Off Target with the Salvation Army

Joseph M. Knippenberg

November 1, 2004

I’ll miss the Salvation Army bell-ringers in front of "my" Target store this year. They won’t be there, or at any other Target store. Target management has decided that it will no longer exempt the Salvation Army from its "no solicitation" rule.

For the record, shoppers put $94 million into the red kettles last Christmas season, $9 million in front of Target stores. While a few other retailers have stepped into the breach—including B.J.’s Wholesale Club and Michael’s, to name two new local participants—it’s not clear that the Salvation Army will be able to make up the difference.

Of course, Target, which has a well-deserved and assiduously cultivated reputation for being a good corporate citizen, could write a check to cover the shortfall. But for me, it’s not just about the money, which (by the way) stays in the communities in which it is donated, helping to provide food, clothing, and shelter for the destitute.

It’s about another way in which the spirit of commerce is crowding out the spirit of Christmas. The bell-ringers help to remind us that our generosity is reflected not just in the gifts we give to our loved ones, but in our willingness to reach out to hungry and homeless strangers. And, according to studies cited by the Salvation Army, roughly 90% of us take the hint.

Well, we’ll have to get the hint somewhere else now, because Target wants us to have a "distraction-free shopping environment in which to shop," as someone from customer relations wrote (not very elegantly) in response to my impassioned protest email. Target wants me to concentrate on spending money in their stores, not on "the reason for the season."

Target is also apparently concerned that if they say "yes" to the Salvation Army, they can’t say "no" to any other non-profit that wishes to solicit in front of its stores. While it of course requires less thought to say "no" to everyone—in the name of the high principle of a "distraction-free shopping environment"—it’s not all that hard to say that there is a long-standing American tradition, quintessentially represented by the Salvation Army, of encouraging holiday good cheer to extend beyond family and friends. Respecting and upholding this holiday tradition—more august even than the Budweiser Clydesdales and Burl Ives as Frosty the Snowman—would be good enough for me. After all, holidays are all about traditions, about celebrating stories handed down from the past and preserved for the future.

The Salvation Army here is the victim of two forces—the tendency of the marketplace to be no respecter of traditions and the growing pluralization of the culture, with an ever-increasing array of groups, all claiming to be worthy and all clamoring for our attention. In a homogeneous society, the uniform authority of the culture could stand up to the forces of commerce, either taming them or moderating their effect on our sentiments. In a pluralistic society, the multiple cultural bases of authority are individually too weak to resist the marketplace. Out with the bell-ringers, in with wardrobe malfunctions and desperate housewives! Merry Christmas, or should I say, happy shopping!

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.