Nothing says "I am an American" like a red-white-and-blue-striped fright wig or a rubber nose piece that transforms the wearer's schnoz into the beak of an American eagle.
Yet, on the Fourth of July the majority of citizens of this proud nation do not mill about wearing these or more elaborate creations, such as full-out Uncle Sam and Statue of Liberty outfits. Children do not ask one another what they will be for the Fourth of July. Sure, getups are available in costume shops, but they are mostly rented out for parades or theaters. Ordinary men, women and children settle for patriotic T-shirts or relatively tasteful combinations of red-white-and-blue garb -- well, as tasteful as that combo can be, anyway.
Come to think of it, have you ever received a Fourth of July greeting card?
What with the war in Iraq and lawmakers' penchants lately for defining who is and isn't a patriot, it is startling to think the usually persuasive marketers of party goods, costumes and greeting cards may have dropped the ball. The Fourth of July isn't nearly as commercialized as it could be.
"It's not a giant holiday [in our business]," says Harold Maxwell, first vice president of the National Costumers Association, which represents 500 stores that carry costumes year round. Maxwell says Uncle Sam costumes and their derivations actually have year-round appeal, with demand perking up in the summertime, in election years and on April 15 (post offices rent them so that one lucky employee can stand outside near the drop box in a weak attempt to coax smiles from taxpayers). Duke Middleton, manager of Masters Costumes in Arlington, says he's seen no rise or fall in interest in $85 rentals of the Uncle Sam or Aunt Sammi costume business in five years. The Aunt is pretty much the same as the Uncle, "just without the beard," he advises.
Marty Allen, chief executive of Party America, a party goods retailer, says the Fourth of July takes only seventh place in his company's ranking of marketing seasons, making it what he calls "one of our bigger small seasons, but a healthy season." (These "smaller seasons" include Mardi Gras and Cinco de Mayo; the three biggest are Halloween, Christmas and graduation.) A recent trip to three Party City stores in the Washington area (competitors of Party America) revealed plenty of acreage devoted to red-white-and-blue paraphernalia -- much of it half off more than a week before the holiday -- but even more real estate given over to that well-known symbol of everything we've fought for: the luau.
What does it say about America that no complete Uncle Sam or Statue of Liberty costumes were stocked at these stores, but everything you'd need to wear to a pig roast -- grass skirts, leis and brassieres made of coconut shells -- was well represented and being snapped up at full price?
Allen confirms that more people purchase luau items than patriotic ones; that category is sixth on his list.
DesignWare, which is owned by American Greetings Corp., the card company, produces plates, cups, bowls, napkins, trays and such. DesignWare brand manager Marcia Terstage says that Americans certainly don't ignore the decorative aspects of the Fourth of July; it's just that we show our patriotism all year round. She says business does get a tad brisker around July 4, but the company's patriotic line is versatile and can be used for Labor or Memorial Day, summer picnics, or any old time we're just feeling teary-eyed about the Land of the Free.
Other suppliers of patriotic party goods, with sales estimated at $11 billion yearly, and costumes, a $3.1 billion industry, are still coming down off the boost they received from Sept. 11, 2001.
It "put our sales through the roof for six months like you wouldn't believe," says Allen. "You couldn't buy an American flag anywhere. It's settled down now, back to where it was before 9/11," despite the war in Iraq.
Speaking of which: Terstage says that she recently got a little emotional looking at the company's America Forever line of all-purpose blank patriotic greeting cards, which was created and rushed into production in the three weeks after Sept. 11. She suggests that these cards would be perfect to send to soldiers in Iraq for the Fourth of July.
Hallmark has done more than suggest this. It has a line of e-cards, some amusing and others patriotic and sentimental, specifically designed for military personnel. Another category, also of mixed tenor, is geared for the Fourth of July.
Rachel Bolton, a Hallmark spokeswoman, says she has no statistics on how many of these e-cards, or Hallmark's all-purpose blank cards with patriotic covers, are purchased. She concedes that the Fourth of July "doesn't have a lot of the characteristics of other holidays" that create an urge to send formal greetings or dress up in costumes.
"It isn't that kind of holiday. There are a lot of holidays that aren't," she says. Bolton says her industry and other celebration-connected businesses have not ignored what appears to be a marketing opportunity in the Fourth of July.
"It doesn't work that way. Americans haven't decided that it should be that kind of a holiday. Regardless of what people might think, it's people, consumers, who determine need," Bolton says, noting that the company tried Veterans Day cards but nobody bought them until Sept. 11. What she and others are saying is that there hasn't been a demand for dressing up Halloween-style for July 4, or much interest in sending loved ones cards expressing our patriotism and saluting theirs. It is clear that to better commercialize July 4, we need people to begin making their own July 4 costumes and cards to alert companies that these are unmet needs.