Each year Americans charge into the mall the morning after Thanksgiving, securing a bounty of $2 waffle makers and deeply discounted cell phones after all-night camp-outs. The overnight queues are often followed by frenzied Santas crashing store doors in the pre-dawn hours and stepping over their vanquished neighbor (or even abandoning their infants) in the pursuit of prized goods like bath towels. The spectacle of shopping riots in the name of the holiday spirit provides the media and blogosphere vicarious visuals to launch an annual wave of self-conscious moralizing over consumer gratification. Press coverage of Black Friday riots is predictably shallow, and internet commentaries fixate on the theatre of consumer frenzy, shallow psychologizing over consumers’ herd mentality, and doomsday predictions about the state of humanity. There are some reflective commentaries on Black Friday and consumption, but even they often fail to grasp the meaningfulness—and genuine politicization–of material desire, and many of them make Black Friday appear to be radically unlike the desires consumers experience the remainder of our lives.
Anti-consumer movements have been part of the material landscape since the earliest moments of American mass marketing: colonial Non-Importation agreements, antebellum “free labor” stores, 20th century African-American “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns, and present-day “buy local” movements all share the long heritage of withholding consumption to leverage social and political goals. Anti-consumerism movements in the contemporary world embrace a wide range of strategies and political goals including targeted boycotts, responsible consumption advocacy, and material frugality, but much of the popular attention focuses on the public theater of “culture jammers.” Culture jamming aspires to illuminate the contradictions of mass culture; that is, industries like advertising, television news, and internet corporations that aspire to systematically shape consumer knowledge in ways that sell goods and reproduce a “consumer culture.” The notion that we are a consumer culture implies that our most commonly held values, practices, and beliefs are invested in consumption and materiality itself, as opposed to the conventional lynchpin dimensions of culture such as faith, art, kinship, or language: In this picture of society, our contemporary identities are more firmly invested in commodity brands, consumed leisure (e.g., movies), and professional sports teams than in worship, family, or artistic representation.
Black Friday is a classic example of what culture jammers refer to as a capitalist “spectacle”; a spectacle in Guy Debord’s terms refers to seductive, mass media-manufactured representations of the world that stand opposed to (or even replace) authentic everyday lived experience. A society of spectacle supports commodity consumption through increasingly effective media representation mechanisms reaching from television to YouTube to cell phones, all of which represent the world in ways that encourage consumption.
Culture jammers have dented popular consciousness in large part because they use theatrical irony, sarcasm, and humor to illuminate the ways media shape our social and material experiences and disrupt dominant representations. The best-known example competing with Black Friday is Buy Nothing day, which takes aims in Adbusters’ words at “the entrenched values of capitalism–that the economy must always keep growing, that consumer wants must always be satisfied, that immediate gratification is imperative.” One of the most prominent culture jammer voices, Adbusters has been the most vocal champion of Buy Nothing day, which has a presence in over 60 countries including the UK, Sweden, Finland, and Japan. The UK Buy Nothing campaign stresses the negative social, political, and environmental impacts of consumption, arguing that “It’s a day where you challenge yourself, your family and friends to switch off from shopping and tune into life. … The developed countries–only 20% of the world population are consuming over 80% of the earth’s natural resources, causing a disproportionate level of environmental damage, and an unfair distribution of wealth.” Indeed, Buy Nothing day breaks from targeted boycotts in its more ambitious assault on capitalism and mass marketing itself, but it ultimately seems to see curbing consumer excess as its genuine goal.
The Buy Nothing movement advocates the sheer economic sway of a mass of consumers actually buying nothing, but it attempts to illuminate the ideological contradictions of marketing discourses and the irrationality of consumption by holding public events like zombie walks amidst holiday shoppers or “whirl mart” performances in which streams of shoppers push empty carts about a store. Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping practice a similar sort of anti-consumer theater that appropriates the language of faith and parodies the religious implications of shopping and our deep investment in material things. The encyclopedic sniggles page inventories a broad range of culture jamming ranging from vandalism to “billboard liberation.”
That irony and sarcasm is often wasted on sound-bite media observers who fail to accept their own position shaping opinion and speaking for corporate interests. For instance, the Huffington Post’s Nathalie Rothschild recognizes that much of the rhetoric about mass culture embraced by activists like the Occupy Movement risks appearing arrogant by suggesting that the masses have simply accepted elite deceptions and mass marketing lies. Yet she then caricatures anti-consumer movements when she laments that the “message of Buy Nothing Day … is essentially promulgation for mass austerity … and it is an elaborate way of telling people they are stupid, irresponsible, greedy and shallow. For this year’s Black Friday, Adbusters promised ‘flash mobs, consumer fasts, mall sit-ins, community events, credit card-ups, whirly-marts and jams, jams, jams!’”
On the one hand, Adbusters’ “subvertisements” (i.e., spoof ads) and public theater hazard over-simplifying desire and consumers’ reception of media messages, and Adbusters risks providing no concrete alternatives to shopping and materialism beyond deconstructive asceticism. Yet on the other hand, Rothschild evades any discussion of consumption or the concrete inequalities reproduced in mass culture, instead launching into an attack on the activist mechanism of the Occupy Movement and Buy Nothing day. She launches a transparently populist caricature of activism, suggesting that “On the one side are the Occupiers, ready to deploy every thinkable kind of shenanigan to bring the message home to those on the other side — i.e. vast numbers of ordinary Americans — that they are ‘rabid consumers’ hooked on ‘conspicuous consumption,’ that they are acting like zombies by pigging out and destroying the planet with their addiction to cheap electronics and videogames…. In short, Adbusters and their fellow Occupiers see Americans — or, in their own lingo, ‘the 99%’ — as gluttonous, obese pigs. What a joyful holiday message.”
Irony and theater are intellectually interesting mechanisms for consciousness-raising, but in everyday experience they are inconsistent and may even raise the ire of observers like Rothschild, who rejected the movement on the basis of what she experienced as a personal attack on her decision-making. Christine Harold’s study OurSpace : Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture argues that Adbusters’ parody risks simply replacing mass marketing’s authority voice with the moralizing authoritative voice of Adbusters, Buy Nothing advocates, or Occupy Wall Street. What Buy Nothing risks misunderstanding is that Black Friday and everyday consumption are profoundly consequential emotional experiences; rather than even unintentionally imply that consumers’ emotional desires invested in shopping and things are “lies” or fetishized symbolisms provided by marketers, critical anthropological thinking accepts peoples’ professed experiences and feelings, even if they are deeply shaped by ideology. Marketing works because it impacts us emotionally, but approaching consumption as “false desires” opposed to “authentic experiences” existing outside mass culture over-simplifies materialism and mass cultural symbolism. Culture jammers often suggest that such desire is manufactured by mass media and can be dismantled through rational, self-reflective critique. Subverting advertisements can be politically effective, because it reveals the distortions of media representations, but even then it launches the parody in the very form of ads that we all know already. Buy Nothing day attacks our deepest consumer desires and labels them false, meaningless, and even dangerous, so it hazards being heeded only by those who were already uncomfortable with materiality and consumption.
This year Buy Nothing Day has been greeted by its own ironic response in Buy More Stuff. Buy More Stuff rejects moralism and instead appears to embrace an intentionally shallow philosophical position that places agency back in the hands of consumers. Like Buy Nothing day and the broader culture-jamming movement, the Buy More Stuff champions wield public theater tactics, but their pickets encouraging shoppers to “buy more stuff” do not preach to consumers as much as they trust others to make sound decisions; sarcastically, they accept that for some people such decisions may involve buying and wanting more things. Their intentionally shallow agenda is actually quite complicated in its aim at the moralistic positions of cultural critics like Buy Nothing advocates, who appear to be rejecting meaningful desires and imposing a new set of moral codes. Buy More Stuff may actually be a surprisingly effective anti-consumption tool, because it is absurd to counsel shoppers to buy still more things in the midst of a busy shopping mall. The consumer response is to simply be confused: Buy Nothing Day, in contrast, provides a rational response that is a retreat from “excessive” consumption.
Black Friday is often implicitly framed in the media as a bizarre break from everyday normal consumption, a maneuver that in effect prevents us from contemplating the ideological contradictions of everyday consumption outside the frenzied morning hours of Black Friday. Most popular observers and the media itself reduce the Friday morning rush to a psychological commentary on a handful of transparently materialistic neighbors clearly distinguished from the rest of shoppers whose desires do not reduce them to the status of anti-social. That shallow assessment simply reduces Black Friday riots to the breakdown of a few individual consumers and evades the concrete ways desire is collectively accented and exploited by marketers, media observers, and moralizing observers on all sides of consumer politics.
2006 Culture Jamming: A Sociological Perspective. Journal of Consumer Culture 6(1):116–138.
James J. Farrell
1998 Shopping: The Moral Ecology of Consumption. American Studies 39(3): 153-173.
2007 OurSpace : Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Carmen L. McClish
2009 Activism Based in Embarrassment: The Anti-Consumption Spirituality of the Reverend Billy. Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 5(2):1-20.
Jennifer A. Sandlin and Jennifer L. Milam
2008 “Mixing Pop (Culture) and Politics”: Cultural Resistance, Culture Jamming, and Anti-Consumption Activism as Critical Public Pedagogy. Curriculum Inquiry 38(3):323-350.
2012 Anti-consumption as tactical resistance: Anarchists, subculture, and activist strategy. Journal of Consumer Culture 12(1) 87–105. (subscription access)
Buy Nothing 2007 image courtesy Steve Rhodes
Buy Nothing poster image courtesy Toban Black
Target image courtesy Jacob.jose