Holiday Magic Harder to Find in This Year's Ads

Remember the magic in catching a snowflake on your tongue? The very act of going out in the snow, tipping your head and chasing snowflakes made you part of the winter tableau and connected you with the holiday season. Ditto making a snowman or snow angels.

Each year there is a tug of war as we try to balance between the sentiment of the holidays and the merchandising of them. Television has always tackled the issue with holiday-themed entertainment that both dilutes the heavy volume of commercials as well as gives them a context. This year, however, is different -- consumers are on the move.

Instead of using the traditional pattern of shopping (i.e., newspaper circulars, magazines and TV ads) more people are online and using their smart mobile devices. That, coupled with an economy barely on the mend and many without jobs or fearing job losses, has significantly changed some aspects of this holiday shopping season.

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So what's a marketer to do?

Many have stepped up their efforts to meet consumers where they are and where they are going. Most marketers have expanded and refined their online activity. Many have done the deep dive into social media.

Despite all that, few are reaching us with the impact that TV once had. A big reason may be that they are having a difficult time conjuring up the magic ever-present in the holiday marketing of old.

In 1948, Arthur Godfrey's popular show "Talent Scouts" was simulcast on both TV and Radio. Godfrey had a special skill as a pitchman to make fun of advertisers and their agencies but still create customers and loyalty for brands like Frigidaire, Lipton Tea, Pillsbury and more.

In his heyday, Ed Sullivan had an audience of between 45 million and 50 million people tuning in each week for his show. (That's four times Oprah Winfrey's average daily audience). That worked wonders for the show's sponsor, Lincoln-Mercury.

The Retailers Reaching Consumers Best

What Godfrey and Sullivan figured out was how to use the relatively new medium, television, to attract huge audiences and sell products (in 1955, only half of U.S. households had a television). By successfully tailoring their messages to the medium, they helped shape and build the advertising industry.

As marketers seek to reach consumers using the Web and mobile devices, who will crack the code on how to best engage, inform and delight? This holiday season, here are a few noteworthy pretenders to the throne:

Toys "R" Us has developed dedicated applications for both the BlackBerry and the iPhone that enable customers to access lists of new and top-selling products, locate stores, research product reviews and ratings and check availability of items in stores. These apps also allow transactional capability via mobile device.

The online shoe store Toms Shoes is using the holiday period to make a serious push to educate customers about its business model. It is urging consumers to forego the more traditional apparel gifts and instead give its shoes. For every pair of shoes you buy, Toms Shoes donates a pair to a child in need. So far, Toms has distributed more than 150,000 pairs of free shoes.

Starbucks is expanding on its 2.0 efforts of last year to delve more deeply into social media to engage customers and get them into Starbucks locations. Starbucks has expanded its online buy and will show up on sites like In addition, it has a very deep and broad social media strategy that includes Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Pandora. Customers can send red Starbucks cups to friends and family, upload holiday pictures and with the Starbucks Love Project, create and post a love drawing at, for which Starbucks will make a $1 donation to (RED). Customers can listen to a branded playlist on Pandora and get a free "Love" CD in its stores with a $15 purchase. There is also a variety of (Red) merchandise available in stores that when purchased will trigger a $1 donation from Starbucks.

Don't Hype the Holidays Early

As marketers step up their efforts to reach these tech-savvy consumers, they seem to be forgetting a few of the fundamentals of good marketing. All of the triggers that launched the holiday seasons of my youth both warmed and entertained. The commercial featuring Santa using a Norelco shaver as a sleigh, for me, was just as much a hallmark of the start of the holiday season as "Rudolph the Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman" television specials.

Of course, back then, no network would dare put on a Christmas special (for years, Rudolph and Frosty) until after Thanksgiving and Norelco worked hard to be the first holiday commercial of the season, thus ushering in a period of holiday-themed advertisements.

There was a tacit agreement between marketer and customer … an understanding that if we took the magic out of the season by hyping the holidays early, it wouldn't be as meaningful.

I'd like to see marketers spend more time romancing me before they ask me to reach into my pocket. The new technology, with powerful features like multi-media capability, multi-player gaming ability, phone applications, the ability of people to instantly communicate with groups of friends and family and immediacy begs for more clever, entertaining and meaningful communication.

If marketers get it right this holiday season, it could end up being the most wonderful time of the year.

The work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Larry Woodard is president and CEO of Vigilante, a New York-based advertising agency that develops consumer-centric advertising campaigns. He is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies New York Council and the recipient of many prestigious industry awards, including two O'Toole Awards for Agency of the Year, the London International Award, Gold Effie, Telly, Mobius, Addy's and the Cannes Gold Lion. A blogger and a frequent public speaker, Woodard enjoys discussing the intersection of media, politics, entertainment and technology.