The Power of Persuasion or What We Get with Black Friday

As a winning “persuasive speech” competitive speaker, I know very well the power of good persuasion. The very best persuasion is that where the intended audience has no idea they have been persuaded and changes its behavior accordingly. Such persuasion is the basis of a state speaking competition winner. Or perhaps a shopping trip.

Today is the Friday after Thanksgiving here in the United States  and my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with stories focused on one word: shopping. The role of consumerism, the psychological element of “buying affirmations thru holiday gifts,” and the quest for the almighty bargain all play roles in the shopping frenzy of this time of the year. However, I doubt most folks now patting themselves on the back for having completed their holiday shopping realize just how they have been persuaded. Over the past forty-some years we have been persuaded that participating in Black Friday is precisely what the holidays should include.  (Especially since the holidays are a time supposedly about being with family; being more just, compassionate and kind; and reflecting on the blessings of our lives.)

The term “Black Friday” originally was used to note financial crisis. Coined as a shopping term in 1966 by the Philadelphia police department to describe the human and vehicular traffic generated by shoppers after Thanksgiving, the term blends the emotional upheaval and financial instability of the economic crisis of the mid-1800s with the inherent energy generated by crowds. Each time our nation has faced economic recessions, the citizens also experience increased stress, emotional troubles, and social upheaval. In a paradoxical cycle, the financial health of the nation mimics as well as creates the health of its citizens.

And so, as the stress of the holidays–with their romanticized time of togetherness and family connectivity–mounts, we react in ever-increasingly disturbing ways. We shop and we often get angry over sold-out items, lost parking spots, and other shoppers. Moreover, we have been persuaded that the very act of shopping is the means to a more joyful ends, as if the struggle of holiday shopping somehow makes us better or our gifts more lovingly selected. But like most romanticized or simplified solutions, the intended outcome is accompanied with a darker side. It seems that it is not actually possible to buy your way into another’s true affections or a sound economy.

In the 1980s we Americans began having more access to shopping centers as well as shopping means (cash and credit). Retailers capitalized on that accessibility by increasing advertised sale items. This practice evolved until the mid-2000s when store opening-hours rolled back earlier and earlier until this year, Black Friday started at Toys ‘R Us at 9 pm on Thursday (Thanksgiving), making Black Friday actually 27 hours long.

And what does all this additional shopping access allow us? More reasons to buy stuff. More reasons to add stress and anxiety. And for what? We have been persuaded by systems that this is what we should do. We should buy more, for less. And we should do this as a symbol of our care, compassion, and love for others.

But that is not exactly what has happened. Sure, there may be more children believing that Santa deemed them good this year, or folks feeling appreciated by having a gift to open at a specific time. But there is also much more frustration and out-and-out suffering.  Suffering such as:

  • 2006: A Best Buy shopper in Virginia assaulted another shopper and was filmed doing so.
  • 2008: Over 2,000 shoppers at a New York Walmart broke down the store doors and trampled an employee to death.
  • 2010: A shopper at Toys ‘R’ Us cut in line and then threatened other shoppers with a gun.
And of course, this year the reports of shoppers gone wild are being gathered, such as the woman who pepper sprayed Walmart shoppers also vying for an Xbox 360.
So just what have we been persuaded to do?  We have been persuaded to turn our backs on the essence of two holidays: giving thanks for our blessings and the people in our lives.   Instead, we have been persuaded to focus on getting stuff at any cost, although it being the least financial cost is the most important aspect of the process.

And yet I ask you this, what is the real cost? Is it better to give or to receive? And if you are giving gifts because it is “expected” or because it makes you feel better, what is the point? Or if you just want more “stuff” under the tree, what on earth are you hoping the stuff will make you feel?

This video clip  sums up what travesties we have been persuaded to believe are normal. In the 47 second video, we see a mob of people grabbing at a pile of boxes in a large retailer’s aisle. (I believe it’s Walmart but since I don’t shop at Walmart I’m not sure.) To the young woman who makes off with four waffle irons, to whom are you planning on giving these waffle irons for Christmas? Who do you know is going to be as pleased as punch to find a wrapped household appliance under the tree? And do you plan on telling them just how much money you saved on their gift, as if buying someone a $2 waffle iron is a milestone not only for you as a shopper but for them as a receiver?

I tell you, I shake my head in wonderment. We have become a nation of shoppers buying things we do not need for people who do not want them. Instead of giving our selves and our time, which is all anyone ever truly wants from us, we have been reduced to buying foreign made stuff that will be regifted, given to charities, or forgotten in less time than it will take for the holiday wrapping paper to crush in the landfill.

And we will do it feeling oh so proud of our thriftiness and accomplishments — look, it’s not even December and I’m all done with my holiday shopping!

If it were a persuasive speech, it would surely bring home the gold medal.

If you did not get your holiday shopping done, please consider giving your time this year. Kids love spending time with you and so do the elderly. Give a gift certificate to an activity and an afternoon of your time. Go bowling, see a movie, visit a water park. Do something with the people on your list and you will give something far more precious than anything stamped “made in X”. You will give a memory. And that is the most priceless gift of all.

6 thoughts on “The Power of Persuasion or What We Get with Black Friday

  1. Many years ago, when I was so young I knew nothing (as opposed to now, when I am so old I know nothing) I read about “cargo cults.” Probably everyone reading this is familiar with them, but if not, look them up on Wikipedia. Of course, we in “modern” America laugh at the “primitive” South Sea Islanders waiting for gods to deliver “cargo” similar to the advanced goods they saw American and Japanese planes and ships delivering. We laugh in between telling our children about Santa Claus flying his sleigh loaded with presents and in between heading out to the mall stores on “Black Friday.”

  2. More and more the findings are that a lot of people are using these sales to shop for themselves. We continue to drift away from the point. How is it that we give thanks one day satified with all that we have, only to plunge deeply into mass consumerism? As your post seems to suggest, we are an emotionally bulemic culture.

  3. You have once again, as you so often do, caught the most important aspect of a current social situation, and gotten it down in great fashion. As for “Black Friday” stayed away in droves.

    Thanks for this, kristina

  4. Astute and well-stated, as always. In my town of 2500 people, Friday I enjoyed walking the snowy Main Street and picking up some smoked fish on sale (for gifts) at the LOCAL smokery, getting some groceries (10% off) for special meals (“Lite” coconut milk for curry made with locally caught shrimp), grabbing a free cookie and cup of coffee, finding a windproof headband (15% off) for my walks to school, and greeting friends. And I felt good that the money I spent here supports jobs here, families whose kids are in my classes. I totally agree that giving time and sharing activities is the heart of family and connectivity. I was SO glad NOT to be in the crowds and consumer fever of the cities.

Comments are closed.