My family’s Thanksgiving is all food. You may recognize some foods like mashed potatoes and turkey. There are some twists. Because I was raised in the Caribbean, I am allowed to have a Caribbean dish. The menu, with some flexibility thrown in, brings us together as a family and acknowledges our diverse cultural backgrounds.
You and your family probably share similar traditions. Filipino-American families may serve pancit. Russian-American families might serve a side dish of borscht. This is what makes Thanksgiving so special. Thanksgiving is a holiday that people of all religions and ethnicities celebrate.
But despite the adaptability of this meal, it has a core component that almost everyone enjoys. How did it come about? Advertisers are responsible for the dinner, but few people realize it.
A uniquely broad appeal
Sarah Josepha Hale argued in 1846 that Thanksgiving would unite the nation. Through our research, my colleagues and I have been able to show that Hale’s vision of the holiday was largely realized: Thanksgiving is a holiday that celebrates inclusivity and diversity.
Its appeal is due to the fact that it has no association with any institutionalized religion. One interviewee said, “There’s no other purpose but to sit down with family and be grateful.”
As a relatively young holiday, one that is not linked to a religious tradition or patriotic custom, a shared understanding and appreciation of the celebrations and meals are crucial for its survival.
The Thanksgiving meal, despite its subtle differences, is the heart of the holiday and the thing that brings people together. Thanksgiving is a familiar meal that includes turkey, cranberry, stuffing, and gravy. There are also salads, apple pie, pumpkin pie, alcohol, and salad dressings. Most of the people we interviewed served some variation of this list.
Why these products and not others, you may ask? What makes pumpkin pie, cranberry compote, and turkey so special? To find out, my colleagues and I analyzed 99 years’ worth of Thanksgiving ads from Good Housekeeping.
Marketing as a Ritual
The history of Thanksgiving, starting with Sarah Josepha Hale’s early advocacy, is deeply rooted in the marketing industry. Marketers were responsible for many Thanksgiving rituals and myths, and they legitimized them.
Aladdin Cooking Utensils advertised its double roaster on the cover of a 1920 Good Housekeeping issue. Good Housekeeping
In the beginning, the turkey competedcompeted with other meats such as duck, goose, and chicken for the center of the table at Thanksgiving.
By the 1920s, turkey was the only meat advertised. Early ads focused on the best way to cook and present a bird. They would promote branded products like oven cooking bags, pop-up temperature meters, roasters, and ranges.
Swift’s Premium turkey ads emphasized the importance of the meal with images of families praying and giving thanks. The turkey’s importance to Thanksgiving is stressed, which helps to perpetuate Thanksgiving turkey traditions.
Early ads for Eatmor Cranberry Company promoted their whole cranberries as a great complement to all meat dishes at Thanksgiving. The Eatmor Cranberry Company dominated the market until 1930 when Ocean Spray entered the scene with its canned gelatin-cranberry sauce.
Eatmor Cranberries, which was once the king of Thanksgiving Cranberry Sauce, advertises in an issue of Good Housekeeping from November 1926. Good Housekeeping
Both brands claimed that cranberry has been around since Thanksgiving, but this was not true. The brand positioning war was successful in promoting cranberry as the perfect condiment to serve with Thanksgiving turkey. Ocean Spray won and still promotes whole cranberries, canned gelatin, and cans of cranberries.
Pumpkin pie is often considered the quintessential dessert for Thanksgiving, but it was not served at the very first meal. The Pilgrims did not have the ingredients to make pastry, such as butter, wheat flour, and sugar. Nevertheless, since 1925, a variety of brands – such as Borden’s Snowdrift and Mrs. Smith’s Libby’s – have been competing fiercely to link pumpkin pie with the season, holiday, and meal. This rivalry continues today.
Consumers have a role to play.
Not all product categories or brands have been able to become a part of Thanksgiving dinner.
Swift’s Premium Turkey advertisement from 1964. Wishbook
In a 1960s Welch’s advertisement, it is implied that the first Thanksgiving dinner included grape juice. Diamond walnuts were marketed in 1928 as a way to enhance Thanksgiving dishes. Although Welch’s Grape Juice and Diamond walnuts have been associated with Thanksgiving for decades, despite loud ad campaigns.
The ads from the early 20th century for turkeys clearly resonated. Today, almost 88 percent of U.S. homes have turkey at Thanksgiving, and about 20% of turkeys are eaten on any given Thanksgiving. The marketing influence on Thanksgiving is evident. Butterball, formerly Swift’s premium, is a big business for Thanksgiving.
You play a part in the celebration of Thanksgiving, whether you are a turkey fan or not. Many of the traditions of Thanksgiving were influenced by marketers. All Americans, regardless of their background, do their part in maintaining these traditions.