Pop Culture

Marketing a Pagan Holiday


In the United States, Halloween is an $8 billion a year industry – and growing. It is second only to Christmas in terms of generating sales, and it ranks No. 1 in candy sales, topping even Valentine’s Day. Halloween is also the third largest party occasion, after New Year’s and the Super Bowl. And it is not just kids who celebrate. More than 62% of American adults between the ages of 18-24 say they wear Halloween costumes; 44% between the ages of 25-34, and 40% between the ages of 34-44.

The demographic spread of Halloween revelers gives mask and costume makers a lot of latitude. Adults tend to favor masks of the real heroes and villains in the news; teen boys go for gore and gorillas, and little girls are drawn to storybook heroines like the Little Mermaid. Celebrities rating their own mask is nearly the equivalent of being honored in a wax museum.

The reason we find this relevant to our business/design blog is that Halloween is a tribute to marketing genius. It’s not a patriotic holiday, not a religious holiday, and not an historic commemoration. Like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, it’s a “merchant-promoted holiday” devised largely to sell more products.

Halloween actually traces its origin back about two thousands years to the ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, which marked the end of summer and the start of the dark, cold winter. It was at this time that the boundaries between the living and dead blurred, and the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. The Celts wore masks to avoid being recognized by ghosts, lit sacred bonfires, carved lanterns out of squash to light the way for good spirits, and left food offerings to keep roaming spirits from making mischief. The stern Protestant colonists who settled America didn’t buy into such pagan rites. Halloween was not recognized until it was brought to the U.S. by Irish immigrants fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846. It quickly became America’s favorite non-holiday holiday, an excuse to wear silly costumes, throw parties and get strangers to give you free sweets. At Halloween, merchants don’t say “boo”; they say “ka-ching, ka-ching!”