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Thanksgiving marketing hits the Web, awkwardly

"Oh my gosh, so many people seem to have a gluten intolerance these days," Martha Stewart said Wednesday to 4,000 viewers on her Facebook livestream, as she mixed crust in a food processor for what she called a lovely last-minute Thanksgiving pie.

It was not just a moment for Stewart to dote on her favorite cooking tools, such as a mahogany cylinder she called "the most perfect, perfect rolling pin." It was also the most perfect time to sell holiday travelers and zoned-out office workers on her empire's newest venture, a line of "American Made" kitchen and home goods that launched this month on Amazon.com.

Martha is Talking PIES from her Bedford kitchen! Ask your last minute Thanksgiving pie questions and she just might...

Posted by Martha Stewart on Wednesday, November 25, 2015

For years, Black Friday and Christmas have accounted for the season's biggest advertising blitzes. But Thanksgiving, that far subtler holiday of gratitude and family gatherings, is increasingly joining them as a commercial juggernaut for companies seeking to gobble up digital ad space and attention spans.

Thanksgiving is driving a growing army of Americans to buy stuff before the biggest shopping weekend of the year. Last year, 32 percent of holiday shoppers, or about 43 million Americans, went shopping on "Gray Thursday," National Retail Federation data show.

And advertisers are following their lead with widening search, social-media and mobile marketing blitzes. Spending on Thanksgiving Day search ads in 2014 soared more than 50 percent over 2013, a growth rate higher than even Black Friday or Cyber Monday, data from marketing researcher Kenshoo show.

More advertisers, analysts said, are recognizing how Thanksgiving can serve as a launchpad into the ever-expanding (and increasingly saturated) Christmas advertising season. Companies are also empowered by the rise of digital advertising, because their mobile spots can gain extra traction among passengers on America's busiest travel day or shoppers slumped and digesting on the family couch.

Food conglomerate Kraft Heinz has pushed to grab that Thanksgiving mobile audience for its Stove Top stuffing brand, rolling out a series of cheeky digital ads based on the Artisanal Hipster Pilgrim, a bearded millennial who, in one ad, uses the phrase "Stuff Thy Selfie." The mascot - a new proponent of the brand's old argument that stuffing is "not just for Thanksgiving anymore" - is now featured in four twee Web videos, Stove Top's Facebook account, a set of promoted tweets and a lightly followed Instagram account.

"The Artisanal Hipster Pilgrim is a renegade and Stove Top Stuffing enthusiast who disagrees with his forefathers when it comes to their antiquated ideas about Thanksgiving - especially those regarding stuffing," said Lynne Galia, a spokeswoman for Kraft Heinz's meal solutions and desserts, beverages and snack nuts division.

Unlike Larry the Pilgrim, Stove Top's 2012 mascot featured in TV ads for a "more broad audience," the "Artisanal Hipster Pilgrim lives completely on social media and is geared toward millennials," Galia said.

But the seasonal campaigns carry risks. For Verizon's "#Thanksgetting" campaign, built around an offer of extra mobile data for customers, the telecom giant paid for a "Promoted Moment" on Twitter and a digital sticker on Snapchat that users could add to their photos and videos.

The effort quickly caught blowback, after social media users decried it as a bald attempt to taint the holiday's giving spirit. Erica Abdnour, a Chicago "marketing pro," tweeted, "Horrible marketing choice @verizon. Can we have ONE day devoted to gratitude & thanks, rather than retail greed?"

By noon on Wednesday, a full 24 hours before most turkeys were ready to eat, Verizon was starting to walk the campaign back. "We strongly believe in the importance of Thanksgiving and in its spirit of giving thanks to what is truly important, especially being present for family and friends around the holidays," Verizon spokeswoman Kelly Crummey said in a statement. "We apologize to those who are concerned by the campaign's theme as that was certainly not our intent."

Advertisers have long seen the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and its following line of football matchups, often some of fall's most-watched TV, as an easy way to tap big audiences. But the shift to social media marks a big skew toward a younger, more digitally minded clientele - even if, as data from marketing researcher Monetate shows, the "conversion rate" for social networks to get people to actually go buy stuff is a piddly 1 percent.

Many of the Thanksgiving-timed ads have, such as Costco and REI, promoted exactly when the stores will not be open, riding a wave of consumer annoyance over how some big-box retailers in recent years asked employees to leave their families and work on Turkey Day. "We felt like taking a break on one of the busiest days of the year sent a really clear message about what matters most," REI senior vice president of retail Tim Spangler said.

But that consumer sentiment doesn't prevent customers from shopping online, thinking about stuffing or staring at their phones as Stewart uses her own cookbook to bake a pie. As one viewer, Edith Peter, wrote with gratitude on Stewart's baking livestream, "Many thanks for your pie demonstration and showing the viewers your lovely dining room et al."

The Washington Post

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