A Finger-Lickin' Good Christmas, and a Well-Examined New Year

There are many strange instances of marketing and holiday traditions coming together. Let's be more alert in 2017.


We just celebrated the most wonderful time of year, when many families gather in their homes to see what a smiling, jolly man with a white beard brought them. Was it toys? Coal? Flatscreen TVs?

Or deep fried chicken in the Southern tradition with a secret blend of 11 herbs and spices?

For families in Japan, the holiday is still occasion to gather round the table and break bread, but the bread is buttermilk biscuits and the old man providing the treats is named Colonel Sanders, not Santa Claus. Kentucky Fried Chicken is the way the vast majority of Japanese families ring in Yuletide cheer.

In one of the strangest instances of marketing and holiday traditions coming together, Japan’s Christmas celebrants have been queueing up for the Kentucky Christmas dinner package at KFCs across the country since 1970. Back then, Takeshi Okawara, the manager of Japan’s first KFC, noticed a hole in the market: there was no national tradition for Christmas.

He started offering a Party Barrel around the holidays, which eventually evolved into the nation-wide “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign, the positive effects of which are still being felt today. Mr. Okawara served as the CEO of KFC Japan for 18 years, and the holiday season currently brings in a third of the chain’s annual sales.

While incorporating the holidays into a brand’s marketing efforts is nothing new, there’s been a recent effort to take it a step further by incorporating branded traditions into holidays and other cultural moments.

This year, Burger King’s Whopper Exchange encouraged people to bring in unwanted Christmas gifts in exchange for a free burger the day after Christmas, with all the gifts being donated to an unspecified charity. How long until Boxing Day burgers become a tradition?

REI made waves last year when they took the Black Friday occasion to close their doors and encourage people to make a new holiday tradition in the great outdoors with family. This year, they’re at it again and have been joined by the likes of the National Parks Foundation and Outdoor Research.

While the traditional smoldering yule log has long since been replaced by hours-long videos of roaring fireplaces on Netflix and YouTube, Lagavulin took it up another notch last year with Nick Offerman’s 'Yule Log'. For 45 uninterrupted minutes, Mr. Offerman sits and silently drinks Lagavulin next to a roaring fire, and I can’t tell you how many holiday parties I’ve been at that have featured this stoic masterpiece in the background. Lagavulin doubled down this year with Nick Offerman's 'New Years Eve', clearly aiming to further cement its place in holiday celebrations.

And of course, we have Coca-Cola to thank for the single most prevalent aspect of modern Christmas holiday traditions: Santa Claus himself. While old St. Nick has existed in various forms over the centuries, the plump, rosy-cheeked version we know today sky-rocketed to world renown primarily because of a wildly successful Coke campaign from the 1920s. (However, contrary to popular belief, this version of Santa was not created by the soda company, only popularized by it.)

Does marketing exploit wholesome cultural traditions, or are cultural traditions just another form of marketing? Perhaps it depends on how one defines “marketing.” Culture has always been subjective, of course, but the act of convincing someone to change their behavior in a way that benefits another has existed since cave paintings. When that behavior invokes nostalgia and strengthens relationships, it’s tradition — but when it involves a purchasing decision, it’s called “marketing.”

As we head into a new year and collectively examine our own behaviors and how we might change them, it may do us all well to consider not only what we’re doing, but who it is that wants us to do it and why they care so much.

A very happy — and examined — new year to you all.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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