Black Friday: A Pavlovian Mental Disorder – Now Medicated by ‘Cyber Monday’
21st Century WireYes, it’s ‘that time of year’ and that means we get another annual dose of America’s twin obsessions – those who partake in Black Friday madness, and those who enjoy watching it.I used to think it was all just part of the human herd mentality – just another twisted expression of crowd dynamics, but there is a lot more to it than that.
For better or for worse, Black Friday is officially part of Americana, but many are not aware just how deep its roots go. It’s still a work in progress whose evolution began around the time of the Founding Fathers and is currently tossing and turning inside the giant digital half-pipe known asthe internet…
Symbolically speaking, Black Friday got off on a poor foot to begin with. The term ‘Black Friday’was originally coined by both the Philadelphia and Chicago police departments to describe the mayhem that was unleashed by the first Friday after Thanksgiving Day, as waves of shoppers hit the pedestrian ways and roads, causing traffic accidents and occasional violence. It’s interesting how the cultural herd managed to make the term work though, given that previous ‘black days’ were reserved for catastrophic stock market crashes, on Black Thursday (1929) and Black Monday (1987).During the 1980′s, mega shopping mall culture became the dominant consumer experience, and melted in with the Gordon Gekko inspired, ‘me, me’ culture, where society was told to abandon anything that was old, stop saving money, extend your reaching distance, get into debt, and euphorically embrace the here and now. Today’s ‘big box’ stores are really eighties mall culture on steroids – more intense, with everything from A-Z condensed under one umbrella.
It stands to reason – that when you squeeze that many people into concentrated areas, and then add in the incendiary element of artificial scarcity, you can expect a certain amount of violent incidents. This is taken to a whole other level when individual outbursts give way to crazed crowds rushing the entrance of a big box, overwhelming security guards and staff, like a riot scene out ofRobocop.
IMAGE: In the film ‘Robocop’, rioters hit Detroit streets in search of freebies.
Black Friday horror scenes really came into the media focus in 2008, and partly because of the advent of social media platforms like YouTube. It was a scene that shocked America; a Walmart temporary worker, Jdimytai Damour, died of asphyxiation after a retail mob had stampeded him to death. The fact that Damour was 6’5″ and 270 pounds couldn’t even help him. This shows you the power of a 2,000 strong mob who is motivated by the Pavlovian corporate bell. In 2012, two people were shot outside another Walmart in Tallahassee, Florida, after fighting over… a parking space.
A 2014 Black Friday show reel isn’t much different, and it’s become a kind of macabre fascination for hundreds of video bloggers to capture the grotesque vignettes of literal ‘door-busting sales’and upload them to YouTube.
Watch this clip from Michigan City, Indiana:
Here a man is tasered by security in order to calm him down at the check-out line:
For the most part, it’s a relatively busy, yet relatively calm shopping day across the US. The drop-off in Black Friday footfall this year may be because of economic retention, but it could also be an epiphany that even in America, evolution is possible.
In the last 2-3 years, Black Friday’s reputation as an ‘American tradition’ has taken a serious dent, not just because of the bad press it’s been given by alternative and mainstream media, but also because many have come to the deep realization that maybe, just maybe, battling it out with strangers in order to save $50 on a nonessential item – is not the best way to take in the Friday after Thanksgiving.
It screams with irony in today’s America, where a nation of debt slaves will risk life and limb to get their hands on manufactured goods made by Chinese wage slaves, most of whom, if they are lucky, take home $3 per day after working a 12 hour day.
Cyber Monday: A Cure for Black Friday?
This year, Black Friday has a new nemesis: the internet. Last year, Black Friday lost $ billions of dollars in annual sales to online shopping, and that trend is expected to continue this year.
Is the internet the cure for Black Friday madness? Initially, Black Friday gained its status through retailers banding together to pump out marketing hype. Internet retail moguls like Amazon.com,Apple.com and others did the exact same thing, taking advantage of the bad press Black Friday was receiving and correctly calculating that internet using, working class and middle class shoppers (who’ve already migrated online to get their retail fix) would respond to a 21st century virtual rebranding of the brick-and-mortar retail Pavolvian experience. In 2005, digital marketing gurus at the National Retail Federation’s online Shop.org group came up with the tag, “Cyber Monday”, as the antidote to the now damaged social brand, ‘Black Friday’. The proof is in the puddling – sales figures now make it the top online sales day of the year, and are expected to shatter last year’s already impressive performance.
So staying home, avoiding the barbarian hordes and biding one’s precious holiday time until Cyber Monday, has now accumulated enough social kudos to carve out its own compartment within the American culture machine.
The most harrowing thing about watching ‘retail riots’ now par for the course on Black Friday, is that the gulf between all-out looting, like we’ve witnessed in Ferguson and Oakland this week, and some of the crazed scenes of Black Friday – isn’t that far apart. Both represent a breakdown in civilized behavior, leading to violence and a temporary collapse of law and order.
EARLY BIRD SPECIAL: Black Friday got started early this year for looters in Ferguson, Missouri and in Oakland, California.
While watching the scenes on wanton looting on Monday and Tuesday evening following theFerguson verdict, one could not help but notice the intoxicated look on the faces of looters as they came out of stores with handfuls of various and sundry retail goods and knick-knacks.
It became clear to me at that point, that Ferguson looters were high on the same primal Pavlovianendorphins – a seductive combination of excitement, pleasure and with the added element of risk, all rolled into one lethal cocktail – that were firing off in the brains of Black Friday retail herds.
VIDEO: Black Friday herds descend on a Walmart store this morning in America.
LINGERIE RIOT: Thousands rush the entrance of Victoria Secrets this morning.
These same endorphins are also released at Black Jack and Craps tables in Las Vegas, and to a lesser degree at Bingo halls and church raffles all over America.
There’s other more disturbing applications when retailers mix the emotional excitement of procuring a free item with their powrful consumer brands. They also kick-in when PR companies are throwing out free samples to crowds at concerts or public events. I remember one year, back in the 90′s when the UK’s MOBO Awards were held at the Royal Albert Hall, and after the show the event’s sponsors thought it would be a good idea to toss free samples of beauty products to attendees seated in the upper tier rows. It nearly caused a human avalanche, as punters leaped and clawed over each other like crabs in bucket, trying to get their hands on whatever it was that was being thrown out. It wasn’t all that unlike those National Geographic scenes where hundreds of sea lions are fighting it out for a few fish on the Arctic shore rocks.
Why do some react to the Pavlovian retail bell and others don’t. Though we might struggle with this moral and physiological conundrum, it’s not a hard question for marketeers to answer. It’s about creating an artificial, marketing-induced demand for a product turned commodity. In other words, how can retailers create a demand for something outside of Maslow’s hierarchy of basic human needs? Better yet, can marketeers create a spike in demand – when the item being sought after is not even in short supply?
There’s a reason why this lethal formula works better in the United States than it does in other countries. The answer may lie in culture as a consumer impetus. In many ways, the 1980′s epoch was the progenitor of the modern Black Friday phenomenon. The eighties saw the first Cabbage Patch Doll riots, where shoppers were ready to morally wound a fellow citizen (competitor) for a totally superfluous piece of mass-produced nylon and plastic. Likewise, the Air Jordan murders of the 1980′s demonstrated the ugly side of an emerging obsession with brands found with minority populations in the US. Many will blame 80′s materialism and hip-hop ‘bling’ culture for this unfortunate social turn, but history shows that the roots of consumer obsession with status goes back much further than that.
That pivotal epoch was the culmination of decades of work by skilled social engineers like Edward Bernays, regarded by many as the father of consumerism, as well as the term ‘public relations’ (which was considered a euphemism for the term ‘propaganda’) and the modern ‘focus group’.
Bernays understood the work of scientists like Ivan Pavlov, who’s late 19th century experiments first demonstrated the physiological link between desire and behavior modification known as ‘classical conditioning’. In the experiment, Pavlov would ring a bell to trigger the dog’s neutral stimulus. Whenever he gave the dog food he rang a bell. After a number of times, he would ring the bell and stop serving the food, and the dog’s would still salivate even though the food was not forthcoming.
American retail giant K-Mart put Pavlov’s theory to work in 1965 when it introduced the “Blue Light Special” in its department stores, occurring at surprise moments when a store worker would light up a blue police car light to signal a snap sale in a certain part of the store. Shoppers would often roam the floor in anticipation for that moment of excitement when the siren went off. No doubt the sound of the blue light was triggering the same neural pathways as Pavlov’s bell.
It turns out that Bernays just happened to be the nephew of revolutionary psycho analyst Sigmund Freud, and no doubt Freud’s work into the primal urges, vice and obsessive perversions of the human psyche played a major role in his nephew’s ability to weaponize social conditioning for big industry.
It turns out that Bernays was planting his seeds of consumerism in the world’s most fertile soil in early 20th century America – in a culture rich in mercantile identity politics, as author Everett Tucker explains:
“While it is easy to brush off all this behavior as dystopian present-day phenomena, consumerists and taste-makers set the course of this nations culture, with purchasing power playing a huge role in the nationalistic nativism of our insurrectionist patriots and founding fathers. The market revolution was a boom-period in american culture derivative of advancements in technology, infrastructure, and communications, as well as the shift in public attitudes after the Great Awakenings.
The successes of the american grandees and expanding middling and mercantile castes led to a plethora of choices in american markets. The incredible range of american and European goods presented to the colonists punctuated an internal vagueness about national identity. Were the British colonists American, or British?
The mirrors, furs, furniture, hats, and fine clothes allowed for consumers to express their individuality, not only as sovereign beings with varied tastes, but as citizens who were beginning to desire a sovereign nation.”
This is how Bernays and the modern marketeers have successfully fused together materialism with modern identity politics. On top of this, Bernays and his wealthy corporate clientele launched modern consumerist psychology at the most optimal time in history, at the peak of the industrial revolution in the 1930′s and into post World War II America during to rise of the two income households and mass media television marketing.
Although the middle classes have suffered badly (individual debt accumulation) from the learned attraction to upwardly mobile brand identifiers, this has especially been done with devastating effect to those Americans in lower economic strata. American society is still riding that psychological, marketing-based mass mental disorder juggernaut today.
Below is another scene from the 2012 Black Friday show reel:
What’s interesting is how this year’s Ferguson riots have tried to attach themselves to Black Fridayby amalgamating the Michael Brown ‘social justice’ protest together with a call to ‘Boycott Black Friday’ (see image below).
The online movement gained some media traction as a protest in honor of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, but the strange bedfellow arrangement was not a thought-out merger of ideas, only a product of social media-driven campaigns riding ‘digital waves’, where one only needs to drop in a hash tag like #BoycottBlackFriday together with #Ferguson in order activate the digital herds on Twitter and Facebook.
While this may generate some initial steam for this new dual campaign, it will also impede both efforts as it waters down each group’s core message in an activist landscape already plagued with ever-meaningless and conflated, throw-away strap lines like “No Justice, No Peace”, as campaigns undermine themselves by suffocating each other with more mediocre messaging.
If labor unions were still a major player in modern America, we might hear more from the workers about Black Friday madness, but today’s activism is dominated by consumers and not unionized workers, with the focus now firmly on where our collective dollars are spent, as Twitter mobs continue to ‘vote with their feet’. Even that paradigm is rapidly changing, however, as ‘vote with your feet’ is transforming into ‘vote with your finger’ (click, click).
Either way, American consumers have made one thing abundantly clear to industry bosses and that ‘s the realization that any concern for sordid working conditions in China, Vietnam or Indonesia will be trumped by the sale price at Walmart or online.
So although the physical risks associated with the Pavlovian mental disorder of going out to shop on Black Friday are somewhat mitigated by the safer, calmer ‘Cyber Monday’ alternative, it’s only medicating these underlying issues, namely an obsession with material status and identity politics embodied in terms like, “you are what you buy” and more crudely, “I shop, therefore I am”. Bernays and his ilk knew how to make that connection deep within the human subconscious psyche. In order to severe the connection they made, one has to go back to the core idea and investigate the self.
Whether we’re voting with our feet, or our clicks, when you boil it right down, we are endorsing something and that is meant to say something about each of us. Until we can pry our existence away from these conditioned, socialized perceptions of the self, then we’ll forever remain vanquished to a consumerist pogrom.