Ways in which TV advertisers sold the idea of going to their stores at (variously) 4 am, 5 am, or 6 am on the Friday after Thanksgiving, aside from simple appeals to deep discounts:
(based on advertisements seen on Thanksgiving for Target, JC Penney, Mervyn’s, Macy’s, Big Lots, and others)
1. Fear and social pressure. Shot of a suburban neighborhood at night. People running chaotically from their homes, across lawns and into the streets, reminiscent of people evacuating or fleeing in disaster movies. “Mom, where are we going?” shouts a little boy. Mom answers that they are going to take advantage of an early-morning After Thanksgiving Sale. Details of savings and deals follow.
2. Good-natured reminders of personal responsibility. “Set those alarms!” a voice says merrily, as an alarm clock rings. A small dog, representing the buyer, gets out of its dog bed and trots away as the voice recounts all of the deals available at the early-morning After Thanksgiving Sale. As the dog returns to its bed, exhausted (or goes to bed early in preparation for the early-morning sale? Ambiguous), the voice brightly chides us, “You’ve got a lot of shopping to do!”
3. The invigorating thrill of a strenuous physical challenge. No voice-over. Instead, The Go! Team’s “We Just Won’t Be Defeated” plays in the background as an animated stick figure pushes a shopping cart at a full run through a minimalist background. Shots of the stick figure doing shopping-themed exercises, overcoming obstacles, etc. Beads of cartoon sweat drip from his stick-brow. During the evening’s feature (The Incredibles), the little shopper occasionally reappears, running with his cart from the left side of the screen to the right.
4. Ironic directness. A touching family Thanksgiving scene, though a somewhat comical one: one of the older children, a late teenager, over-earnestly wears a paper Pilgrim hat. Mom brings out the turkey and sets it on the table, to the family’s delight; however, she immediately leaves the kitchen, pulling the tablecloth, food, and place-settings behind her. They fall to the ground with a clatter: “Who wants dessert?” calls Mom from the kitchen. The voice-over tells us to hurry and get to the store for the After Thanksgiving Sale, making it clear that Mom wants to get dinner over with quickly to begin shopping. After recounting of deals, a shot of Mom, still in her apron, standing at the store doors alone in the middle of the night. “Open, open, open,” she mutters, rattling the doors.
This one could stand more discussion: by “ironic directness,” I mean an advertisement that simply tells you to do something ridiculous or distasteful, or claims a ludicrous property for the product, but avoids offense by using humor to suggest that they’re just pulling your leg. At the same time, the advertisers obviously want you to do or believe exactly what they’re joking about. On Thanksgiving I expected to see more of this technique, which was incisively described (with the example of the Axe Deodorant ads) in Joe Kugelmass’s account of advertising, but I only saw the one ad; maybe America isn’t yet ready for this level of starkness regarding a family holiday. Within a few years, though, the concept of going shopping on Thanksgiving night may have been normalized to the degree that more advertisers can just tell us to do it, while leaving the “just kidding!” escape hatch unlocked behind them.
I also learned, watching these ads (and reading some of the catalogs that came in the daily paper), that the word “doorbuster” has become the standard term for an extremely good deal, one that will bring people crowding into the store, busting down the doors, etc. This seems like a case of Madison Avenue chutzpah, since for me “doorbuster” evokes everything that makes me not want to take part in brief sales events: namely, getting caught in a massive, door-busting crowd. But it would be a major coup if advertisers made the two worst things about these sales (going to a store at 4 am and packing yourself in with a thousand other shoppers) seem like features: exciting, part of the fun, even part of the holiday.
On the way home from Thanksgiving, we saw a billboard: an extreme close-up of a Budweiser bottle, with the caption “THIS IS BEER.” Obviously, it’s meant to be read with a certain emphasis: “This is beer.” But for a second my mind was freed from that enunciation and I read it for what it actually was: a simple declarative statement (“This is beer”). It sure is! This is somewhat in homage to Penny Arcade’s vision of the ideal Doritos ad: “Doritos are chips.™”
Update: While we’re on the subject…in the past I’ve generally been indifferent to Buy Nothing Day, but the crassness of the Black Friday ads has finally made me a fan. This graphic from designer Jonathan Barnbrook is a pretty thorough argument in favor.