What Black Friday Says About Us

November 28, 2014

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. Hopefully we have all had the opportunity to spend time in the company of friends and family, enjoyed a delicious meal, and celebrated all that we have to be grateful for. Thanksgiving is truly a wonderful occasion to embrace some of the values we hold most dear; things that can be often taken for granted in the swirl of our daily existence. But with Thanksgiving behind us, we now find ourselves caught on the cusp of the Christmas shopping season and its focal singularity, Black Friday.

If you don’t know the historical perspective, the term Black Friday had its origins in 1960s Philadelphia when police officers would use the term to describe the terrible traffic jams which annually occurred in Center City on the Friday after Thanksgiving. It was meant as a derogatory expression in the hopes that the public would find the long lines, traffic, mayhem, and general ruthless shopping environment distasteful and therefore something to be avoided. Despite the intentions to contrary, the term took off in a big way and was later co-opted by businesses trying to get their profits into the ‘black’ near the end of the calendar year. Sometime after the mid-1980s corporate America jumped on the bandwagon and behold, a modern shopping phenomenon was born.

More vibrant and thriving than ever before, Black Friday has taken on a life of its own. As the busiest shopping day of the year, it creates an unprecedented amount of momentum in our culture with newspaper ads and commercials running weeks prior to the actual event. Entire websites are dedicated to helping the buyer locate the best deals and consumers strategically organize their shopping excursions with more detail and ruthless determinism than a military campaign. It truly is a one-of-a-kind all American original institution.

But taking a deeper look at what Black Friday really signifies can tell us a lot about ourselves as a people. The world is your mirror, and Black Friday is no exception. Hidden within this yearly shopping extravaganza are some key messages that can be important to reflect upon. I’m not trying to bash Black Friday and those who indulge in its holiday splendor as much as shine some light on its hidden messages, what we can learn from them, and if they are ultimately a benefit to us as individuals and as a society.

First, we must be honest and recognize the first of two underlying prime movers of Black Friday, materialism. Materialism, as a worldview basically holds that matter and its interactions is the primary, fundamental stuff and substance of the universe. But as it relates to a deeper understanding of human nature, materialism is also the underlying notion that possessing more things leads to greater happiness. This conclusion certainly makes a certain amount of sense from a materialistic standpoint: if the world is made of physical things and stuff, then having more of the stuff that I need and want will lead to more happiness.

Unfortunately, for the die-hard materialist, the world isn’t made up of “stuff.” I won’t even attempt a quantum physics explanation of how everything in the material universe is actually just energy and information; just know that the consensus in the scientific community is clear – all the stuff we think is so hard and tangible is really just waves of information and energy moving at dizzying speeds giving us the illusion of solidity. But if that isn’t enough, just consider all the evidence to support a non-materialistic way of looking at the world. Thoughts, emotions, moods, values, inspiration, intentions, creativity, your personality, sense of “I”, or your soul; these aren’t material, but you know them to be a real part of your existence. Sure, these states might be associated to specific brain chemicals or hormones, but in and of themselves, they aren’t physical. And in when you think about it, what would you rather base your life and behavior upon, physical, impermanent matter that decays and rots away with the passage of time, or the non-material qualities that we intrinsically feel are at the heart of existence? I believe most people would lean toward the latter. Think about it, to call someone materialistic is often considered a serious affront because it implies a shallowness of being and an attachment to material things over more timeless values.

So what does this say about Black Friday? Well, simply put, like it or not, Black Friday is all about materialism. It would have you believe that owning more of the stuff that doesn’t ultimately lead to happiness is of the utmost importance. It’s a “thing-based” event (as if this wasn’t obvious). But what it says about us is that as participants in Black Friday we’re in a certain sense casting our vote for a stuff-based way of looking at the world. If this wasn’t the case, would countless shoppers be willing to mow down their competitors over an article of clothing or appliance one day after celebrating all they have to be thankful for? If those values truly reigned supreme, would Black Friday be able to sustain itself the way it has over the last few decades?

The Second prime mover behind Black Friday is consumerism. Consumerism is an economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. Consumerism needs a materialistic worldview to thrive, because once we become convinced that having more stuff = greater happiness, it’s a simple matter to persuade us to continually buy more and more things. Now I know that there are things we all need for our survival, however consumerism truly flourishes not so much around the things we need, but around the things we want. As a culture, we have become buyers of stuff, often mindless buyers of stuff. We love to buy things. There’s a certain pleasure received from buying things, no doubt caused by a hit of dopamine in our brain’s pleasure centers, that makes us somehow feel more fulfilled. This is a natural response to the fulfillment of a desire, but the problem arises when through repetition, this behavior crosses the line into an addiction. I would guess a great many of us are addicted to the consumerism “fix” that leads to buying things just to buy things. It can be a double-edged sword in that a certain degree of consumerism help keep the economy going, however when it runs rampant (as in our culture) we face an ever increasing buildup of needless and unnecessary junk produced for the sole purpose of fueling the consumer machine.

As it relates to Black Friday, consumerism is the engine that keeps this shopping phenomenon alive and well. It sends a clear message that we are consumption addicts and that, given the right mix of availability and low prices, we will be slaves to the corporate giants that supply our distorted sense of demand. Yes, you already have a 65 inch flat screen LCD Television, but if you wait in line beginning at 6:00 pm on Thanksgiving night you can get another 65 inch TV for 1/3 its original price. Do you need it? No, but look at how much money you “save” by buying this one when it’s dirt cheap! This is the type of logic that fuels our consumer-based mentality. More after all, is more, which of course is better than less…

Third, the hype surrounding Black Friday often turns us into puppets of the advertising media and the products they promote. Advertising is rarely what it appears to be. There is always an agenda behind every product being promoted or discounted and as much as we’d like to believe the advertisers have our best interests at heart, what they’re usually concerned about is just one thing – making money. To do so they will use every tactic at their disposal to get you to purchase their product. I’m not trying to make advertising sound like a sinister conspiracy, but I think it’s important to realize that the advertising media isn’t trying to inform you of a product as much as it is attempting to manipulate your behavior. Now you might say “I have free will, no one tells me what to buy,” but take a look in your refrigerator or closet. How many name brands do you see? Now ask yourself if you bought those items because you knew they were the highest quality, or because of an association to that product you formed through advertising. We all do it, and it doesn’t mean we’re mindless zombies just because we buy a popular, well-advertised brand. But the more visibility that item has online, in print, or on television, the greater the chances are you’ll become familiar with it and lean toward it over another less-known brand.

Some brands go to great lengths to grab our attention and create targeted campaigns to associate certain images, concepts, or beliefs to their products. Once we form an association, not unlike Pavlov’s Dog, we have an automatic and often unconscious response to that stimulus. Our attention gets hooked and for many of us the hype and glitz bypasses our critically thinking intellect and heads right for the emotional centers of our brain where it’s much more likely to take root and motivate you to take action.

What does this mean on Black Friday? Consider that long before the big day we are inundated with the flyers, ads, commercials, and targeted emails, all of which are designed to prime the emotional pump and create a powerful psychological momentum towards saving huge sums of money on Black Friday. They tactfully feed into the our materialistic and consumer-driven mentality, ramping up our need to have and buy more while directing our attention to those large ticket items that will have the biggest impact on their business. Further, notice that the advertisements primarily come from large retailers with huge advertising budgets. Smaller outlets have little chance of competing against a wall of advertisements generated by the corporate giants. As shoppers, we can easily (and unwittingly) get caught up in the media and advertising hype of Black Friday and become convinced that we need to buy more of what we don’t need. The collective pull guided by the advertising industry can be a powerful force, and without awareness we may unconsciously end up doing its bidding, for better or worse.

Finally, the popularity of Black Friday clearly demonstrates that we are an object-referral society. Object-referral means that your sense of self, of who you are is influenced by what is happening outside your Self. Situations, circumstances, people and things govern who you believer yourself to be and therefore have the greatest amount of control over your happiness and wellbeing. Object-referral is constantly seeking the approval of others and behavior is always in anticipation of a response. In object-referral, your internal reference point is the ego which thrives on approval, strives to control, and is sustained by power. It’s the sense of I, me, and mine that perpetually asks, “What’s in it for me?”

The opposite of object-referral is self-referral, meaning that your internal reference point is your soul rather than the objects of your experience. It is a spirit and consciousness based way of approaching life and asks, “How can I help?”

We only need to take a cursory look around at our society to realize that object-referral reigns supreme. It is the mentality that drives the sense of individual accomplishment, of ‘us versus them’, of ‘looking out for number one’, and getting what’s mine before someone else does.

This becomes especially revealing in light of Black Friday. Black Friday isn’t about the generous and grateful values we espoused just one day earlier. It’s about every shopper for themselves, of grabbing the prize before someone else does, of the means justifying the ends. One needs only a short visit to YouTube to see countless posts of security-cam footage during the mad rush when eager shoppers nearly crash through a doorway like a sea of humanity surging to the electronics department to witness object-referral in action. Helping others isn’t on the agenda on this day; it’s about me and mine.

Now I hear the protests: But I’m shopping to give my child (husband, parent) a wonderful Christmas or Chanukah. That may be, but what values are we upholding when we live by a win at all costs mentality, even if it’s for the best of intentions? Are we telling ourselves that our purchases are more important than those of others? And if so, is the example you set one you would have your loved ones follow? No doubt, these can be uncomfortable and difficult questions. Just the same, I think they’re important to ask. If we are only willing to hold to our values when it’s convenient, then what does that say about us as people?

As you can see by now, the spectacle of Black Friday tells us quite a bit about ourselves, and in all honesty, I can’t say it paints a pretty picture. I know many people actually enjoy shopping on Black Friday and It wasn’t my intention to offend those shoppers in this essay. I do believe however it’s important to examine what we do and why we do it, as well as what we can learn from those questions. Do I think we should get rid of Black Friday? Would it help pull our culture back from the cliff of runaway materialistic consumerism? Perhaps. Regardless, I believe it’s vitally important to recognize that Black Friday is the byproduct of our collective consciousness. Black Friday became what it is because we allowed it to happen. If we don’t like our creation, perhaps we should hold a different vision.

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