Feast your mince pies on some christmas humbug

It’s official – corporations have killed Christmas by George Pitcher

Now he has been found, I wonder if Saddam Hussein can expect a Christmas card from George Bush or Tony Blair? I ask not only because, as committed Christians, both the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister must buy in to the principle of unconditional goodwill to all in the festive season, but also because nothing would surprise me any more when it comes to the business of sending Christmas cards.

I know of one top FTSE chief executive, back in the Eighties, who had just been embroiled in one of the most acrimoniously contested takeover bids of that period. He lost the defence of his company in late December and was unceremoniously dumped by the new shareholders.

During the takeover fight, he had been described as “incompetent” by the predator and his board had been accused of being incapable of delivering value to shareholders. My friend had been vilified in the financial press by the acquirer as a spendthrift and as someone who would have struggled with the management of a whelk stall.

When it was all over, and he was spending time with his family, he was forwarded a Christmas card from the office. It featured a jolly Santa, his sleigh overflowing with gifts, and enjoined him to have a “Merry Christmas and Prosperous New Year” – and it was signed by his great detractor, who had just booted him out of his job.

This can either be viewed as an act of great cynicism, or as an affirmation that the Christmas spirit transcends such worldly matters as fiercely fought takeover bids. If it indicates the latter, then I think it’s only a short step to believing that if you bomb a dangerous tyrant into exile in a hole under a cellar in Iraq, then it’s a heart-warming touch to send him a picture of a robin with a seasonal greeting.

You may think that’s inappropriate, but frankly it’s just a matter of scale. It could be argued that it’s similarly inappropriate to wish a prosperous New Year to someone you’ve just bombed out of their job.

Many an institutional shareholder will tell you that predatory bidders for companies in which they have invested will approach them with militaristic language, talking of “liberating” them from the current management “regime”.

What I find odd is that these predators then send Christmas cards to the ousted regime. It’s as if the Christmas greeting has nothing to do with how they behave towards them at other times.

Conversely, the corporate Christmas greeting can reflect exactly how the recipient is treated by the company at other times of the year. I know people have long talked about the commercialisation of Christmas. But, when it comes to the festive greetings card, many companies have not so much commercialised Christmas as usurped it.

“Season’s Greetings from your premier supplier of bin-liners and rotary towels – we aim to keep your company and staff clean and hygienic throughout 2004.” I made that up, but it’s depressingly close to the truth.

There are encouraging signs, though, that companies are growing tired of the annual mail-shot, dressed up as Christmas goodwill. Or perhaps, having destroyed any semblance of the religious festival on which the whole act of card-sending was originally based, they just don’t see the point anymore.

Anyway, the Charity Christmas Card Council reports that sales of corporate Christmas cards have slumped by 40 per cent this year, with well under 1 million ordered. There are a couple of practical reasons for why this should be.

Firstly, the unofficial postal strikes this year significantly undermined confidence in the Royal Mail as a conduit of corporate communication. Secondly – and related in part to the strikes – companies have gone online with Christmas greetings as never before.

Between the increasing numbers of e-mail offers to expand the size of intimate parts of my body are wedged, bizarrely, the Christmas wishes of companies that have decided they no longer want to send a card that I can wedge in the Venetian blinds, trimmed with tinsel.

These virtual cards are invariably accompanied by some sort of smug indication that the sender has donated its seasonal-greetings budget to a charity. Leaving aside the departure from varied scriptural teachings that acts of charity should be done in private, some of these e-mails have really quite high production values.

That leaves me wondering how the economics of this form of corporate giving work, since it seems that one kind of corporate expense is being replaced with another. Maybe it just saves the staff time on the hassle of hard-copy card despatch. Perhaps the Charity Christmas Card Council can explain.

As part of my own selfless contribution to corporate Christmas card culture, I offer the following advice as my last contribution of the year for those who still send cards. Please, never ever use your company logo in a humorous setting alongside Father Christmas and/or his reindeer.

And don’t photocopy your signatures, you cheapskates. That’s like filling your children’s stockings with promissory notes. And what, exactly, are you trying to say with romanticised paintings of Victorian London in the snow?

Meanwhile, instead of writing a Christmas column next year, Pitcher Journalistic Enterprises (Cayman) is inviting contributions to the Self-Opinionated Old Testy Hacks (Sooth) fund. Details at www.corporatehypocrisy.com. Merry Christmas.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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