A black day for Christmas shopping

Thursday is one of the biggest days of the year in the US, Thanksgiving Day. I observed a Thanksgiving Day when I was there a few years ago, an interesting fly on the wall type experience (as a lot of my time in the US was).

It’s not just a big day in the US, it is a big long weekend (although only some states make it a public holiday for state employees).

They launch major Christmas shopping marketing on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day. It is the biggest shopping day of their year. They call it Black Friday for some reason. It’s never on the 13th. Maybe it’s a black day for many people’s finances (but yeah, that would make it a red day).

This is recent in the US. It started in 1952 but did not become known as ‘Black Friday’ until the 1980s.

Now it seems that New Zealand marketers are trying to make it a thing. Without Thanksgiving Day (I’m surprised turkey marketers haven’t tried that yet).

The whole front page of today’s ODT is plastered with ‘Black Friday’ advertising. Cringe. I’m not going to touch it – I have already been warned that black ink hands are worse than usual, but I am avoiding getting sucked into this commercial crap.

I guess it’s just another name for yet another sale. In the not too distant past sales were one week a year, not they seem to be once a week. Or all week, just with a different name for marketing purposes.

I’m opting out, but it’s hard to avoid the media pollution.


Doomed to amuse ourselves to death in our post-1984 brave new world

Danyl Mclauchlan writes at The Spinoff about Seeking shelter from the information monsoon.

The whole article is worth reading but ironically: My brain is like a tiny teacup with a firehose gushing into it. The torrent displaces itself. I’ve read everything yet remembered nothing. Still it keeps coming.

But he remembers something written back in 1984.

Apparently George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four has become a bestseller for people struggling to make sense of our times. It’s a great book. But all the way back in 1984 the media theorist Neil Postman gave a series of lectures titled Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he argued that Orwell’s book was not the dystopian novel that currently described our society: instead he urged us to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

This feels increasingly true to me.

Huxley’s version sounds far more accurate to me too.

One of the few books I have managed to read recently is The Attention Merchants, by Timothy Wu: it talks about where the sea of information comes from, and why it keeps rising and rising. It’s a history of media and advertising.

Another quote from Amusing Ourselves to Death:

The television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment.

Its principal theorists, even its most prosperous practitioners, believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. If greed was taken to be the fuel of the capitalist engine, the surely rationality was the driver.

The theory states, in part, that competition in the marketplace requires that the buyer not only knows what is good for him but also what is good. If the seller produces nothing of value, as determined by a rational marketplace, then he loses out.

The problem with any social or commercial theory is that in practice things turn out to be non-ideal, and as practices and behaviours evolve they can move further from the theoretical ideal.

So we come to “both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest”.

Commercialism has become corrupted. The sellers have become obsessed with duping people into buying things they don’t need, and in fact may be unhealthy, especially when consumed to excess as the sellers want.

And a significant proportion of buyers seem happy to be duped. It is easier than thinking for themselves.

There are some who see this and campaign against the corruption of commercialism, but their proposed solutions tend to be too extreme and easily dismissed as the naying of nutters.

The allergy industry is an interesting beast. Foods foisted on the population by product pushers has introduced an explosion of genuine allergy problems, but commercial interests have not only catered for this, they are creating business by promoting fear of falling to foul products.

Promoting balance in advertising, balance in diet, balance in technological acquisitions and balance in stuff you don’t really need doesn’t get much attention because the media needs advertisers to survive so are loathe to bite the hands that feed them.

Maybe what we need are the right algorithms for Google and Facebook to manipulate the masses towards healthy lifestyles. But social media giants live off advertising too.

So are we doomed to amuse ourselves to death in our post-1984 brave new world?

Rampant commercialism and consumerism

A post at The Standard on Pathological consumption quotes George Monbiot from The Gift of Death (published in the Guardian in 2012 but equally applicable now).

Pathological consumption has become so normalised that we scarcely notice it.

There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World wall map.

They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.

Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale(1). Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable).

He concludes:

So effectively have governments, the media and advertisers associated consumption with prosperity and happiness that to say these things is to expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule.

When the world goes mad, those who resist are denounced as lunatics.

It can be difficult to resist, especially at Christmas time when the lists of people to give presents too easily grows and the number of gifts given per person has increased.

Commercialism keeps pushing products that we don’t need, or that we need less of. Much if what they sell is bad for us (in the quantities that they push) and bad for the environment.

Families need bigger houses just to accommodate all the plastic junk thrown at the children.

Who wants to be the stingy parent, uncle, auntie, grandparent, sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle?(Circles of giving seem to be widening around the family).

Is there any way of turning around rampant overconsumption?

I don’t think that the Government can or should decide what we buy and use and give.

It requires a major change in societal attitude, driven by society itself. Is that possible?

Boxing Day mauls

It used to be that commercialism urged people to spend up large for Christmas, and then everyone had a break after the 25th December.

If anything now commercialism cranks up a notch on Boxing Day – it actually starts before that with Boxing Day Sale advertising starting in Christmas Eve.

Shopping on Boxing Day isn’t a sin, although Jesus might describe our ongoing commercial onslaught as a din of thieves.

I went shopping on Boxing Day a few years ago, I wanted a lawnmower and I had the time to research the market and get a good Deal. But generally I avoid the madness of one of the busiest shopping days of the year, at the very time I am looking to relax and enjoy a break.

Boxing Day sales are likely to last a few days, and then will morph into New Year sales, which will morph into the same thing under a different name..

A decade or three ago a sale used to be an actual annual event, or perhaps one of two or three – annual sales and stock sales were the usual ones. I saw someone advertising a stock take sale for now – who does a stock take at this time of year?

With many things I wouldn’t consider buying them unless they were ‘on sale’, when they are not discounted 50-60% you pay to much, like double their market price at places like Briscoes.  But for big ticket items like appliances (and lawn mowers) even when they are not ‘on sale’ you can negotiate the prices down to virtual sale prices anyway. Kiwis have been pushed into haggling.

We all have to shop for stuff. The problem is when people are encouraged to but things they don’t need. We tend to buy too much junk, too many clothes, too much highly processed food that helps supply the diet industry with more customers and revenue.

Of course it is our choice if we go shopping and if we buy stuff we don’t need or we overindulge with.

But the increasing commercial onslaught drives more and more consumption resulting in more and more waste, and for those who can’t resist the pressure sales more and more health and financial problems.

The ‘shopping therapy’ will be out in force today.

I won’t be going anywhere near a shop, we have enough Christmas food in the fridge to last us a few days so can survive at home, or wherever we head in the opposite direction to the malls and mauls.

But as a society we are likely to continue to respond to commercialism with overspending and overloading our planet with over processed products made from overexploited resources.