My Expensive Valentine

Picture of By Andrada Pop

By Andrada Pop

It is only the first week of February, and the avalanche of hearts and gushy declarations has swarmed social media and the ads on every website I visit. So, let’s get ahead of the trend this year and discuss the commercialization of love, with a special emphasis on Valentine’s Day approaching on the 14th of February.

Before you brush me off as the cynic that I am, there is a disclaimer I feel obliged to make. I don’t hate love, or the people celebrating V-Day, but I hate when companies try to cash in  people’s emotions. 

The history of the Valentine

First let’s take a step back from the red and pink aesthetic of the holiday and go back to its roots. Valentine’s Day or the Feast of Saint Valentine originated as a feast celebrating one of the two early Christian martyrs, Saint Valentine. 

The earliest report on Saint Valentine’s martyrdom didn’t have any speck of romanticism in the modern sense. He was jailed for ministering to Christians persecuted under the Roman Empire in the third century. 

However, retellings of his story added that aspect of romance by saying that Saint Valentine restored the sight of his jailer’s daughter, and other accounts in the 18th century mentioning that he even wrote her a goodbye letter in which he signed as ‘Your Valentine’.

It appears that the first connection between this holiday and romanticism was Chaucer’s poem, Parliament of Fowls. Before that, there is no link between the rites performed by the Romans and this Christian holiday. From that poem on, our societal love for love added greatly to this holiday, marking it with the symbolism we see today.

My love is boundless (but my bank account isn’t)

Okay, I know, Valentine’s Day isn’t about money it’s about loooove. Yeah, I get it, you don’t have to spend tons of money to express your loving feelings toward someone, sure. But that is the societal expectation.

Does that explain the countless ads that urged me to ‘prove my love’, or to ‘make them feel special’? Not entirely. 

The problem is that companies turn holidays that have different intentions into opportunities for people to consume their products. With more that 25 billion dollars in sales last year, Valentine’s Day might be one of the biggest surges of money spent throughout the year. Everything, from the flower industry to candies and from lingerie to jewelry and gift card stores, they all have a claim to the money people spend on Valentine’s. 

However, as in anything, there is a level of resistance to the trend of excessive consumption around holidays. Afterall, minimalism has been growing in popularity as an alternative to overconsumption.

Angeline Close, Associate professor at the University of Texas and George Zinkhan, Professor of Marketing at the University of Georgia, have analyzed alternative and anti-consumption during Valentine’s Day. Their study differentiates between three types of anti-consumption behaviors: gift-resistance, retail-resistance, and market-resistance as they are described in the table below.

Concept Proposed definition Example
Gift-resistance Consumers set limits for gift exchanges, do not give at all, and/or encourage others not to engage in gift exchange Limiting Valentine’s gift expenditures to ten dollars
Retail-resistance Shoppers do not patronize specific stores that are associated with a certain event or holiday. Avoiding Hallmark
Market-resistance Shoppers do not engage in the culturally-established ritualized marketplace behaviors associated with a particular market. Opting-out of Valentine’s Day

Their findings suggest that 63% of males and 31% of females feel obligated to give their significant other something, and that despite having anti-consumption attitudes, consumers still purchase. The pressure to spend money on your significant other is even stronger for people at the beginning of their relationship (with the percentages climbing to 81% of men and 50% of women). 

As a participant in the study skillfully puts it: ‘For those in a committed relationship, Valentine’s Day gifts seem shallow and wholly unnecessary. For those not tied down, it is just a big pain in the ⁎⁎⁎!’.

But this study gives no clear indication in the percentages of people who carry out retail-resistance or market-resistance attitudes.

You have my heart, but most importantly, you have my wallet

With the results of this study, the researchers compiled a number of strategies to minimize the anti-consumption attitudes: for example, many participants acknowledged that the holiday feels fake and driven by consumption. What is the answer to that? Make consumers think they own the holiday. People feel like gifts are unnecessary in continuing an already established relationship? Don’t worry you just have to instill the fear of that relationship fading if they don’t spend money on a V-Day gift.

The simple idea of dissecting a holiday that is supposed to be about the people dear in your life and to look for areas in which more money can be made, doesn’t sit right with me. However, we have to acknowledge the fact that a lot of money goes into research aimed at defeating the very attitude that emerges from this article.

I can’t put a price on love, but these advertisers sure try their best to do it. 

In the end, everyone is going to celebrate the incoming holiday however they please. Whether you engage in any type of anti-consumption behavior or not, that is your business. But I want to leave you with the wise words of an anonymous responder of the study above:

‘In my defense, who wants to celebrate a holiday whose initials are VD anyway?’

Brace yourselves, for the heart-shaped calamity is upon us.


Cover: Laura Ockel

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