How Advertising Created Thanksgiving As We Know It Today
Thanksgiving is a special holiday, one characterized by the traditions, the meal, and simply being thankful for what you have in your life. No matter what your race or religion, Americans come together on this day to celebrate a tradition that’s been carried on since the pilgrims landed on Plymouth rock. Or at least, that’s what advertisers would like us to believe. Companies have always been good at embellishing their messages for the holiday season, and this tradition certainly goes back to the days of early American Thanksgiving. No matter what Borden’s or Snowdrift tells you, the Pilgrims did not have the butter, wheat flour, and sugar to make a pumpkin pie. They certainly didn’t have a can opener for the Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. Advertisers in the early days of American Thanksgiving were crucial in starting these traditions and ensuring they carry on for decades to come.
When Thanksgiving was being proposed as a national holiday by Sarah Josepha Hale in 1846, she argued that it would unify the country, but she probably never imagined that unification beginning with a turkey. Although her vision of inclusivity and tradition was mostly fulfilled, advertisers latched on to this idea and created new traditions. Companies fought tooth and nail to become the new American holiday staple at the dinner table. Samantha Cross, a professor of Marketing at Iowa State University, argues that as a holiday with no specific religious ties, a shared understanding of the celebration and meal were crucial to its long-term survival. So, in a way, these companies were making it easier for Thanksgiving to be remembered and celebrated for years to come. The turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, dressing, gravy, and pumpkin pie were the delicious building blocks this holiday needed, and the traditional meal was a war zone for companies in the early 1900s.
How did the turkey become the holiday’s official mascot? It competed with several other types of meat like goose, duck, and chicken for the coveted seat and eventually won them over in the early 1920s simply with better advertising. Swift’s premium turkey ads (aka Butterball) featured in Good Housekeeping Magazine emphasized the bird as a centerpiece, while also focusing in on the aspects of family and prayer. According to theconversation.com, nearly 88% of U.S. households have turkey on Thanksgiving, and 20% of turkeys eaten throughout the year are consumed at Thanksgiving. Advertising really makes an impact on consumers. Eatmor cranberry sauce dominated the market in the 1930s, advertising that their sauce was the perfect complement to the turkey, making it a natural condiment for the Thanksgiving meal. Ocean Spray entered the ring shortly, advertising their canned sauce with whole cranberries in gelatin. Funnily enough, both Eatmor and Ocean Spray claimed that cranberry sauce was eaten by the pilgrims at the very first celebration of the holiday. (But how would anyone know that?) You’ve probably never heard of Eatmor, so it must be obvious that Ocean Spray trumped their competitor and is still running successful and memorable ad campaigns to this day. As for pumpkin pie, the war continues to this day for the right to claim it as their own. Mrs. Smith’s, Libby’s, Snowdrift, and Borden’s are a few companies that have squabbled for it in the past.
Some products didn’t make the cut. Diamond walnuts advertised in 1928 that walnuts could dress up Thanksgiving dishes, and Welsh’s threw their hat into the ring with grape juice as another so-called “first Thanksgiving tradition”. The consumer didn’t catch on, however, and these ideas were eventually scrapped.
Whether you like it or not, the consumer plays a huge role in the Thanksgiving tradition. Stores and shops are crowded with people hurrying to buy the perfect traditional meal for their families to share, all thanks to advertising. None of this is bad either. The meal brings families together once a year and still continues to uphold the inclusive family values of Sarah Josepha Hale. So while you’re watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and chowing down on turkey and stuffing don’t forget to be thankful for your family, and the advertising history that led you to eat that delicious meal in the first place.