Holiday Shopping: The Good Fight

Having had Thanksgiving dinner at what is usually my lunchtime, I grew hungry again by the time we reached the hotel. So I hoped to make a run to a store somewhere, get some snacks, and maybe a package of razors before I started to look anymore like a hobo. But in the small town where we were staying, I couldn’t find any stores that were open. We passed several closed drugstores, a spookily deserted mall, three or four shopping centers with empty parking lots. I refused to accept that the Super Stop & Shop was closed, so we cruised the parking lot looking for signs of life but found none, just a few lonely cars that must have belonged to shelf stockers preparing for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the biggest retailing day of the year in America, the day companies find their way out of the red and into the black.

I was starting to feel panicky. It was unfathomable that I didn’t have the wealth of options at my disposal that I have clearly come to take for granted. It reminded me of when I was young and felt generally powerless to please myself. I had no money except for what little I was given. Having no money sucked, but having nowhere to spend it was even worse. I was at the mercy of my parents not only for money, but for the opportunities to spend it. I knew there were malls out there; I knew there was Toys R Us. And from watching TV all day just about every day I knew that there were tons and tons of toys and candy bars and baseball cards and board games that I wanted. And I knew of nothing in my limited universe that promised more happiness that the ability to buy these things for myself.

This was in fact the premier avenue to happiness, not just for me, but for adults, who were being urged to buy all sorts of things for their own sake all the time. It in fact seemed to me the essence of adulthood to decide when and where you would spend your money. This was the fundamental expression of the power of maturity. I can remember just how overwhelmed I was with excitement and relief when the gas station on the corner finally got a soda machine. Now I could walk to it anytime I wanted and get something for myself that my parents wouldn’t buy me. I no longer needed to fear being stuck with a useless pocketful of change. Sneaking out at 10 o’clock at night to buy a can of Mountain Dew, which I had probably seen hundreds of commercials for, was one of the first times I ever felt independent.

However, driving aimlessly around Cape Cod looking for an open grocery store was making me feel hopelessly dependent again, strangely out of control, powerless. For this, maybe, I should have been thankful. Perhaps more than turkey and mincemeat pie and friendly Indians, this was the essence of the holiday: a forced retreat from consumer lures and the promised comforts and distractions of shopping, leaving a day when one has to be contented with what one already has and truly give thanks for it, a day when one must actually find solace in the humble things we pay lip service to the rest of the year — family, conversation, home-cooked meals, peace and quiet. But I have to admit I felt much more thankful when we finally stumbled on a Cumberland Farms that was open.

I wasn’t the only one relieved to have found it. The parking lot was jammed; people were filling their SUVs with gas, or buying cigarettes, or browsing restlessly through the aisles like I was, while teenagers loitered around, snickering at each other, talking into cell phones. Far from purifying our culture of base commercial interests for one sanctified day, Thanksgiving actually shines a bright light on those businesses that find no such holidays sacred — not more sacred than making a buck, anyway — and coaxes out our gratitude for them, oases of our true covetous on-demand spirit amid the stressful pieties of traditions we feel obliged to uphold.

But that’s not to say that those stores that do close for the holiday are paying respect to those traditions. Instead, many of them are merely setting the stage for the ritual enactment of pent-up shopping frenzy, primed by advertisements during the Macy’s parade and inserts in the newspaper and exacerbated by 24 hours without a purchase, finally finding its release. A drama epitomized by the door-buster sales at Wal-Mart and Best Buy: laptops for $99, iPods for $1 — ostentatious dream sales on seductive toys for adults that seem to turn the rules of the marketplace upside-down. It invites a kind of childish magical thinking, in which you can have a gadget simply by wanting it the most, with your willingness to camp out in a cold parking lot symbolizing the ardency of your desire. And these sales make for terrific theater on TV newscasts. The lines of eager, excited shoppers camping out, the displays of ardent dedication in pursuit of an ultimate bargain, the beneficence of the corporations that generously provide for these spectacles — all of the tenets of American consumer culture are there in a heightened, idealized form, there to remind us again of the spirit that has made this country what it is.

Black Friday masquerades as the precursor to the holiday season but in some ways its the climax, the all-important barometer for sales that will determine which companies will secure profitable years, which stockholders will be satisfied with sumptuous bottom lines. The gift exchanging, the religious ceremonies, the family time — these are all afterthoughts, no matter the right-wing demagogues who fulminate about the “war on Christmas” might want you to believe. The holiday shopping season is of critical importance to vast swaths of our economy, so no Scrooge-like humbuggery is permissible; no liberal whining about the commercialization of Christmas or the loss of its “true meaning” is to be tolerated, and to question Santa Claus is not only heretical to the national religion but tantamount to treason.

As good as the American industrial system is at making airplanes, cars, computers or clothing, what it does best is manufacture consumers. As economist John Kenneth Galbraith explains in The New Industrial State (Houghton Mifflin, 1967), industrial planning on the massive corporate scale requires predictable and steady demand; the certainty that what they laboriously prepare to mass produce will actually be consumed. Not only responsible for production processes, industry must also remake popular values to make people willing to buy them; it must make of heterogeneous individuals a mass audience eager to consume mass culture.

Enter the advertising business. Though advertisers are typically thought to be in the business of trying to sell goods, Galbraith points out that they are better described as those “engaged in the management of those who buy goods.” To manage a potentially disruptive populace and domesticate them into both a docile workforce and compliant customers, ads promulgate a generalized notion of human nature that can apply to everyone, positing “instincts” that could unite a diverse population into a mass market — namely the pressures of upwardly mobile social emulation, the anxieties of human contact, and the fears of public embarrassment.

“Advertising demanded but a momentary participation in the logic of consumption,” writes social historian Stuart Ewen of early 20th century ads, “yet hopefully that moment would be expanded into a life style by its educational value. A given ad asked not only that an individual buy its product, but that he experience a self-conscious perspective that he had previously been socially and psychically denied. By that perspective, he could ameliorate social and personal frustrations through access to the marketplace.” (Captains of Consciousness, McGraw-Hill, 1976) Accordingly, department store magnate Edward Filene dubbed the retail environment “the school of freedom” since it taught the disenfranchised the experience of decision-making. For Ewen, that attunement to “the ‘solutions’ of the marketplace” ultimately made up what would be recognized as the American national character, that impatient and credulous optimism that corresponds with a responsiveness to the promises of ads; he details the ways in which ads reinforced this notion themselves by implying a resistance to commercial culture implied a failure to assimilate, an immigrant’s failure to become truly American.

Advertising has been all too successful at this task, convincing us that the consumerism it prompts in us is actually an expression of our sovereignty, that discretionary spending is the supreme exercise of power, that my quest for a Mountain Dew was a rite of passage. So we go through our own lives certain of our own individuality, but we live a parallel existence as part of the mass, no more so than during the holiday season, during which our spending has already been anticipated and accounted for. It has been carefully prepared for all year. On Black Friday then, Ewen’s pregnant moment of participation in the logic of consumption reaches its grand annual florescence. What we see when we’re camped out in front of the stores waiting for the sliding glass doors to open are the manufactured masses coming home to the corporations that worked so hard to shape them.

What Black Friday signals as well is the beginning of the shopping fantasia that we keep suppressed most of the year, where we can spend for the sake of spending with the flimsiest of pretense and without any of the economizing prudence that dogs us the rest of the year, permitting us to bask in the raw power of money in action that is everywhere celebrated and exercise it ourselves. Finally we can embrace and merge with the flattering solicitations that have primed us and sustained us all year long.

The huddled groups of people waiting outside the glass doors in shopping-center parking lots might seem an ad hoc community, Americans united in pursuit of the nation’s favorite activity, but in fact they are competitors, consumer gladiators set against each other by a contrived scarcity. These newspaper stories from upstate New York, “Bargain-hunting team battles for the deals” (Kristina Wells, Times Herald-Record, November 26, 2005) and “Black Friday frenzy hits local Wal-Mart” (Tony Lystra, ibid), convey a sense of what they are like. “The crowd rushed to the back of the store, hoping to snatch up what customers called a dismally scarce supply of cheap laptops, portable DVD players and cell phones. Jessica Redner, 31, of Middletown, said she saw several women pushed to the floor. ‘You can’t stop to help them, because you’re the next one down,’ she said. As a 300-pound man pinned Redner’s small frame against a cash register, employees began screaming expletives at the crowd, she said. And the crowd shouted back at them — and at each other.”

Even though the laptop computers and DVD players that cause these stampedes aren’t necessarily top of the line, shoppers go berserk for them anyway, caught up in the thrill of the hunt, the entertainment value of shopping itself. A successful Black Friday accomplishes this; it reminds us that shopping is entertainment, regardless of what is for sale. As Thomas de Zengotita points out in “Black Friday at the Mall: a Pseudo-Event on Steroids” (The Huffington Post, 11.27.2005) “The folks on line are like Harry Potter and Star Wars fans who dress up to attend openings. They want to be part of the show. And the more they want that, the more of a show it becomes, and so the more of them want to be part of it — and so on and on. Positive feedback, as the cybernetics people used to say.”

The event itself trumps any given product, and the event is only an idealized version of what every shopping trip should feel like. Whether you are getting an iPod for a dollar or a can of soda at the gas station, what matters is the splendor of having opportunities to spend. That shopping is a privilege worth fighting one another for — that it can provide the most hotly contested and highly treasured kind of happiness in our culture — is what these representative warriors of consumption so effectively convey.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.