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Love does cost a thing: The marketing history of St. Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day sparks many of the enamored to celebrate their hearts flitting all aflutter about loved ones. However, some of those fortunate enough to bear wounds from Cupid’s love-tipped arrows may also spend the day feeling “had” by perhaps one of the most clever, for-profit marketing “ploys” to evolve during this millennium.

For decades, profiteers relied on their marketing tactics to capitalize on the spending practices of the love sick, effectively turning the romantic holiday into a stream of cash.

In fact, Americans are expected to spend an estimated $15.7 billion on traditional Valentine’s Day merchandise in 2011, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2011 Valentine’s Day Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey conducted by BIGresearch. This means the average person will spend 11% more, or $116.21, to show their love in 2011 compared to last year’s $103.00.

“Some may opt for a quiet night out or a home cooked meal to keep costs down, but it seems there are others who are a little more interested in a nice night on the town,” said Phil Rist, Executive Vice President of BIGresearch’s strategic initiatives, in a recent press release.

“Jewelry, candy and apparel sales should provide a nice boost for retailers during the typically slower months of January and February,” added NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.

It’s not a secret that marketing sweet deals for the romantic holiday translates into sales boosts for retailers during these slower winter months. But the truth about Valentine’s Day is that decadent chocolates, sparkling jewelry, rose bouquets and candlelit dinners did not always symbolize smitten emotions. Long before big-box retail and marketing gurus usurped romantic gestures in lieu of a profitable Hallmark® retail opportunity, marriage served as the free commodity of choice.

Legend has it that in the third century, circa 260 A.D., Roman Emperor Claudius II banned marriage because he equated his inability to round up healthy young soldiers to wage war on his foes to the young men’s penchant to stay home with their wives. As a result, the outlawed ceremony gained appeal among lovesick couples, as well as an outspoken priest named Valentine. Valentine, also known in some religious circles as Valentinus, raged against the societal injustice by performing marriages without the establishment’s knowledge. That is, until it found out. Woe subsequently befell the imprisoned Valentine, who bided his time struck by the sudden ardors of a young girl brave enough to visit his jail cell. The story says, Valentine expressed his feelings by sending a note to the lassie, signed “From Your Valentine,” a line still used today on Valentine’s card exchanges.

“Then they cut off his head,” notes humor columnist Maggie Lamond Simone in The Huffington Post.

Later, during the Middle Ages, Roman men and women took Valentine’s marketing to a new level of popularity. The city supported an annual dating “lottery” system whereupon the city’s bachelors would pluck names of single women from a big urn and pair off with them for one year, many ending in marriage. That is, until Pope Gelasius banned the practice and formally declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day.

The stories get murky from there, but February 14 gained mass marketing popularity among the British in the 1600s and more so by the 1700s when many people exchanged “small tokens of affection or handwritten notes” and later printed cards, according to the History Channel’s history.com.

“Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged,” states history.com.

But the mass appeal Americans (and their wallets) have come to love is due to a Worcester, Massachusetts woman and daughter of a printer, who capitalized on her passion for the paper lace cards of the English. Circa 1847, Esther Howard, inspired by a Valentine she received from England, became the first American to mass produce Valentine’s Day cards.

Today, Hallmark reports Valentine’s Day is the second most popular holiday for card sending with 141 million cards sent per year. Christmas generates 1.5 billion.

Over the years, some argue the romance Valentine’s Day has come to represent is damaged by the subsequent mass marketing. However, other countries seem to continue buying into the marketing effort, including Japan that celebrates not one, but two days. On February 14, Japanese women are obligated to give chocolates to men, including their co-workers; whereas men are supposed to return the favor on March 14, or White Day, by giving women a white gift, usually lingerie.

And in America, marketing firms can’t seem to get enough of the holiday’s potential financial returns, as evidenced by one advertising firm’s website tips to others:

“Whether you consider V-day the most romantic day of the year or just a ‘Hallmark Holiday’ generated day to spend money, the fact is Valentine’s Day is the 4th largest retail holiday of the year … (and) it presents tons of opportunity.

About the Author: Marissa Yaremich, UOPX Writer Network,

We’d love to hear about any Valentines marketing you’ve been doing this year.. how successful has it been?

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