Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Media and Retailers Both Built Black Friday

Media and Retailers Both Built Black Friday

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This weekend, news reports were full of finger-wagging over the death by trampling of a temporary worker, Jdimytai Damour, at a Wal-Mart store in Long Island on Friday. His death, the coverage suggested, was a symbol of a broken culture of consumerism in which people would do anything for a bargain.

The willingness of people to walk over another human being to get at the right price tag raises the question of how they got that way in the first place. But in the search for the usual suspects and parceling of blame, the news media should include themselves.

Just a few days ago, the same newspaper writers and television anchors who are now wearily shaking their heads at the collective bankruptcy of our mass consumer culture were cheering all of it on.

In a day-before story, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution advised readers to leave the children at home, at least the ones not big enough to carry the loot, because they will just slow you down: "Strollers and crowds just don't mix, though we know a few shoppers willing to use four wheels and a child as a weapon. Younger children may also be seduced by the shopping mania and pitch a tantrum that slows your progress. That said, teens and young adults can be an asset to a divide-and-conquer shopping strategy. And you'll have someone to help carry the bags."

An article distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News sounded as if the writers were composing a sonnet for fishing or camping until they got to the punch line: "Nothing rivals the thrill of waking up before the sun, or that sprint through the store for the perfect present."

Another article distributed by the news service said that "some hard core shoppers will be up before the sun, banging on store windows as the official start of the holiday shopping season begins. Weak economy, pshaw! There are sales out there."

In the wake of death by shopper, Newsday, the daily paper on Long Island, wrung its hands in the opinion page blog: "Was this deadly rush to lower prices an illustration of the current economic malaise (people mobbing Wal-Mart because they fear they can't afford higher prices elsewhere) or just proof that even a recession can't suppress stuff-lust?" Then it added, rather unfortunately, "This awful death is another Joey Buttafuoco-like stain on the too-often sordid image of our island."

But on the run-up, Newsday offered a "Black Friday blueprint," with store openings listed so shoppers could plot strategy, including noting that at 5 a.m., the Green Acres Wal-Mart would open and customers could expect to buy a 42-inch LCD television for $598. Many continued to pursue that particular bargain even as Mr. Damour lay dying.

The New York Times had an article in its Circuits section on how "Black Friday Calls for a Strategy Session," but the overall coverage was far from frantic, reflecting grim economic realities.

It's convenient to point a crooked finger in the wake of the tragedy at some light coverage of some harmless family fun. Except the coverage is not so much trite as deeply cynical, an attempt to indoctrinate consumers into believing that they are what they buy and that they should be serious enough about it to leave the family at home.

Media and retail outfits are economic peas in a pod. Part of the reason that the Thanksgiving newspaper and local morning television show are stuffed with soft features about shopping frenzies is that they are stuffed in return with ads from retailers. Yes, Black Friday is a big day for retailers — stores did as much as 13 percent of their holiday business this last weekend — but it is also a huge day for newspapers and television.

In partnership with retail advertising clients, the news media have worked steadily and systematically to turn Black Friday into a broad cultural event. A decade ago, it was barely in the top 10 shopping days of the year. But once retailers hit on the formula of offering one or two very-low-priced items as loss leaders, media groups began to cover the post-Thanksgiving outing as a kind of consumer sporting event.

"Media outlets have been stride for stride with the retailers," said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm. Speaking on the phone on Friday evening after nearly 24 hours of working the malls, he suggested, "Something like this was bound to happen at some point. The man who died at Wal-Mart was, from what I understand, a temporary employee and had no idea what he was dealing with."

Given that early shoppers stomped him to death and later arrivals streamed past him as he was being treated, he could not be blamed for failing to understand the ungovernable mix of greed and thriftiness that was under way. Black Friday blows a whistle many of us cannot hear — I would rather spend some quality time with my dentist than stand in the dark chill waiting for a store to open.

Some people think of Black Friday as an abundance of holiday generosity, but in a survey conducted by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs, 81 percent of the respondents said that they planned to shop for themselves, an army of self-seeking Santas.

News outlets that advised consumers to sharpen their elbows for the big day were selling something that has, in an online world, lost most of its value. If you want to define your self-worth as buying a $300 laptop, you can use the Web and a down cycle in the gadgets business to come out a winner. (Black Friday is now followed by Cyber Monday, another cynical construct that suggests that you can beat the system by buying things on the right day.)

"This is a tired American ritual that has had its day even before this happened," said Kalle Lasn, editor of AdBusters, a magazine and Web site that promotes the day after Thanksgiving as "Buy Nothing Day." "It accrues to the benefit of the media to somehow promote all of this craziness. There is something very sick about it."

Buying stuff in the teeth of recession represents a vulgar but far too common impulse. Consumption is a core American value, so much so that President Bush suggested people head to the mall after the attacks of Sept. 11 as an expression of solidarity.

The message is persistent. After the current housing collapse turned a lot of the financial system to red mist, we're told we have a crisis of consumer confidence and need to stimulate spending. Again, there's something sensible, even vaguely patriotic, about buying stuff, even after people used cheap credit to spend themselves into a ditch.

Even consumption may have limits. Mr. Cohen said that in his 32 years interviewing consumers in malls during the holiday season, he had never heard what he did this year. "People really have no idea what they want," he said.

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