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ADVERTISING / COMPANY TOWN : A foolish fatwa in 'War on Christmas'

November 17, 2009|DAN NEIL

The Mississippi-based American Family Assn. last week issued a fatwa against Gap Inc. -- the retailing giant whose brands include Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic -- calling for a "two-month boycott over the company's failure to use the word 'Christmas' in its advertising to Christmas shoppers."

The War on Christmas season has officially begun.

Gap "does not use the word 'Christmas' to avoid offending those who don't embrace its meaning," writes Buddy Smith, executive assistant to the president of the AFA, on the organization's website. "Christmas has historically been very good for commerce. But now Gap wants the commerce but no Christmas."

"I interpret Gap's decision as a warning sign to Christians to get out there and tell people about Jesus Christ," writes Smith.

And they say nobody likes fruitcake.

It would be easy to get sidetracked into debating the merits of the War on Christmas. Why, for example, is the phrase "Happy holidays" so insufferable to Christian fundamentalists, but not the vulgar, surfeiting exploitation of Christ's name to sell smokeless ashtrays, dessert toppings, Droid phones and trampolines? I'm not a theologian but I think the Gospels are pretty clear that Jesus was no fan of merchants.

And since China is in the news this week: Why not go after Gap and other retailers for trading in Chinese-made goods, since the Chinese government actively oppresses the Christian faith? Seems like building a case on religious tolerance would have more resonance. Oh, wait. Never mind.

But here's the real question: Why attack Gap for not using the word "Christmas" in its advertising when in fact it does, and in a big way too?

Surf on over to YouTube and watch Gap's latest 30-second spot, titled "Go Ho Ho" (Crispin Porter + Bogusky). The spot -- which is in heavy rotation on network and cable TV -- features a group of insanely athletic dancers leaping and twirling and stomp-cheering around a white log-cabin set. They chant, "Go Christmas, go Hanukkah, go Kwanzaa, go solstice. . . . Do whatever you wannukkah and to all a cheery night."

There it is, right up front, enjoying pride of place: the C-word.

Meanwhile, both Old Navy and Gap sell Christmas-themed merchandise, such as Christmas boxer shorts, which I'm sure can only be removed in the sanctity of marriage.

In other words, Gap Inc. has demonstrably not banned the use of the word from its advertising or stores. So how did AFA get this so wrong?

Gap Inc. has been in the organization's War on Christmas cross hairs for a while now, and it may well be that the boycott was planned before Gap's holiday ads were released (phone and e-mail messages to the AFA were not returned). Gap and CP+B just pulled a switcheroo.

It's unlikely the new Gap ads will placate the psalm-singers in Tupelo. After all, in the spirit of inclusiveness, Christmas is mentioned in the same breath as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and solstice. The winter solstice, as everyone knows, is a pagan celebration, so -- viewed through a peculiarly warped lens -- the Gap ad puts Christians on the same level as a bunch of blue-painted heathens dancing around a Yule log drinking mead out of a stag horn.

How dare they! I call for a double boycott.

Perhaps the AFA did Gap a favor. If you look at the history of the organization's boycotts -- often involving punitive actions against companies that support gay rights -- you'll see that they have no commercial impact. Actually, these boycotts seem to be good for business: In the decade of the AFA's boycott against Disney, which ended in 2006, the world's largest entertainment conglomerate's revenue roughly doubled to $34 billion. Likewise for Ford, which just posted a billion-dollar profit in the third quarter of 2009.

I'm not suggesting causality, but condemnation by the AFA does seem to be a kind of lucky charm for big business. Personally, I am inclined to patronize Gap as a statement of cultural tolerance, even though at my age I look like an overcooked ballpark frank in its clothes.

The big loser here is the AFA. The annual War-on-Christmas drumbeat is absolutely not about defending the sacredness of Christmas. It is instead -- transparently -- marketing, a ratings gambit for Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, and for the AFA, the centerpiece of its annual fundraising.

This year, thanks to Gap, the AFA fumbled its boycott ball and in the process managed to look both intolerant and out of touch.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

--

dan.neil@latimes.com

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