Irrationality and Frenzy: Desire and Shopping on Black Friday
This year even Apple appears poised to join the host of American retailers offering dramatic sales in the early morning or middle of the night on Black Friday. By Black Friday standards the Apple store sale prices are not especially dramatic, but a legion of consumers seem eager to find an iPad under the tree and will likely beat a path to some of the competitors who are promising dramatic deals on iPads.
It is now an expectation that Black Friday will be greeted with irrational crowds rioting for prosaic things, and by Saturday a host of videos will dot the internet documenting the most boorish behavior. Much of the media coverage seems to suggest that the consumer miscreants storming the housewares aisle are a horde quite unlike the bourgeois patiently awaiting iPads. For some observers, Black Friday reveals the distinctions in class consumer desire and obliquely disparages mass consumption as emotionally driven irrationality; at least implicitly, that storming of the Target doors is suggested to be quite unlike the material desire at high-end retailers and upscale spaces like the Apple store.
The mass consumption experience is followed closely by the media, which routinely psychologizes Black Friday as mob manipulation by clever marketers. This week, for instance, the Las Vegas Guardian Express hysterically argued that “it seems necessary to recognize that this much anticipated retail extravaganza can be as deadly as it is lucrative.” In 2011, a Huffington Post article likewise painted Black Friday shoppers as an emotionally frenzied mob, suggesting that “Add in the online-coupon phenomenon, which feeds the psychological hunger for finding impossible bargains, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.” The Las Vegas paper’s Daniel Worku blamed all this on clever marketers and manipulable consumers, arguing that “This atmosphere seems to be intentionally manufactured by the countless advertisements, blurbs, signs, billboards, and radio plugs, constantly seeding the suggestible public mind about how this years deals will be better than ever. The energy and frequency of this media frenzy, galvanizes the debt burdened public into spend-crazy, deal-hunting, sale-seeking, mob with zombi-like [sic] determination.”
Worku’s analogy of Black Friday masses to zombies may capture the apprehension of an anonymous, mindless mob—indeed, survivalist blogs wondered if Black Friday riots are a preview of the scenes that will follow the apocalypse, with one wondering “If people will go this wild just to save 40 percent on a television set, then what in the world are they going to do when they have been without food for a couple of days?” Even more reasonable observers seem to see those sales shoppers as emotionally irrational materialists distinguished from the thoughtful and reflective consumer collective in places like the Apple Store.
Much of this popular commentary paints Black Friday as a frenzied irrationality projected onto certain sorts of goods: for instance, waffle maker riots make fascinating narratives underscoring Black Market frenzy among the masses, while iPad desires are quite rational and moments of uncivil behavior at the Apple store are portrayed as departures from normal bourgeois shopping behavior. Much of this commentary reveals widespread anxieties about mass consumer desire, especially among an ambiguously defined working class willing to riot for cheap bath towels while the elite obediently queue for designer clothing and the newest iPad.
Like many of the most beloved brands, Apple has cultivated an especially loyal following willing to wait in the cold night following Thanksgiving, and Apple consumers are as likely to storm the doors as the hordes at Wal-Mart and Best Buy. There almost certainly will be exceptional demand for iPads this week that will end up with frenzied shoppers. In 2011, for instance, a Beijing iPad unveiling resulted in four people being sent to the hospital. This September enterprising iPhone shoppers in Los Angeles hired homeless people to stand in long lines to purchase the new iPhone 5S; the episode ended in unrest when the recruiters failed to pay the homeless people for their time in line. Apple certainly wants to fan consumer desire, but its stores have only modest Black Friday promotions. Apple attributes this to a commitment to quality products and exceptional service, but they more likely aspire to avoid linking the brand to stories of rioting suburbanites charging into the Apple Store’s antiseptic whiteness.
Some media observers suggest Black Friday rioters are our most desperate and marginalized neighbors. In November, The Guardian Express’ Tihira Nichelle Ruffin inventoried a list of Black Friday tales, observing that “people continue to indulge in the muck of assaults, threats and the intimidation of others while scavenging for goods simultaneously. Could this possibly be the result of human experience with economic distress?” Ruffin’s theory implies that those shoppers subject to the most material inequality and attendant emotional distress are most likely to unload pepper spray at the Black Friday sale. The New York Times voiced nearly the same idea in 2011 when Stephanie Clifford suggested that on Black Friday “the differences between how affluent and more ordinary Americans shop in the uncertain economy will be on unusually vivid display. Budget-minded shoppers will be racing for bargains at ever-earlier hours while the rich mostly will not be bothering to leave home.”
Perhaps there is some genuine truth to the conclusion of a marketer who told the Times that “`Those in a more modest income situation are the people who are going to the Wal-Marts and the Best Buys and the Targets at 8, 9, 10, 11 p.m. with little kids in tow because they can’t afford a baby sitter.’” In a similar vein, the Huffington Post’s Alice Hines proposed in 2011 that most of that year’s Black Friday tumult surrounded the most prosaic goods, like waffle irons, towels, and baby clothes, rather than big-screen TVs or iPads. One observer this week suggested that six out of 10 episodes of Black Friday violence were at Wal-Mart, perhaps the prototypical symbol of mass American shopping. After a 2008 Black Friday riot ended in a sales associate’s death in New York, Wal-Mart was fined $7000, only to spend $2 million fighting the regulations in court.
What all these discussions seem unable to fathom is that consumption is fundamentally driven by emotion and imagination, whether it is among a crowd of Apple shoppers, a mob in the Target toy department, or an individual in their pajamas scrutinizing the online sales. Attributing violations of consumer discipline to a deterministic economy or scheming marketers who lead us all to a Wal-Mart slaughter is perhaps appealing, but it risks ignoring all the powerful if inchoate desires consumers project onto things. Black Friday is probably fueled more by imagination than it is fueled by desperation; that hypothesis would require some genuine ethnographic evidence with shoppers instead of the impressionistic moralizing that characterizes nearly all of the Black Friday coverage.
Apple Store NYC Black Friday image from jardenberg
Best Buy camping image from Mahat Tattva
Best Buy Black Friday line image from dmhsperspectives.com
Kansas City Black Friday image from NY Daily News
Kentucky Target image from abc.news