Where Is The Love?
It’s not you, it’s Valentine’s Day
Where does Valentine’s Day come from?
Like love itself, the true historical origins of Valentine’s Day are mysterious. It could be the ancient pagan festival of Lupercalia, the beheading of St. Valentine or even the observance of February as bird-mating season, “when every bird cometh there to choose his mate,” as Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in his 1382 poem, Parliament of Fowls.
However it started, it wasn’t until the Industrial Age that Valentine’s Day came into its own as an annual celebration of love. Thanks to cheaper postage and the printing press, handwritten notes and mass-produced greeting cards were exchanged with abandon. Millions of red roses were sent to lovers. Sweethearts were spoiled with chocolates in heart-shaped boxes sold by Cadbury’s, one of the first companies to heavily cash in on the day’s gift-giving custom. Capitalism, amirite?
What does Valentine’s Day look like today?
Consumer sales may be at an all-time high of $20.7 billion — a 6% increase over last year — but there’s a growing cynicism around the day’s rampant commercialization.
In 2018, more than 30,000 couples ditched fancy meals and expensive gifts for a tacky but cute date at White Castle’s 27th annual Valentine’s Day dinner at participating restaurants across the country. In a bizarre gastronomical take on bougie culture, Heinz promoted a “Valen-HEINZ day” special and released 150 limited-edition jars of Ketchup Caviar. The Bronx Zoo’s annual roach adoption program invited visitors to seal it with a hiss by naming a Madagascar cockroach after someone they love, because “love is like a roach — elusive, resilient, and sometimes very scary.”
These marketing tactics, while clever and endlessly amusing, offer a sobering insight into contemporary attitudes towards Valentine’s Day: that we would rather deliver an ironic, self-aware performance of romance than indulge in any sincere, heartfelt gestures on a day so hopelessly hijacked by corporations for commercial gain.
Somewhere along the way, Valentine’s Day became a joke
What changed? Over the past couple of decades alone, we’ve seen a colossal cultural shift globally in how we view love, sex and relationships. What kind of emotion does Valentine’s Day evoke today? Is there more to it than cards, flowers, candy and jewelry? Can brands continue to coast along by appealing to just one demographic: straight couples in love? How has the target audience broadened?
Love has no gender
Gender fluidity is perhaps one of the biggest paradigm shifts to influence a global celebration of love that — like greeting card aisles lined with depictions of cisgender couples — is aggressively heteronormative. As traditional stereotypes and gender roles fade among a new generation, both brands and influencers have stepped to the fore. Popular non-binary celebrities like Jaden Smith, Ruby Rose, Asia Kate Dillon, Angel Haze, Rain Dove and Grimes have helped break down societal norms around femininity and masculinity through the way they talk, dress and behave.
Why should businesses care? While the idea that gender isn’t binary has been around for centuries, it’s fairly recent that Judith Butler managed to link “performativity” to gender in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble. We’re still in the early days of what this means for consumer culture, but it’s a shift in thinking that directly concerns branding, an industry whose key function is to understand how groups and individuals express their identities.
Fashion brands have already got a head start. We’ve written before about how The Phluid Project designed a commercial destination and social club for queer people as an answer to clothing stores still organized by gender. 69, a “non-demographic” lifestyle brand focuses on cottons and denims for now, but plans to ultimately expand to furniture, hotels and television. One DNA’s gender-neutral basic apparel is built for all genders, ages, shapes and races. Even female condoms — now renamed internal condoms by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — are poised to become more inclusive contraceptives that anyone can use, regardless of one’s gender identity.
Brands are helping drive social change globally. This Valentine’s Day Special commercial by Netflix India represents significant progress for the portrayal of same-sex couples in the Indian media, especially in a country that only decriminalized homosexuality in September 2018.
Developments like this also are likely to further evolve the positioning and marketing of gender-specific product lines, from shoes and personal care to fragrances and household appliances.
The rise of singlehood
Another shift in the collective outlook on relationships to have considerably influenced the commercial sphere is the rise of singlehood. Today there are more American adults ages 25 and older who have never been married — 1-in-5 adults in 2012 compared to only about 1-in-10 adults in 1960.
Dating app Tinder proudly endorses the spike in casual, non-exclusive dating with Single Not Sorry, the brand’s first major campaign about being unapologetically single. Chinese e-commerce platform Alibaba has managed to turn Singles’ Day on November 11 into a manic annual shopping extravaganza, which earned $30.8 billion in total sales last year.
Various cultural phenomena have emerged in tandem. NBC series Parks and Recreation alone is responsible for two of them — Tom Haverford’s Treat Yo Self mantra has helped redefine our modern understanding of self-care, and its Galentine’s Day episode transcended the show to become an actual day for honoring female friendships.
Breakups also are a common theme. Take comedian Daniel Sloss, who addresses the hopelessness of dead-end relationships and encourages long-term couples to break up. His 2018 Netflix stand-up special Jigsaw shot to viral fame for, according to his Twitter tally, allegedly causing 3,500 breakups, four cancelled engagements and seven divorces. On the day after Valentine’s Day, otherwise known as Singles’ Awareness Day, Snickers gave out free bouquets of Creamy Snickers to help New Yorkers patch things up and #SmoothItOver. Even post-breakup concierge service Onward knows what’s up: they take care of your moving and packing needs if you have a sudden falling-out with your live-in partner.
Our Tinderized world has often been referred to as the technosexual era, where dating is gamified and most couples meet online for the first time. Despite the untamed sexual expression characterized by our swipe society, the sex-positivity movement, and an abundance of free internet porn, Kate Julian from The Atlantic claims that young people might actually be experiencing a sex recession.
To what do we owe our waning libidos? Spritzy subway ads for erectile dysfunction meds from millennial sexual health brands like Hims and Roman abound everywhere. Researchers point to workaholism, surging anxiety, delayed couplehood and helicopter parenting as plausible explanations.
On a darker note, increasing social isolation has manifested in the Incel (involuntary celibate) movement as well as the MGTOW (men going their own way) community. In the Financial Times, columnist Pilita Clark notes that this is our second Valentine’s Day since the #MeToo movement. Things are different. Workplace romances have dwindled. Dating-app fatigue has replaced the liberating release of the swipe.
As our culture around love and dating has shifted, so have the ways in which brands talk to single people, the queer community, and the sexually inexperienced. The core demographic of Valentine’s Day is no longer just straight couples in love.
The perceptions, sentiments and experiences around Valentine’s Day have undoubtedly changed, which means that the day itself is in desperate need of an update. As it turns out, a local Philadelphia paper predicted this market opportunity more than 150 years ago, says historian Leigh Eric Schmidt. In Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays, he observes:
“What the country needed was ‘more soul-play and less head-work,’ more times that allowed for ‘an abandon of feeling,’ more occasions that laid aside ‘business cares and thoughts,’ and a revitalized Valentine’s Day — a respite for whimsy and caprice — fit the bill. Hidden in this quixotic relish of the holidays’ rebirth was a precious irony: It would be precisely the infusion of business concerns into the calendar that facilitated the romantic revival of ‘this blessed day.’”
And this — “more soul-play,” “an abandon of feeling,” “a respite for whimsy and caprice” — is exactly what we want in 2019. With or without Valentine’s Day, brands have the opportunity to embrace a mood that is a little less measured and little more spontaneous. Hormone-scopes in the daily paper? A no-poo shampoo called Unconditional Love? Aromatic candles for aromantics? Connect with people regardless of their relationship status. Make room for randomness and happy accidents. Saint Valentine knows we need it.