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Datacember 9th: War on Christmas sees cyclical truce

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It’s an annual tradition as reliable as the lighting of the White House Christmas tree, the airing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the dramatic increase in airfares: The gnashing of teeth over the “War on Christmas.”

This year it was Starbucks’ turn to step in it. Maybe you remember that when the coffee shop came out with its much-anticipated, holiday-themed cup, it landed with a healthy dose of controversy. The cup was plain red — no reindeer, no snowflakes, no ornaments, no Christmas icons.  

Bah Humbug mug

A self-described “social media personality” took to Facebook and video to say that the plain cups were a sign that Starbucks hated Jesus, according to CNN/Money. Starbucks said, not at all, and in fact, the cup was a reflection of the company’s support for “belonging, inclusion and diversity,” the story says. The blank canvass, Starbucks representatives continued, allows each “customer to tell their Christmas stories in his or their own way,” CNN/Money reports.

The back-and-forth survived a news cycle or two. But even with the Starbucks hubbub, the War on Christmas deal this year didn’t come anywhere close to the notoriety it gained in 2005, according to Google Trends, which provides data on keyword searches.

Google War on Christmas Trends

The 2005 search spike, which is about ten times the level of searches this year, appears to coincide with a series of commentaries by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, who spent part of that holiday season reporting on which retailers were using the word “Christmas” in their advertisements and which weren’t.  

No doubt it’s interesting to see how the controversy comes and goes over the years. After a significant run in 2013, the phrase mostly took the holidays off last year, with searches falling to barely half of what they hit this November as the Starbucks brouhaha was brewing.

But looking at the trend line also illustrates how data often comes with limitations. Sure, watching the trend line is a reasonable way to get a handle on how intensely people care about a given subject. But what’s missing, of course, is: care how?

Are those searching for information on the “War on Christmas” angry about the way Starbucks designed their cups this year? Or are they angry that others are angry about such a thing? Or are they trying to learn what they can about the controversy so they can decide whether they should be angry one way or the other? We’ll never know from this data.

Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic, pointed out that the social media personality who appeared to get the ball rolling on this year’s War on Christmas debate, created a hashtag for followers to use in discussing the controversy. She noted, however, that many of those on social media were using the hashtag to say that “his campaign is dumb.”

It’s a common limitation. The data represents a big number, but what’s behind the number?

Consider Facebook’s role in this year’s Democratic and Republican presidential debates. The huge social network became a conduit for questions from the public. And commentators noted the topics people were “talking about” on Facebook during the debates.

Knowing what people are talking about is helpful, of course, but knowing how they are talking about what they are talking about is so much more helpful. Context is important.

For instance, after the October Republican debate, Politico featured a headline that said, “Ben Carson Wins Facebook.” It turns out, according to Politico, which cited Facebook, that Ben Carson was the most discussed candidate of the night, which is a victory of sorts. But again, the data point didn’t include any information on just what people were saying about Carson.

Or consider the annual excitement over Neiman Marcus’ holiday catalog, which no doubt is worthy of excitement, what with it featuring a $150,000 motorcycle, a $400,000 trip to India and such. A search for news articles alone about this year’s book returns more than 45,000 results, which is a lot of interest. And no doubt the catalog is a great marketing tool. But how many of those trips to India do you think actually sold?

Whatever the case with motorcycles and trips to India, it seems the discussion around the War on Christmas is past its peak for this year, according to Google Trends. But, you never know —  the controversy could be back this time next year.

Oh wait. Actually, you do know.

Graph source: Screen shot of Google Trends. Mug photo by Rob “Berto” Bennett published under Creative Commons license.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.