While Christmas shopping I came across a moisturizer called “hope in a jar.” Packaged in a cute ornament box with a tag, it was ready for giving — presumably to someone in need of hope. The manufacturer, Philosophy, sells other moisturizers with similar tongue-in-cheek names: “full of promise,” “take a deep breath,” and “keep the peace.” Philosophy twists the famous Scripture often read at weddings to state on its package, “Where there is hope there can be faith, and where there is faith miracles can occur.” While some people may take offense at this, or even at the concept that a product designed to smooth the skin is really providing hope, I take it as one company’s attempt to differentiate itself from the crowd.
“Hope in a jar” inhabits the same category of marketing language as “Hope Peace Jewelry,” a saying I saw in a store window, or “Inner Peas,” the name of a dried peas and sea salt snack at Trader Joe’s. It continues a long tradition of optimistic product names, such as “Miracle-Gro” plant food, “Joy” dishwashing liquid, and “CoverGirl” makeup. While we take many of these items’ names for granted, examples of hope-inspiring product names abound. What about “S.O.S” steel wool pads? Steel wool addresses a need, but is a dirty pan really cause to send up an S.O.S.? (The Clorox company notes that the official product name drops the final period and actually means Save Our Saucepans . . .) And, when all is said and done, how do you “bust dust?” The one that makes me wonder, however, is “Twenty Mule Team Borax Detergent Booster and Multi-purpose Household Cleaner.” I know our clothes get dirty, but twenty mules are more than we need, and they are definitely not going to fit in my laundry room!
Product names like these give hints at the item’s benefits, sometimes even offer their target consumers an inside joke. With a wink and a nod, they acknowledge that, while everyone knows you can’t package “hope” or “joyful dish washing,” isn’t it witty to say that we did?
Giving benefits the giver
Yet at the same time, products called things like “hope in a jar” subtly play into desires that surface, especially around the holidays, for things to be better — for our loved ones, ourselves, the world around us. Marketers know we have such goals in mind when choosing gifts for others, even if we don’t know it ourselves. For example, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal identified, among other things, that giving another person a gift requiring great thought on your part accrues a benefit mainly to yourself as the giver, but not to the receiver. To benefit the one who’s getting the gift, it’s recommended to “give them what they want.”
A lot more psychology, including giving expectations and “re-gifting” norms, goes into why people give the gifts we do. (As an aside, when did “gifting” become a real word? Does every noun in American English have to become a verb? What’s wrong with “giving?”) The fact remains, however, that a lot of cash and money on credit cards flows through the economy at this time of year.
The first Christmas giving
Original Christmas gift-giving can be traced to the Three Wise Men — you remember, “We Three Kings of Orient Are . . .” These Three Magi, according to the Biblical account, saw a new star in the heavens, and they thought it of such importance that they traveled to see what was going on beneath its location. Well-educated in astronomy or astrology, as would have been appropriate for courtly men in the first century, the Wise Men carried unusual gifts for the Baby Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
According to the reasoning in the WSJ article, if the Magi had really wanted to please the Baby Jesus and his family, they would have given him something he wanted. Gold of course was always helpful, and while frankincense and myrrh were spices with medicinal and practical uses in the first century, some might say Mary and Joseph could have benefited from a crib — it would have been nice if the Baby Jesus didn’t have to sleep in an animals’ feed box.
Before I go into even sillier speculation, or conversely, a theological discussion of symbolism behind the Gifts of the Magi, here’s my takeaway: The Wise Men’s gifts didn’t address practical needs or wants. Their acts of giving may not even have contemplated the getting end of the transaction — they didn’t choose their gifts based on how the receiver might react. But they did give as acts of hope, of faith, and of joy.
Giving, getting, but most of all, hoping. I want to make the Magis’ attitude my own.
Now, with that in mind, back to the mall.
Image credits: Sephora.com, Wall Street Journal, mRio, Flickr, John Salmon