'Tis the season for outrage?

Last Updated Nov 11, 2015 6:03 PM EST

Like wearing white after Labor Day, holiday decorations used to be considered a faux pas before Thanksgiving. These days, decorations and holiday merchandise are in full display well before the turkey is even in the oven, and the start of the holiday season is heralded by the onslaught of seasonal outrage.

"It says something about the holidays, but also about human behavior -- when people are angry, they share," Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said. "The holidays are always a big time for retailers. Lots of companies are trying to get in on the action, trying to do something a little different, sometimes that works, sometimes that backfires."

Recent targets of holiday-related wrath include Starbucks (SBUX), Target (TGT) and Bloomingdale's, with the retailers criticized for their messages, intentional, unintentional or outright lacking.

In the case of Starbucks, its dearth of a message, in this case specific to Christmas, led to an online tirade by Arizona evangelist Joshua Feuerstein, who posted a Facebook video viewed millions of times decrying the lack of Christian tidings on the red cups with green logo.

Rather than calling for a boycott, Feuerstein's fix involves telling the barista his name is "Merry Christmas" to get the phrase written on his cup, an approach he advocated others employ.

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REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Feuerstein's rallying cry was echoed and amplified by Donald Trump, when the Republican presidential contender told a campaign rally in Springfield, Illinois, on Monday that a boycott should be considered. He vowed: "If I become president, we're all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you."

"It's almost like people were waiting. There seems to be a trend of outraged groups waiting to see what companies will do, as though companies owe some sort of allegiance to Christmas," said Daren Brabham, a communications professor at the University of Southern California. "It's not necessarily about Starbucks changing their cup, but for Christians to get outraged."

Starbucks, which has in the past featured vintage ornaments and hand-drawn reindeer on its cups, said on its website that it would "continue to embrace and welcome customers from all backgrounds and religions in our stores around the world."

As its competitor faced criticism for its holiday-neutral stance, Dunkin' Donuts on Tuesday unveiled a decidedly more festive cup, with the word "Joy" encircled by holiday wreaths, prompting one customer to tweet: "Dunkin Donuts new slogan: 'Dunkin Donuts: Jesus Doesn't Hate Our Coffee Cups' #StarbucksRedCup."

Discount retailer Target drew some online wrath for selling red and green holiday sweaters with the phase "OCD Obsessive Christmas Disorder," with some taking to social media to proclaim the garment trivialized the mental disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Others lashed back, with some saying they had OCD and had no problem with the sweaters and their message.

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Target.com

Brabham likened the sweater to attire stating the wearer is addicted to chocolate, which would be tongue-in-check, he said, and "not be making fun of people with chemical dependencies."

"We currently do not have plans to remove this sweater," Target said of the product, which is not exclusive to the company and has been around for several years.

Bloomingdale's, however, had a far different reaction when confronted with objections to a holiday ad, which many in social media settings likened to encouraging date rape. The ad for Rebecca Minkoff merchandise shows a man glazing at a woman, with the caption: "Spike Your Best Friend's Egg Nog When They're Not Looking."

"In reflection of recent feedback, the copy we used in our recent catalog was inappropriate and in poor taste. Bloomingdale's sincerely apologizes for this error in judgement," the luxury department store owned by Macy's (M) emailed in a statement.

"I don't think we'd see this if we hadn't seen companies caving on social media in the past. Now companies are firing executives and yanking products from shelves, all within minutes," Brabham said.

Companies that make "multimillion-dollar product decisions" based on social media should keep in mind that there are "just a few million people on Twitter worldwide," the professor said, adding that the microblogging site's participants and audience largely consists of journalists and academics.

But corporations can glean insight from social media, where people are "sharing their opinions for free," offered Berger, an expert on viral marketing and social contagion.

"Every month or two, some group or individuals get upset about what a company is doing," said Berger. "Today, a few people who are upset can build into tens of thousands to millions of people upset."