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opinion | Jennifer Graham

‘Birthday marketing’ invites consumers to splurge

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

My birthday’s still a week away, but I’m already awash in celebratory greetings, not from dubious social-media friends, but those who know me even better: businesses where I occasionally shop and restaurants where I rarely eat.

The first card arrived 10 days ago, the address seemingly handwritten. This, if not the postmark’s Minnesota ZIP code, should have tipped me off, as no one knows how to write in cursive anymore. But the envelope had a local return address, and clearly contained a card, so I opened it, and out fell a gift: $5 off a $25 purchase at the local Hallmark store. “You’re special to us, Jennifer, and your birthday is the perfect time to make sure you know it,” my nameless, faceless, clueless friends gushed.

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It was the first volley in the blitz of “birthday marketing,” a boon to businesses desperate to sell and serve in a nation in which no one really needs anything anymore. Thirty years ago, in his book “The Poverty of Affluence,” Paul Wachtel bemoaned an economy that relies on perpetual discontent for growth, one that needs advertising to stir desire where none exists. As the consumption motor chugs ever slower — “Real Simple” outsold the “O, The Oprah Magazine” in single-copy sales last year, and bloggers are getting famous for going a year without buying anything — a low-level panic might simmer on Madison Avenue, but for the promise of birthdays, the annual invitation to indulge even among people who live like Spartans the other 364 days of the year.

“You deserve it!” the coupons cry, inviting me to visit Outback or Margarita’s restaurants to celebrate ($10 off a $25 purchase), to pick up a little gift for myself at Kohl’s (much better, no minimum purchase required), and, bewilderingly, to earn a “birthday badge” by flying JetBlue.

Actually, I don’t deserve it, and neither do you. If anyone deserves a reward for the occasion of our births, it would be our mothers, who did all the work. In a nobler culture, birthdays would invite introspection and familial gratitude; here we have a license to shop. The offers look like friendly hugs in the mailbox, but they’re actually sly come-hithers when delivered to subprime households already groaning with debt.

Of course, it’s the thought that matters, bringing up another irritating rub of birthday marketing: that my benefactors in Duluth put so little effort into it. They’re like friends who are close enough that they feel compelled to give you a gift, but who know so little about you that they have to ask what they should give.

Lousy gifts are failures of intimacy. Lousy marketing is, well, trash.

There is good marketing, yes. Lately, I’m enamored of Chipotle’s. The restaurant is printing original essays on its brown bags, and as such, has garnered what marketers call “earned media” for the “Cultivating Thoughts” promotion.

Subtly, it’s a mass stroking of egos — “You, our customers, are smart people who like to read!” — but this is better than the mass patronizing of birthday marketing, which says, “You, our customers, are dumb, and won’t realize that in ‘giving’ you five bucks, we’re actually getting you to give 20 to us, hee hee!”

The final sneering blow that birthday marketing delivers is that it so unfairly raises the bar for our real friends. They, unlike the businesses that court us, will not profit from our big days; in fact, our birthdays are likely to cost them. Their zeal, then, might seem a little deficient. Also, being humans, they might possibly forget.

Not Kohl’s, or Google, which displays a “doodle” of cakes and candles for Google Plus users on their birthdays. Thanks, guys. You’re special to me, too. The card’s in the mail.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @grahamtoday.
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