On Aug. 16, two and a half months before Halloween, I glance into a Pottery Barn Kids store and have a very scary moment. Why is my perspective bathed in orange, pulsating with visions of Halloween lights ... on a perfectly gorgeous summer afternoon?
A few stores away, a gift shop's doorway studded with witches validates the first sighting: Halloween merchandising has squeezed itself into the dog days of summer. Before kids have had time to dry off from the pool, and before moms have completed their back-to-school lists.
OK. So we've reluctantly adapted to the tinkling of jingle bells long before we take on the Thanksgiving turkey. We've learned to resist purchasing Valentines cards lest they outlast the relationship. But dark and eerie Halloween in bright and sultry August? That's marketing wizardry that requires serious corporate review.
Or maybe the review has already been completed, and what we're about to witness are the results. Two days later, outside another retail complex, I see a large Halloween sign.
Is it another random act by a rogue retailer? Or an up and coming trend? (On closer examination, I realize it's a Spirit Halloween store. While its doors are yet to be opened, one can get a jump-start online.)
Google validates my hunch. Last year the National Retail Federation reported that Americans were expected to spend $4.96 billion on Halloween, a 50 percent increase over the $3.29 billion of 2005.
That means the average consumer spends nearly $60 on Halloween, with $22 per costume. Halloween is the biggest decorating holiday in the country, trumped only by Christmas, which might have something to do with why Halloween has been catapulted into the summer.
However, when merchandisers start to pull the strings so blatantly that our first response is to notice the incongruity, haven't they gone too far? Can resistance be far behind?
One assumes that the aim of advertising is to create needs subtly, in ways that lead us to assume they come from within. As Paco Underhill, master advertising manipulator and author of "Why We Buy," reveals, successful merchandising begins as early as a retailer's architectural blueprints, creating traffic trajectories that complement consumers' psychological and physiological inclinations.
Halloween in August? Not exactly a concept capitalizing on natural inclinations. Sounds more like a candidate for resistance. Sounds, too, like a good launching pad for questions such as: What am I doing in this mall on a beautiful summer afternoon instead of walking, hiking, swimming, or reading? Why am I consuming? Why am I making an advertising target of myself? Why should I be recalling images of Ichabod Crane and Sleepy Hollow, and trying to reconcile the disconnect?
What does this tell me about the bulk of the merchandising environment, through which I wade daily, mostly unaware? About a culture and an economy that pivots on consumers gravitating toward its pull? A pull of which we are frequently unaware, having been so intricately intertwined with its needs since infancy. How are our needs created, what internal inclinations are preempted by external ones, by the incessant tugging of manufactured needs? Are there no longer any clear distinctions?
These are dangerous thoughts, engendered when manipulation becomes painfully visible. Perhaps for their own long-term health (and to disillusion the rest of us that life is merely a series of launching pads between consuming opportunities), corporate decisionmakers might be advised to retreat to the path of subtlety. Because two and a half months of a Halloween-clad culture is bound to generate subversive little gremlins that might one day come to haunt the boardrooms that bred them.
• Anna Shaff lives and writes in San Francisco.