My Shopping Orgy
By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 12/21/06
Black Friday epitomizes everything that’s wrong with consumerist culture. Families defile holiday time together by rushing out before dawn on the day following Thanksgiving to model pathetic behavior and questionable values in front of their children. Faced with retailer-contrived scarcities of mostly sweatshop-produced products, sleep-deprived, overcaffeinated, middle-class consumers surrender their dignity and face off to battle in a media-hyped big-box circus. It’s social engineering at its finest—a holiday created by retailers and an advertising-hungry media industry to celebrate our out-of-control cargo cult. Traditionally the day after Thanksgiving provided a peaceful interlude for friends and family to spend quality time together. No more. Now it signals the beginning, not of the Christmas season, but of the “Shopping Season.”
That’s why, for the last decade or so, I celebrated an alternative holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving: Buy Nothing Day—a symbolic global resistance to consumerism and apocalyptic culture in general, celebrated by a diverse array of folks ranging from Black Block anarchists to fundamentalist Christians. It’s become a sort of cottage industry for me, as my Buy Nothing Day articles sprouted wings and flew into syndication, yielding interview invites from terminally confused AM radio talk show hosts around the US. Yes, not shopping is newsworthy. Hell, it’s revolutionary. You can bring the machine to a halt without throwing yourself on the gears.
This year I got a telephone call from a Chinese graduate student and her translator. She was researching Buy Nothing Day, and my name popped up, it seems, as some sort of expert. She wanted to know if there was a financial impact on the US economy. Perhaps this was the Chinese Secret Service doing a little bit of pro bono legwork for their Wal Mart shock troops. Financial impact? Uh, no. Everyone shops on Buy Nothing Day, setting new records each year, whether they can afford to or not. There was a lot of confusion on the line—trouble translating the word “symbolic.” Yeah, it would be nice, I explained, if more people joined in, but we can still have a holiday without mass support. But people would rather shop, I suppose. Then there was still more discussion of the term “symbolic,” followed by a translated “I see…symbolic…yes.” And possibly, I detected a sigh of relief. The factories of Guangzhou and Chairman Sam will live to see another day.
I decided to take a different tack this year. I’ve written too many of what are basically the same Buy Nothing Day article. This year I set out to do some ethnographic fieldwork, immersing myself into the heart of the beast. What is this Black Friday? Are retailers giving away the house to keep the Buy Nothing Day monster at bay? Did we win some perverse, unwanted victory?
So off I went into the land of sales. My 10-year-old niece and nephew, twins, surrendering all hope of any possible belief in Santa Claus, Chanukah Hal, or some other discount deity, set out to wake the house at five a.m. so we could all venture through the frost in the minivan to the land of the game cube.
Our destination was Circuit City, which eventually appeared just over the gridlocked horizon. Venturing the last few hundred yards to the promised cube, we encountered a group of people lined up in front of an as yet unopened Petsmart. Weird. Perhaps a Snausage sale. Getting into the holiday spirit, I suggested they kick the doors in.
Circuit City, at seven in the morning, was a human ant farm, with snaking lines of oddly docile, red-eyed shoppers waiting to check out. Estimated line time was running from one hour to 90 minutes. Circuit City laid out two flavors of bait. One was an early morning madness sale ending at 11 a.m., and the other was an all day limited quantity sale. By seven, the 11 a.m. booty was mostly gone—sold out, though upon return reconnaissance I noticed some of the shelves restocked later in the day at a higher price. Ah, the game. My brother made a move on a laptop computer. With that line running at about 90 minutes, the sales clerk checked inventory, told us there were only a few units left in the store but thousands more were in the warehouse. He suggested we come back after 11 and place an order, which they would ship to the house. Still trying to get in the holiday spirit, I bought a four-dollar copy of Natural Born Killers from a large, well stocked bin.
Of course, in the afternoon, the sales clerk was unable to take my brother’s computer order. Confused, he told us the unit was in inventory, and it was still on sale, but his cash register would not allow him to take the order. His manager explained that it was Black Friday, and essentially all bets—and, I suppose, consumer protection laws—were off. Intrigued, I wrote a letter to Circuit City’s president and copied it to their customer service department, which turns out to be in India.
Over the course of a few days, I collaborated on a piece of email poetry with someone named Meherdeep whose response to my original complaint about the incident was quite interesting. Seemingly deviating from the script, Meherdeep wrote back and told me that the sales rep lied to me. He then apologized to me, told me that the unit was not out of stock and that my brother would be able to complete his purchase, plus get a $40 gift certificate for his troubles. Not trusting that the rebates that made the price so attractive would still work, my brother lost interest in the computer, but since I was pretty deep into my Black Friday research, I pursued the offer to see what would happen.
Here we get a strange twist on globalization. It seems the people on the ground working the floor in Circuit City won’t take their marching orders from superiors in India who earn a fraction of their salaries. Perhaps if Circuit City followed the path of other corporations and contracted their call center out to a US prison labor contractor, it would be a different situation: “Bubba said you’d honor your sale price. He told me to tell you he gets parole in 2009 and he knows where you work.”
But alas, poor Meherdeep carries no such weight in New York. A few days later I got a written letter from Circuit City informing me that “there was a limited quantity” and “as with any promotion, our sale prices are valid for the specified dates of purchase only.” The following sentence goes on to state, “Also, it is important to note that store personnel were given strict instructions not to take special orders on any items that day.” I love the passive voice.
So it seems Retail America isn’t throwing in the towel and giving away the house on Buy Nothing Day. They’re just bringing Weapons of Mass Destruction honesty to the consumer world. Happy Buy Nothing Day!
I guess I could have dived deeper into the Black Friday world. I could have gone to Wal Mart and bought a copy of the new video game “Left Behind: Eternal Forces,” where Christians left behind after the rapture battle forces of darkness by killing members of something called the “Global Community Peacekeepers.” In the game, players repent for their killings with prayer, have stains wiped off their soul, then go on to rack up points by killing more Peacekeepers, then repeat the whole cycle. Thank you, Wal Mart! Finally a product not made in a sweatshop. I guess with all of our complaints we forgot to mention that we also didn’t want them to sell hyperviolent toys celebrating the mass murder of hippies.
The nice thing about my Black Friday research is that it was done and I was home at about the time I’d otherwise be finishing breakfast. And it was a beautiful, warm, sunny day. Too bad my niece and nephew were tethered to a TV by the evil Black Friday cube. Ethnography, I guess, is sometimes too dangerous to involve the family. Next year we’ll be sure to celebrate Buy Nothing Day, do the right thing for the world, and enjoy the sunshine.
This week’s column is dedicated to the memory of WHLD: The Voice of Reason. May we all live on to fight another day. Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous columns are archived at www.mediastudy.com.
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