Valentine’s Day each year brings with it accusations of shameless appropriatation of sacred rituals by retailers. But of course, there is nothing new in the commercialisation of rituals and traditions. Following enforcement of Confucianism in the Ming and Qing dynasties of China, the nuo exorcism ritual was re-created as an often expensive personal experience performed by nuo Masters for a group of households. Today, the Chinese ritual of Singles Day, on 11th November (11-11), an event reportedly entirely invented by the billionaire entrepreneur and founder of ecommerce site Alibaba, Jack Ma, generates £14bn annually from Chinese consumers, many of whom ritually purchase 4 dough sticks (’11-11’) for breakfast, but for no other apparent reason. Just so with St. Valentine’s Day, which traces its origins back to the attempts to ‘Christianise’ the pagan festival of Lupercalia, when at the end of the 5th century Pope Gelasius settled on 14th February as the appropriate date. However, it was not embraced commercially until the 19th century with the advent of pre-printed and decorated cards.
How big is St Valentine’s Day today? Has it been fully ‘captured’ by retailers around the world and how have new, social media transformed the experience? Certainly, the event – celebrated not just in the UK, but in the US, France & Australia amongst other places – has extended beyond the simple exchange of cards into gift-giving behaviours reinforced by moral and peer group pressure, particularly amongst certain age and lifestyle groups and in particular settings such as the workplace. Jewellery, chocolates and flowers remain the persistent conventional favourites – with less valuable gifts tending to be bought at the last moment. In- store promotions and conventional advertising pile on the pressure to conform and are increasingly imaginative in their attempts to associate particular kinds of gifts with the day. This year, one growing trend is towards greater personalisation: a personalised ‘message in a bottle’; your significant other’s name spelled out in sweets; or the opportunity to name a star after a loved one, all figure in the 2017 list. And the gifting of experiences, rather than of simply products, are also still popular, with gifts going beyond the usual spa visits and fine dining to include a glamping break for two, and a Segway rally adventure. Nor is such gift-giving restricted to human relationships: this year, the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home in London is offering tickets to a ‘Feline Lonely’ event at which would-be pet owners can acquire one of the home’s 3,000 cats.
Social & mobile media, so ubiquitous in every other aspect of our lives, have also begun to exert their influence on the 14th February. Brands themselves have been quick to extend their Valentine’s promotional activity to social media platforms. Lush’s #loveislove LGBT campaign proposes that ‘love transcends gender’ in featuring same-sex couples enjoying Lush bath bombs. Interflora has reinvented the role of flowers in proposals of marriage, by crowdsourcing ideas for the ‘ultimate proposal’ (whether through skywriting or guerilla performances). The public has voted for its favourite amongst the last four and the winning ‘creative proposal’ will be secretly filmed and released online in time for Valentine’s Day. Let’s hope they say ‘yes’!
It would seem complaining about the commercialisation of St Valentine has become as much of a ritual as the day itself and in the use of new technology, personalisation, mobile phones and pets, the celebration of St Valentine’s Day echoes many of the contemporary trends we can see more broadly in the market place. So I just havn’t the heart to criticise it.
Jonathan Reynolds is Professor in Retail Marketing at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School and author, with Alan Treadgold, of ‘Navigating the New Retail Landscape: a Guide for Business Leaders’, published in 2016 by Oxford University Press.
 Li, L., (2016), Popular Religion in Modern China: The New Role of Nuo, Routledge.
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