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t e x tv e r s i o n

I'm Dreaming of a White National Cheese Day

The Selling of the American Calendar

[ by Alan Benson ]

greeting card After the French Revolution, while the guillotine was still busy parting aristocrats from their heads, a cadre of professors, intellectuals, and radical antimonarchists came up with a new decimal calendar that sliced the year up into twelve 30-day months of three ten-day "decades." This new calendar signaled a break with monarchist tradition and was seen as a more scientific way of keeping time. The calendar also signaled a break with simplicity, since each day had its own name. Not like "Tuesday, April 15" or "Monday, November 23," but like "Eggplant" or "Manure." Granted, it's a bit more catchy and a hell of a lot more specific, but would you want "Birthdate: Manure" on your drivers license?

The French gave up on their calendar in 1806, and calendar-makers around the globe heaved a sigh of relief, happy that this foolishness was behind them.

Or was it? Fast forward to America in the '90s, and we find that practically every day, every week, and every month has its own name. Only instead of "Eggplant" and "Thermidor," we have "Moon Day," "National Chemistry Week," "National Peanut Butter Lovers' Month," and even "National Mustard Day." And every one of these holidays has a sponsor, a person or group who's spent the money convincing Congress and/or calendar makers to include his or her holiday, no matter how spurious.

It's easy to figure out the sponsor of some of these: National Senior Health and Fitness Day--The Mature Market Resource Center

National History Day--The History Channel

National Milk Week--The National Fluid Milk Processor (or, conceivably, some well-funded cow)

National Private Investigators' Day--PI Magazine, the National Association of Investigative Specialists, and several state PI associations

Others are a bit harder to decipher: National Chemistry Week--the defense industry? A cabal of science geeks?

National Blueberry Month--the muffin man?

National Cartoon Arts Appreciation Week--Mickey Mouse?

National Consumers Week--a bank? another business?

National Courtesy Month--Miss Manners?

Happy National Denim Day!And that's not even including the unholy trinity of Hallmark-inspired consumerism: Mother's Day, Father's Day, and Saint Valentine's Day (yeah yeah yeah, I know it's a real Catholic holiday, but would people be buying reams of cards, tons of chocolates, and gallons of perfume if Valentine had switched duties with, say, Saint Sithney, patron saint of mad dogs, or Martin de Porres, patron saint of race relations?)

Love mustard? So does Mount Horeb Mustard Museum. They deemed August 3 to be National Mustard Day. Crazy about pickles? May brings International Pickle Week. Old tennis shoes? March 20 is Rotten Sneaker Day. Dairy products, cleanliness, and politics? This year, Cheese Day, Clear Off Your Desk Day, and Presidential Inauguration Day all fall on January 20. Astronomy? Take your pick: various calendars claim it's either April 19 or May 13.

The proliferation of these holidays has made for some strange bedfellows. Not only is February American Heart Month and National Boost-Your-Self-Esteem Month, it's now National Canned Food Month and National Snack Food Month. So if your self-esteem's in the pits, at least you can bury your sorrows in salty snack foods, safe in the knowledge that National Diet Month, January, is almost a year away. A good binge might even keep you until October (National Pizza Month, National Pasta Month, National Dessert Month).

Why? Why is there a fascination with giving each day, week, and month a name? Is it really possible that we have learned nothing at all from France's mistakes? How did this ridiculous obfuscation of the calendar happen?

Holidays, for one thing, make good PR. They're stealth ads, basically. They appear to be on the up-and-up while providing a news hook for story-hungry.

For example, when faced with the difficult task of promoting an anti-incontinence device, the Contigen Bard Collagen Implant, PR firm Hill and Knowlton invented Bladder Health Week. H&K's client, Bard, teamed up with the Bladder Health Council of the American Foundation for Urologic Disease to help promote the festivities. "We realized we could not move the needle on an issue of this magnitude alone. The Bladder Health Council provided the credibility and visibility that helped us achieve the objectives of the campaign," Bard Marketing Director Rhett Frye told O'Dwyer's PR Services Report. In other words, the BHC's involvement made it look like less of a craven grab for bucks.

H&K provided camera-ready ads, press releases, radio ads, community education ideas, and a public service announcement featuring former Partridge Family mom Shirley Jones (whose star has fallen farther then we thought).

O'Dwyer's reported that the effort resulted in a stunning 182 print stories and 63 broadcast stories. (One imagines the lower broadcast number probably has a lot to do with the fact that it's hard to find acceptable images for an incontinence story.) The newsletter also reports that more than 1,000 health care providers conducted special Bladder Health Week events.

For its troubles, Bard was amply rewarded. O'Dwyer's reports that the Bladder Health Council "awarded Bard its Presidential Award for the program, the first company to receive the award." Interestingly enough, the other awardees included Jones, Bob Dole, Stan Musial, Abigail Van Buren, Lou Gossett Jr., and former Carmel-by-the-Sea mayor Clint Eastwood. (O'Dwyer's did not mention whether incontinence was a requirement for receiving the award.)

Another example: The American Numismatic Association, sponsors of National Coin Week (April 20-26, 1997), has some ideas of how to get involved in their cause on their website (www.money.com). The group's education director, James Taylor, talks about coin fans' attempts to raise awareness of rare coins:

Gail Kraljevich made purchases all around Philadelphia using uncut sheets of paper money and a scissors. Not only did her lucky family eat well that week, but she answered the questions of a lot of curious people.

Michael Fay and Alex, his nine-year-old son, salted Alex's suburban New York school lunch cash register with more than 400 rarely seen, but low-value coins so each student would receive one coin. Parents were notified in advance so they too could become involved in their child's `discovery.'

And, more likely, so that they wouldn't go apeshit and complain to the school.

Not only does a holiday help rally the troops, it's a devilishly clever way of getting the media on your side. A random story about peanut butter isn't all that appealing to your average assignment editor, but a weekly list of recipes all throughout National Peanut Butter Month: hey, that's news!

Lee Apparel has taken this idea to its logical but devious extreme: linking a spurious holiday with a noble cause. The company's Lee Denim Day, October 25, is a financial benefit for breast cancer research and a PR goldmine for the company. On Lee Denim Day (notice that it's not plain old Denim Day--Lee may be greedy, but they ain't stupid) workers who donate $5 to breast cancer research get permission to wear jeans to work. Lee jeans, natch. This all but guarantees media coverage and ensconces Lee in the hearts and mind of the buying public.

There's also a more sinister way to get prime consumers--kids--involved in these "holidays": you can subvert the schools. In his new book, Giving Kids the Business, Alex Molnar recounts how Lifetime Learning System, which is co-owned by Weekly Reader and Channel One publisher K-III Communi-cations, used teachers as potato-chip pimps during February, which is both National Potato Lover's Month and Snack Food Month.

The promotion came packed in an envelope marked "Open immediately! Free educational program focusing on math, social science, and language arts skills enclosed." Inside, the teachers found "Count Your Chips," a thinly veiled marketing piece for the National Potato Board and the Snack Food Association. Count your Chips encouraged kids to compute the number of chips eaten by Americans each year, explore the history of potato chips, and investigate people's favorite flavors. Who would have thought cramming Pringles down your gullet was educational?

Molnar's book also includes information about other LLS projects, including a collaboration with General Mills on the "Gushers (fruit snacks) Wonders of the World." And no, there is no level to which these goons will not stoop.

So how does one go about getting a National Whatever Day? There are three basic ways. Michael Moore's TV Nation did a bit about this phenomenon a couple of years ago. They contracted a lobbying firm whose specialty was in big-business negotiations (there are several firms who specialize in such services) to get an official TV Nation day declared. The palms were greased, Congress voted it in, and the now-canceled show was given an official day. The cost? Five thousand dollars; small change for the pork, milk, or beef lobbies.

More appealing causes--anti-drug efforts, anti-birth-defects groups--can get around the need for lobbyists by handling the negotiations themselves. Get a couple of senators on your side, and whadya know? The Great American Smokeout goes national.

Of course, there is an alternative. Why involve Congress at all? If you want a holiday, declare it. There's nothing anyone can do about it. After all, Thanksgiving was celebrated for decades before it became a national holiday.

The fact is, the government has no trademark on the word national, though the word gives the ring of truth to an otherwise unbelievable holiday. There's no law that says National Stay Free! Day has to be declared by Congress. Heck, there's nothing stopping us from declaring June to be National Stay Free! Awareness Month. And that simple fact means it's been open season on the calendar.

All this method requires is the will to do it, a (relatively) open day on the calendar, and some advertising bucks. Of course, if you're going to go about it this way, it helps to have friends. More specifically, it helps to have friends like the huge marketing firm Porter/Novelli Public Relations. Porter/Novelli (whose company slogan is the Orwellian "We change minds") handles PR for such clients as Gillette and SmithKline Beecham's Tagamet.

A couple of years ago, they took on a new challenge: transforming February, traditionally a slow month in snack-food sales, into National Snack Food Month. Coincidentally, two of the firm's bigger clients are the Snack Food Association and the National Potato Promotion Board, who generously agreed to sponsor the month.

In a press release on their website, Porter/Novelli describe how they met their objective of "benefiting more than 100 member companies in the [Snack Food] Association":

Declaring February "National Snack Food Month."

Creating the concept of "snackertaining," entertaining yourself, friends and family with home video viewing and snack foods.

Retail display contest for most creative Snack Food Month displays.

The result? Well, the title of the release says it all: "Supermarket Sales of Snack Foods Jump by as Much as 386 Percent During National Snack Food Month."

Three hundred and eighty-six percent! In America, the land of deep-fried, chocolate-coated, heavily salted snacks! If only National Long Live Lefties Day (June 10) had such a backer.

And hey, if you're lucky, a pol will retroactively declare your chosen day National Whatever Day. It worked with Thanksgiving.

So c'mon; who's up for some rousing Denim Day carols?

HERE'S A SHORT (BELIEVE IT OR NOT) LIST OF HOLIDAYS