How much are you spending this Christmas? Advertising, Present Buying and Morality in East Sussex

I sat opposite Mr and Mrs Turngate in the Rose and Crown pub, my local, in wintry East Sussex. The Christmas tree was nestled in the corner of the low ceilinged, wooden beamed bar. It all felt so right and yes, the fire was roaring. This pub has clearly spent money on this year’s festivities, but how much are locals spending? Is this a village of Scrooges or Loadsa’ Monies?

An emphatic “less!” was Mr and Mrs Turngate’s reply to my question over their Christmas spending this year, “because we haven’t got as much money as we usually have… the kids get the presents, it’s children and old people”. This will be a typical response as the UK remains in economic recession, a recession that does not look like it will end until 2018. George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, admitted this during his Autumn statement on the subject of the country’s finances. But is the Christmas period, in particular, detrimental to those under financial pressure?

“I think you do feel under a moral obligation don’t you?…. You get it drummed into you to spend money.” The couple clearly think it does. This is the darker side to Christmas. People across the country feel a duty to spend money, money they might not be able to afford. Television advertising was viewed by the couple as contributing to the pressure felt by many families to spend money. Barry Turngate said “you do feel you get coerced” into spending and feeling “guilt if you don’t”.

Whether or not you find Christmas advertising charming or charmless you cannot escape it. From about early November companies offer the cheapest turkey for the family and cheapest presents for the kids. Or there are the big money adverts from John Lewis or Marks and Spencer’s that will tug on your heart strings offering everyone the chance of that perfect Christmas (if you buy from their shops). They entice with depictions of family harmony, Christmas joy and in some cases, the heart breaking story of a love struck snowman.

Adverts play on emotions to get into people’s pockets. More than at any other time of year people spend a disproportionately large amount of money and more than at any other time, it is money that people do not have.

Michelle (who wished not to reveal her surname), whom I met at another nearby pub, held similarly bleak views on the negative influence of television advertising. “I think they are very unfair especially if you’ve got young children. Mummy I want this, Daddy I want that. I think they are quite unfair.” Do people feel pressured at Christmas, I asked. “ I think they do feel pressured. If you’ve got a little’un who wants a game. I think it puts pressure on the parents.”

What is the result of this once reality bites back in January? “They get into debt for it, definitely”. Even when asked if she thought that government advice or warnings during Christmas might help curb spending, Michelle said “I don’t know whether warnings would do any good because people feel that much pressure because kids want this and that, that they’ll get it for their kids in any case”.

So, for Michelle, television advertising holds so much influence, especially over kids, that even governmental warnings would not have an impact. Michelle certainly had to reduce her spending at Christmas and clearly took heed of the thoughts she shared with me. Her spending had been “very very cheap this year. It’s just me and my daughter so I’m only buying presents for her.”

Of course for some people advertising does not impact what they spend at Christmas time. A couple I met who wished to remain unnamed said they “spend what we can” and “don’t take any notice” of adverts. However the couple did mention that they were retired so may not feel that urge to satisfy the wants of young kids who want the best and newest toys for Christmas. I also spoke to a few people who did not need to change their spending habits this year. Ultimately, this is because I live in an economically diverse part of the South-East.

Young families, often the most vulnerable in society, are certainly the most vulnerable during Christmas. There can be no denying that television advertising is morally questionable in the way they drill home their products in such an emotional way. It is the nature of our society that companies are free to do so. I do feel, however, that educating people on the dangers of overspending during the Christmas period should be more readily available from the government. Public advertising campaigns could provide important advice and help remedy post-Christmas debt. There are plenty warnings to people not to buy dogs at Christmas, why not warn people not to max out on credit – not to buy that extra present?

In the future we may also hope that children grow up in a less materialistic society and that the culture and power of advertising might be channeled in better ways.

I can’t say how merry a Christmas Michelle or The Turngate’s will have, but I can be sure that it won’t be the extra money spent or not spent that will make a difference. I only hope that others around the country do not suffer once Christmas has passed for buying into one too many of those warm and cuddly TV adverts.