today, as brands and entertainment entities continue to push the limits of product placement, they’d be wise to remember that even the youngest observers recognize a shameless ad when they see (or hear) one.
All Christmas Story acolytes remember the scene in which poor Ralphie makes a few big mistakes while trying to help his father mend a blown out tire (including say the big one, the “f, dash, dash, dash”). While it’s a great sequence, the preceding scene is more helpful when it comes to drawing marketing insights.
Shopping for a Christmas tree, the family is helped by an enthusiastic salesman who shows them everything from massive furs to wimpy little shrubs. He has a spirited negotiation session with Ralphie’s father who, in a masterful strategic move, tells his wife he’s considering a plastic tree.
The two men eventually agree on a price, in part thanks to the timber slinger’s offer to throw in some rope and tie it to the car.
While Ralphie’s father may have come out slightly ahead, the salesman was able to bag the commission because he highlighted a broad set of inventory. eCommerce retailers take note: a wide selection can make all the difference when it comes to turning a potential customer into an actual one.
Then, of course, there’s the lamp. Aside from emitting the “soft glow of electric sex,” the iconic leggy light reflects the importance of knowing one’s audience. While we never learn exactly why Ralphie’s dad actually received the “major award,” we do know that a nuclear family in 1940s isn’t the ideal recipient of such a racy prize.
Sure, the father beams with pride and admiration, and Ralphie is doubtless intrigued, but Ralphie’s mother isn’t the least bit thrilled about it (and with good reason).
With a bit more research, the mysterious organization responsible for the major award might have sent something that wouldn’t wind up broken on the floor under extremely suspicious circumstances.
Towards the end of “A Christmas Story” there’s another head-scratcher of a gift: the famous pink bunny suit that Ralphie receives from his Aunt. Our protagonist doesn’t hide his disgust as he mopes his way down the stairs in the costume, much to his mother’s delight.
As Ralphie’s voiceover puts it, “Aunt Clara had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually four years old, but also a girl.”
It’s a completely different context, but his complaint calls to mind the way we talk about receiving targeted ads that are way off the mark. It’s a timeless dynamic that underscores the importance of reaching the right audience with the right information.
Fortunately for brands – to say nothing of the Aunt Claras of the world – there are far more tools for hitting the mark than there were in the 40s. Given how connected and empowered today’s customers, companies would be wise to do everything they can to sharpen their messages, remain authentic, and reach people with the products they want – major awards or otherwise.
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