Valentine’s Day and the Commodification of Love or the Economic Impacts of Courtship

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Valentine was a 3rd century martyr, or was he? There are two Valentines associated with the 14 February. First, a Roman priest who was martyred supposedly under the rule of Claudius and, second, a bishop of Terni who was martyred in Rome but whose remains were then removed to Terni. The accounts of both these martyrs are confused and it may be that there was only one Valentine rather than two. But, the key point is that neither of these Valentines had any association with love, lovers, dating or courting couples. Thus, this raises the question of why these one or two saints or martyrs are associated with what has become known as Valentine’s Day or should this be Valentines’ Day? The answer to this conundrum is written in the birds! The reason for the relationship between the one or two Valentines is a belief that can be traced back to Chaucer. This belief was that birds are supposed to pair on the14 February and this pairing day just happened to be the day in which the two Valentine saints are listed in Roman Martyrology as having a connection with the 14 February. The association between the 14 February and selecting and calling oneself a Valentine can be traced back to the Paston Letters. There are many interesting questions here – has climate warming altered the courtship behaviour of birds? If so, then this needs urgent research. Perhaps Valentine’s Day is no longer a day but a collection of days.

The origins of Valentine’s Day are unclear. Perhaps there are only three certainties. First, the association between lovers or courtship and St. Valentine is one of perhaps the strangest impacts of the cult of the Roman martyrs. Second, this impact has important commercial outcomes that commenced with the printing industry – the Valentine card – and continued with an emphasis on Red Roses and the language of flowers. Third, more recently, Valentine’s Day has become a major event in the commodification of everyday living. I must perhaps admit that I do not keep Valentine’s Day and I have not been planning any Valentine’s Day gifts, cards or surprises. I have also ignored all attempts by online and “on-shop” retailers to encourage me to consume.

Valentine’s Day is perhaps the next most important shopping event between Christmas and Easter. But, I have major reservations with any attempt to commodify social relationships and love. Capitalism is all about the process of commodification or the transformation of goods, services, ideas, people and even bodies into commodities or objects that can be traded and exchanged. A key issue is: how to value love or how to project love? Perhaps a simple solution is the exchange of a simple, low-value gift, for example, a $54million dollar executive jet or, according to the Daily Mail, the best last minute Valentine’s Day gifts include: “decadent lingerie, luxury chocolate and upmarket champagne, Red Xbox controller, 15-year-old whiskey and artisan coffee machine, a baby pink trench, Vivienne Westwood heels and designer perfumes”.  There is too much choice here and the wrong decision could lead to all sorts of unwelcome consequences. Should it be the executive jet for $54m or £180 spent on decadent lingerie, whatever that happens to be? There is only one gift that is perhaps worth giving, and this is the gift that costs nothing, cannot be valued but at the same time is worth more than anything else that one could possibly give to someone as a Valentine’s Day gift – time.

The economic impacts of Valentine’s Day and its on-going commodification are very predictable – restaurants, jewellery, flowers, lingerie, alcohol, and cards. It is also important not to forget the revenue generated by the print and online media via advertising Valentine’s Day related gifts. There has been some very strange advertising – a Valentine’s Day dinner for two special offer that must be spent before the 13 February! The Evolution Money website has pulled together some interesting economic facts regarding the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day. In the US, 15% of women send themselves flowers? Why? Another surprising fact is that American’s spend $231 million on their pets and most of these will not be courting birds. In the UK, sales of lingerie double before Valentine’s Day and peak jewellery sales day in the UK is the 8th February. I find it depressing that 10% of all marriage proposals are made on Valentine’s Day. There are, of course, other days that could be selected. A survey of 1000 consumers has estimated that £726m will be spent on Valentine’s Day gifts – an increase of £39m on 2017. The key issue to consider is that Valentine’s Day creates and supports some local jobs in restaurants and retail and also employment that is located beyond the UK. All this expenditure produces economic benefits for someone but does it contribute to the quality of relationship building. Relationships, courtship to use an old-fashioned word, should not be confined to a single day but should be celebrated every day and this celebration does not have to involve the commodification of relationships through acts of consumption.

This blog was written by Professor John Bryson, City-REDI, Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography, University of Birmingham 

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham

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Author: John Bryson

Professor of Enterprise and Competitiveness, City-Region Economic Development Institute, Birmingham Business School, The University of Birmingham, UK

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