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Paradoxical marketing: Consumerism versus anti-consumption

Wednesday 25 November 2015

Black Friday takes place this year on 27th November and is now an entrenched shopping date in the British consumers’ calendar, overtaking Cyber Monday and Boxing Day in terms of sales. 

As it is one of the biggest dates in the shopping schedule on both sides of the Atlantic, the role of retail Marketers is to generate shopper interest and promote the massive discounting of products in a bid to entice shoppers to start Christmas shopping early. John Lewis’s Managing Director Andy Street, believes the event results in this being their “biggest week” of the year and that it will help the company to “win Christmas for the 7th year in a row”. Over the last couple of years, this event has proved extremely successful for retailers such as Amazon, John Lewis, Asda, Currys, Argos, Apple and Marks and Spencer, with an estimated £810 million being spent by shoppers in 2014, more than double the spend from the year before (Smith & Andrews, 2015). The consumption scape frenzy created by retail Marketers begins early as many retailers make their webpages live from midnight and open their doors at 6am, featuring ‘flash savings’ and ‘special deals’ throughout the day. The sales impact of Black Friday is substantial, so much that CityAM believe that 2015 could be the UK retailers’ first ever £1 billion day.  

However, there is a dark side to this Marketing event, with websites crashing and more seriously, violence erupting between shoppers competing for discounted goods. The chaotic scenes inside stores have been captured on film, with many available on You Tube, examples include a women being dragged across an Asda shop floor while clinging to a TV. There are other examples of altercations between shoppers and also between shoppers and retail staff as tempers fray. Shockingly, these altercations have occurred on such a level that personal injury and even death has resulted, showing that shoppers are prepared to risk their personal safety, and that of others, in order to secure a bargain. A website known as Black Friday Death Count has catalogued 7 deaths and 98 injuries to date. Consequently, Greater Manchester police have called upon retailers to ensure they have adequate security in place to cope with the anticipated crowds in 2015.

There is no denying that the marketing activity around Black Friday encourages a consumerist and materialistic frenzy. This would appear to present a Marketing paradox if the retailers other marketing activities is considered, namely their well-publicised charitable activities and social responsibility reports regarding various community projects. Where is the social responsibility on Black Friday? For an event that stimulates increased waste and/or disposal of goods, where is the retail marketing campaigns to buy local, encourage responsible recycling and/or disposal of the replaced goods?

Obviously, it is unrealistic to expect retail marketers not to promote their products and attract consumer interest in their sales events, but for consumers – where is the ethical activism often cited in respect of other socially impactful activities? A less prominent event which also takes place on 27th November is the ‘Buy Nothing Day’ (#buynothingday). This anti-consumption event was founded by Ted Dave from Vancouver in 1992 to encourage a more reflective form of consumption (e.g. locally-made products, support for small business) and promote consuming less and producing less waste. In contrast to the global retail giants’ promotional budgets for Black Friday, the Buy Nothing day receives negligible media coverage and is solely promoted by Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist and pro-environmental organisation that produces ‘culture-jamming’ adverts such as those below for Buy Nothing day.

Major retailers would not be expected to support a 'buy nothing' event, but as a result of the negative imagery associated with the viral clip of shoppers fighting in the aisles, Asda has recently announced that it will not participate in Black Friday, but instead offer shoppers savings throughout the holiday period instead of concentrating offers over 1-2 days. With a more-than optimistic lens, it is hoped that many other high street retailers follow suit and that the event dissipates towards a less, frenzied and more reflective and sustainable shopping experience. 

By Dr Morven McEachern: Reader in Marketing/Director of the Centre for Social Business at the University of Salford