An influx of 40-year anniversaries

Revelers soak in the sun at the Woodstock festival

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KAI RYSSDAL: This weekend is the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. You can celebrate by buying a 40th anniversary Woodstock box set. Or seeing the 40th anniversary Heroes of Woodstock reunion concert. Or you can check into San Diego's Hard Rock Hotel and get yourself a free 40th anniversary pot brownie. It's served in a pot, not actually made of pot. Anniversaries only go so far, after all. But what is it with 40th anniversaries, anyway?

Marketplace's Rico Gagliano had a look see.


Rico Gagliano: Here's a quiz: A 25th anniversary is silver. 50th is gold. What's 40th? It's ruby. And you didn't know that because no one used to make that a big deal about 40th anniversaries. But marketers are changing that.

Commercial 1: Walt Disney Presents the 40th Anniversary Special Edition of The Jungle Book!

Commercial 2: Now, Snap-On is making history with Mustang 40th anniversary special-edition tool storage.

And don't forget last month's 40th anniversary of the moon landing, around which Omega aired an endless series of wristwatch ads starring JFK.

John F. Kennedy Jr. in an Omega watch ad: We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard!

So why make 40th anniversaries the new 50th? Nancy Koehn is a business historian at Harvard. She says to understand that, first you need to understand this.

Nancy Koehn: Marketers love anniversaries, because it's a way of associating their product with something appealing and engaging.

Namely, a celebration. And she says in hard times like these, marketers are looking for any celebration they can find. It also doesn't hurt that right now, 40th anniversaries commemorate events from the late '60s. And you know who that appeals to.

Koehn: Baby boomers. And so to declare the 40th anniversary -- the ruby moment -- suddenly important, and then try and link it to different products, is quite powerful.

But some say the Boomer connection is simply a happy accident. And that as far as marketers are concerned?

Jason Torchinsky: Just any anniversary is important now.

That's Jason Torchinsky. He's co-editor of "Ad Nauseum," a book of essays on consumer culture. He says the 40th anniversary phenomenon is the latest step in marketers' holiday-ification of everything.

Torchinsky: Basically any calendar day of the year that you pick, there's some day that commemorates it. There's National Denim Day, National Ice Cream Month, something that somebody can go out to use to sell an ad to someone. And I think this is just part of the same plan.

And Torchinsky says that marketing plan is aided and abetted by me. As in, the news media. Because an anniversary provides an easy excuse to fill airtime with anniversary stories.

Torchinksy: The way media's working now, with 24-hour news cycles, where you have to have something on, all the time, they would do a big-deal anniversary every year if they could, every day of the year.

Which might explain why cable TV became Moonshot Central last month. But wait -- at half an hour, Marketplace has no problem filling airtime. And we ran a piece about the moon walk, too. Something else is at work here.

So I spoke with Bret Israel. He edited the Woodstock coverage in last weekend's edition of the Los Angeles Times and he says he actually dislikes anniversary stories as a rule.

Bret Israel: News is what happened today or what's going to happen tomorrow. And I wasn't even thinking about Woodstock very much, until I saw an early screening of Ang Lee's new movie "Taking Woodstock," which I quite liked, and really does capture the cultural and emotional fascination of the festival in a fresh way.

Which made Israel think maybe the L.A. Times could also find a fresh way to look at Woodstock. Which makes me wonder if marketers hoped that would happen when they set the movie's release date to coincide with Woodstock's 40th anniversary.

Around and around. Does marketing drive media or does media drive marketing? Man. This is blowing my mind.

In Los Angeles, I'm Rico Gagliano for Marketplace. Peace.

About the author

Rico Gagliano is the host of Dinner Party Download.

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