Truth in Advertising: Defining ‘Irishness’ on St. Patrick’s Day

In the non-stop barrage of imagery and advertisements leading up to St. Patrick’s Day we are inundated with shamrocks, leprechauns, pots of gold, everything green, and of course, alcoholic drinks. If one were to take advertisements for the holiday at face value, they would assume all Irish people are small, red-headed alcoholics who wear nothing but green and spend their time (when not at the pub) learning Irish dance. Are these advertisements accurate? Genuine? And perhaps even more importantly, does that even matter? Living in a world where ads appear in every facet of our daily lives from television, radio, mobile devices, applications, and old fashioned billboards, does it matter more that St. Patrick’s Days advertisements are effective and successful?


With St. Patrick’s Day nearly upon us, we thought we would take the opportunity to discuss and question what is ‘truth’ when advertising and how addressing, or not addressing, problematic advertising may impact your business. Though there have been numerous debates over the decades about whether the American celebration of Ireland’s patron saint is ‘authentic’ or even ‘Irish,’ chances are you can all name the most popular characteristics associated with the holiday. When you think of St. Patrick’s Day, what images, symbols, and ideas come to mind?



Without question, bars, restaurants, and venues across the country and around the world, look forward to the opportunity to take advantage of the one day where ‘Everyone is Irish.’ They do so with drink promotions, live music, and games, all marketed toward ideas of fun, partying, celebration, and consumption. With rapid technological growth and increased globalization, one might ask what the Irish make of these representations?

In recent years, the Irish have begun to contest this reductionist and at times offensive representation of their identity and culture. There have been several campaigns which attempt to correct the usage of St. Pat’s or St. Patty’s Day (Patty is the derivative of Patricia, not Patrick), including a public service notice to tourists at Dublin Airport.

Consumers, both in America and abroad, are all too quick to point to mistakes in advertising. Without question, these mistakes can lead to negative sales for invested parties. Most recently, the President of the United States was embroiled in a marketing misstep when his St. Patrick’s Day themed hats included the four-leaf clover as opposed to St. Patrick’s symbol of the shamrock. The hats have since been pulled from the website. Marketing giant McDonald’s has also faced critique as it released a Shamrock shake commercial which made more references to Scottish heritage than Irish and even included an image of Stonehenge (in England).

The question remains whether these mishaps will impact the bottom line for both the President and McDonald’s – arguably two of the largest brands currently in the market. Though these cultural mistakes may not directly impact sales, there are more important questions to ask about the ethics of conducting accurate research, considering cultural representations, and promoting inaccurate and at times hurtful stereotypes. Though it is unlikely that a few embarrassing ad campaigns will correct the course on presentations of Patrick, it is always important to weigh potential monetary gains over optical or ethical losses.

This post was brought to us by Abbey Research contributor, Dr. Erin Hinson, who holds a PhD in Irish Studies from Queen's University Belfast. Her research interests include the intersection of diasporic Ireland and culture and we thank her for her thoughts here.