This past Friday, if you were in the U.S., chances are you witnessed or even took part in the “great American tradition” known as Black Friday. Chances are you are also familiar with the many shocking news stories that surface every year about people camping out for days for a good deal, people being trampled in the frenzy to get into stores, and more recently, even tragic shootings. Ironically, this madness all follows Thanksgiving, a day generally reserved for family and giving thanks. What about consumerism, about products and things, is it that makes people so crazy? Is this a solely American phenomenon?
To many outside of the country, Black Friday epitomizes consumerist American culture. Americans have long been subject to the stereotype that we commercialize everything, from holidays to disasters, and capitalizing on other cultural products as well. The term “Black Friday” itself has its roots in financial jargon and is associated with the financial crisis of 1869, but the qualifier “Black” has come to carry a negative connotation in popular culture, relating to all the violence that occurs on the day each year. This tension between being a positive day that boosts the economy and being a dark day that carries public dangers has characterized Black Friday and has become a large part of American culture since its beginnings.
Yet in recent times, perhaps since this shopping event has repeatedly proven its ability to boost sales and improve the economy, foreign countries have quickly started adopting the Black Friday model. I began to consider whether this is another instance of Western cultural imperialism or just a way for business to promote purchasing. Will countries all over the globe begin seeing the same violence and frenzy that we see each year on Black Friday? Or will other countries adapt the model to fit their own cultural environments? Recently, Mexico has started their own weekend of consumerism named “El Buen Fin,” and India has adapted the Black Friday model to promote e-commerce, calling it the “Great Online Shopping Festival.” Several other countries — South Africa, Colombia, Denmark, Sweden, and even notoriously anti-consumerist France — have adopted Black Friday culture to boost economies. It is doubtful that Black Friday will take on the same violent nature in other countries as it does in the U.S., simply due to cultural differences, but the imagery is shockingly similar. Below are images from Black Friday in Mexico and France.
Currently the imagery we see associated with Black Friday in American news media focuses on the frenzy and crowds that develop. A simple Google image search for “black friday” reveals photographs of people running, pushing, grabbing, and screaming. To me, these images draw direct association with images of violent protests and riots, an interesting link between two seemingly opposite values. On Black Friday, the goal is to purchase products from large corporations and institutions. In a protest or revolution, the object is to revolt against institutions. To stop the continually growing violence surrounding Black Friday, a dramatic institutional and cultural shift is needed.