Market is ready to package spiritual yearnings


HE WHO hesitates is going to be poorly According to new research from an Ohio university, procrastination makes you in. Seasonally interpreted, this means if you still haven't done your Christmas shopping, the last-minute stress of it all will see you in bed for Christmas, devouring fistfuls of aspirin, hallucinating about starting next year's shopping sometime in February.

This year, I should be pleased to report, I was way ahead of the game. Children were still impaling their mucky little feet on Halloween nut shells when I sallied forth to the toy store, aglow with righteousness. Within 30 minutes, I had hurled most of Hong Kong's GNP into the trolley, pausing only over the £80 price tag on a children's video camera. Determined not to be a statistic for some American university, I chucked it in the trolley anyway. Two weeks later, the same camera was selling for £40.

Suckered? Me? I cheered myself up by remembering the other suckers that had queued up with me in mid-November, pleading for a place on the waiting list for Buzz Lightyear. (Don't know Buzz? Count your blessings). This in turn provoked a resentful trawl back through other years and other miserable queues - for Cabbage Patch dolls, Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Batman, Nintendo, Transformers, Baywatch Barbies - hopeless queues as it turned out, triggering frantic calls to friends in Fresno, odd cousins in Cuzco, sworn enemies in Samoa who might just have that yearned-for piece of plastic tat sitting pretty in the local huckster shop.

Are the marketing people who get their figures so woefully wrong simply mistaken (remember, these are the same ones who spend up to two years "researching" a toy) - or are we? Of course the suspicion has long since dawned that the vanishing wonder toy is deliberate. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to suspect a strategy release the movie/video/TV series at carefully planned intervals, advertise the merchandise sufficiently to pique an interest, then create a "shortage" to provoke a run on it. We fall for it every single year.

Naturally, the run is never on something that costs a fiver. This year's must-haves - Action Man Heligun and Baby Born - cost £44.50 and £33 respectively. Neither can be had for love or money (Heligun sold out two months ago) so what will the heart-attack candidates reach for as consolation prizes? Why, all the Action Man/Baby Born paraphernalia of course, in the ridiculous hope that the child won't notice.

We explain away this kind of madness by saying that it's for the children - sure, how could we deny them? But toys are only a fraction of it. The truth is that we've allowed ourselves to be suckered at every level. A radio ad with a Jingle Bells soundtrack was poisoning the airwaves back in September. Was there a storm of outrage on Liveline? Not that I heard. Christmas lights were already being installed around streets and shopping centres at the beginning of November.

And - surprise, surprise - the strategy works. Of course it works. Shops are hardly going to take a massive hit on their electricity bills without being fairly confident of the benefits. Stupid, stupid us. The pressure builds and the disease spreads. Women who usually struggle back to the office laden with groceries now return from lunch, whey-faced, staggering under the weight of a Western Fort. (I'm not being sexist here polls everywhere show that the stress of Christmas falls disproportionately on women. Men tend to leave it till the afternoon of Christmas Eve to get stressed, leading to "very theatrical" scenes, according to one store manager, as they hurtle hysterically from shop to shop. If procrastination makes you ill, that lot should be six feet under).

Given that the retail industry actively feeds this mayhem, it was hard to suppress a snort of derision when one British department store recently announced a "Goodwill Detective" scheme to encourage some civility among its customers. The idea is that employees, disguised as shoppers, reward customers seen to help their fellow shoppers. Season of goodwill indeed.

At Christmas, says a Selfridges spokesman, "people get much more short-tempered, rude and intolerant - we regularly have to turn off escalators because people trample each other".

"They damage fixtures and fittings in their rush to shop .. . We have had the legs ripped off jeans in struggles between customers. It can get quite unpleasant". Last Christmas, five people suffered heart attacks while shopping in Selfridges. Countless others fainted or just keeled over. And for what? So we can keel over again in January when the credit card bills kick in?

THIS is no "Bah Humbug" argument I love Christmas. But I loathe being someone's puppet, the knowledge that my strings are being pulled by some sleazy marketing type on another continent. In England a few weeks ago, campaigners from various charities and environment groups marked International No Shopping Day as a protest against what they see as excessive consumerism in the West.

It's almost too boring to contemplate as you hurtle through the season of peace, harmony and goodwill to all, but there is clear cause and effect between consumption and environmental damage. For example, was that toy or T-shirt made by child labour in a sweat shop? If those arguments bore you rigid, then how about this one - when is enough enough? Must we always be forced by economic recession instead of reasoned debate to question the way we live?

The other long-running Christmas argument of, course is the most boring of all. Shopping malls have been described as the "new cathedrals". But you don't have to be a religious zealot to wonder, what happened to the old ones and all they stand for at times like this. Isn't there something amiss about Brown Thomas broadcasting Mary's Boy Child above its strictly secular Christmas windows? Why is a chemist shop on Grafton Street the only one to bother with a Nativity scene? Is it because any well-executed reminder of the original Christmas message might run counter to the urge to spend, spend, spend?

The Christian churches have their problems to be sure, but are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? The St Patrick's Cathedral carol service on Christmas Eve is one of the season's hottest tickets. Choirboys are among the season's pop stars. Dickens's A Christmas Carol - about a shrivelled man who finds humanity - is still one of our best-loved stories.

Deep inside many of us at Christmas is a longing for a spiritual connection with something. Call it nostalgia, call it cod-spirituality, call it anything you like, though I believe it to be something deeper than that. Anyway, the marketing people are on to it. When Decca's advertising budget for The Choirboy's Christmas exceeds that for Simply Red, you can be sure something is up. There's a gap in the market. Are the money men to start packaging our spiritual yearnings too?