Everyone should have paid attention recently as people massed in public, in numbers greater than ever. Of course, the story had elements of tragedy and violence as well. Am I talking of the Occupy movement? No, sadly it’s just good old Black Friday.
Black Friday has been around quite some time, but lately it seems that it has grown in importance. Once it was merely the shadow of the quaint, comforting day of Thanksgiving, at best an excuse to get a small amount of exercise hunting for bargains after feasting with family. In recent years it has become arguably more prominent than the holiday it follows.
This year the clamor of consumers invading shopping malls and big-box retailers seemed stark and especially alarming. Against the backdrop of deepening economic gloom the desperate activity comes off as a both enigmatic and upsetting. Many of us have felt encouraged by people in great numbers shaking off apathy and focusing on the problems we all face. The fact that far greater numbers will march on Best Buy and Target and Wal-Mart for imagined “savings” seems like a bad joke. It’s all good news for the retail industry, but what sort of news is it for society?
The juxtaposition of the Occupy drama and the stories surrounding this year’s Black Friday “festivities” seems instructive. In past weeks people were shocked by police violence against protestors. Far more shocking, however, was the story of shoppers in a West Virginia Target who stepped over or around a dying man to get their beloved merchandise (the man later died at a nearby hospital). Perhaps this tells us more about our society. On a smaller scale is the viral footage of a riot triggered by $2 waffle makers in a Wal-Mart. While Occupy frames a discussion on corporate greed, let us let these words and images from the shopping swarms open up a discussion of the greed more widespread and perhaps just as harmful.
Perhaps we’re dealing with a sort of contagion. In many ways the mania for bargains, and indeed the whole culture of consumerism is an extension of corporate greed. We often fall prey to feeling the desire or even need of things, ignorant of the fact that we’ve been programmed and persuaded. As a veteran of the advertising industry I’m all too familiar with the process, yet I find myself falling for it despite my knowledge. Marketing can be insidious. Thinking about marketing can be helpful, however.
The great innovation several decades ago that evolved advertising into marketing was the embrace of targeting audiences for consumer persuasion. The ad business of earlier days could be seen as earnest showmanship and, however sophisticated, not far removed from what any pitchman or carnival barker long practiced. Marketing, in contrast, is a science. It applies more precision in developing messages that motivate us to spend, and is far more reliable. It has also become far more widespread in our present society. Indeed, it is nearly inescapable. Most information has conformed to the goal of persuasion. Entertainment and journalism are far more injected with commercial content than ever. In a real way we’re always shopping, never away from the marketplace. Black Friday is a symptom of this pervasive pathology.
There has to be an effect felt from the level of commercial messaging we’re faced with. I often wonder what portion of those identifying as the 99% merely want more of the stuff the 1% have. One would hope there’s a promise of a society where we can reach beyond just who has what or how much, to a place more about sharing than taking. But a path towards such ideas begins with examining greed wherever it lives. Not just in the boardrooms, but in the aisles of the big-box stores. Perhaps Black Friday this year can be a dark mirror. If we can learn from the excesses and the tragic edge that will be something of real value.