Officially, Presidents Day doesn’t exist.
Okay, it does and it doesn’t. While attempts to pass a federal bill designating an official Presidents Day holiday have failed, most states recognize the third Monday in February as Presidents Day, an amalgamation of Washington’s birthday, Lincoln’s birthday, and a general day to respect all presidents.
Like most such holidays, Presidents Day offers little in the way of civic celebrations, and a whole lot in the way of SALES! In fact, marketers had as much to do with creating this holiday as anyone did. When citizen lobby groups failed, marketers pushed Presidents Day via auto and furniture sales ads, in newspapers all across the land. If you’re a Gen X’er, you probably have early memories of staring at a “Presidents Day Sale” newspaper insert and wondering, “What do the founding fathers have to do with low-low-low priced mattresses?”
We may never be sure of the connection, but now that we’re in the business of selling those mattresses and pre-owned cars, we can all appreciate the hard work of the content marketers who came before us. Those wily and resourceful souls convinced the country that, after six long winter weeks, what the American public really needs is a day off… to spend in a car dealership.
Let’s have a look at the evolution of Presidents Day messaging:
Disney leads the pack… as always
Fully 20 years before other marketers considered running a campaign around this holiday, Disney cleverly found a way to tie patriotism in with a midweek trip to Disneyland. By George, let’s break out the fife and drums, and parade the whole family off to see the Mouse!
Holiday Inn casts the three-day weekend hook.
Is GW’s bust wearing a tropical shirt? Does GW’s face look somewhat disgusted with his situation? And, why is GW floating in a sea of fine print? Was it really necessary to lay out all those T+Cs, or did someone just really feel like this ad needed a full page of copy? No matter, for the headline tells every consumer the important information, and it only takes three words: Third day free!
Radio Shack, not knowing its future was brief…
If you were born before 1991 and have somehow managed to make it through the last 10 years without ever feeling old, or out of the loop, or not totally up on the technology, then congratulations. And here’s a Huffington Post article that will test your confidence: It features a Radio Shack newspaper ad for its Presidents Day Sale in 1991. Every single gadget on the page has been rendered obsolete by smartphones. (Moment of silence for the dearly beloved portable CD player, and for CDs in general.)
Mattresses… the loud outlier
We’re not sure which mattress retailer was the first to grab on to Presidents Day sales, and it’s hard to say which brand is the loudest. The key point is: Mattress sales own our Presidents Day consciousness, from childhood to present. Between the shouty radio ads, the cheesy TV commercials and the ubiquitous newspaper inserts, the third Monday of February might more accurately be called Mattress Day.
Ads like this one make us nostalgic, in spite of the fact presidents don’t wear crowns. However, legacy retailers like Mattress Firm and Mattress Warehouse better look out, because there’s a new pack of direct-to-consumer mattress purveyors looking to dominate the day — and the market. And they are brutal in their quest.
Honest Abe, loop enthusiast
This ad is for musical equipment, and it’s pretty timeless in its tackiness. Abe Lincoln is behind a drum kit, sticks held high. Wearing sunglasses. And the drum kit has a peace sign/American flag motif. This is a low-budget ad that makes an outrageous claim AND is unclear in its messaging, yet we still like it. Because we want to believe that President Lincoln was a loop enthusiast, whether we want musical instruments at 50% off or not.