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CHEAT SHEET: Black Friday vs. Buy Nothing Day
November 25, 2011
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Today is Black Friday, the annual U.S. post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy. It's starting to make inroads into Canada, where some retailers are offering extended hours and special offers in order to give an early boost to the Christmas shopping season. Today is also, however, Buy Nothing Day, a protest against rampant consumerism in which people are encouraged to avoid unnecessary purchases.

Obviously the two events celebrate two very different angles on the North American holiday shopping season. How do they stack up?


What is it? Black Friday is not an official holiday in the United States, but simply the day following American Thanksgiving, which falls on the fourth Thursday in November. Many workers are given both days as a holiday, and the resulting long weekend is the last one before Christmas arrives the following month. Traditionally, that has presented people with the first sustained chance to do their Christmas shopping, and thus marks the beginning of North America's biggest retail season. Many stores try to take advantage of the day by opening early and enticing customers with massive discounts, and that in turn has produced anticipation of great Black Friday deals, meaning that even people who have no interest in buying Christmas gifts are prepared to give their credit cards a workout.

Why "Black Friday"? While it has often been speculated that the term comes from the fact that it lets retailers get back into the black (i.e. turning profits rather than carrying debts), another reason for the name comes from the Philadelphia Police Department of the 1960s, who coined the term to describe the order-keeping challenges that came with increased traffic and mayhem on the city's streets.

What's happening this year? The usual shopping chaos is already underway, with many chains such as Target and WalMart having chosen to open at midnight, rather than the usual 5 a.m. (This has produced a few petitions seeking to shame the retailers from forcing their employees to lose out even on their Thanksgiving holiday as a result, but to no avail.) So far there have been no major incidents, although in Los Angeles this morning a woman reportedly used pepper spray to get an edge on fellow shoppers.


What is it? Buy Nothing Day was originally conceived as a way of protesting consumer capitalism in North American society. It is closely associated with Vancouver's Adbusters magazine, which has made a point of promoting the concept since it first emerged in 1992. (The magazine has attempted to buy ad space on most major TV networks in the U.S. in order to raise awareness of the idea, but only CNN aired the spots.) In 1997, the day was moved to coincide with Black Friday in the U.S. and Canada.

Who celebrates it?
Anyone can celebrate Buy Nothing Day - the idea is simply to remind people that they don't necessarily need to buy a lot of consumer goods to live well or enjoy the holiday season.

That sounds kind of familiar.
Adbusters is not the only force behind Buy Nothing Day, but they are a major proponent of it. (Just Google "buy nothing day" and you'll see what comes up first.) Similarly, the magazine has been credited as the inspiration behind the recent Occupy protests, which were also largely positioned against consumer culture. In fact, today Adbuster is advocating the idea of #OccupyXmas.

What else is happening this year?
While the Occupy movement is calling on followers to protest major retailers, the main celebration of BND is meant to occur on an individual level - i.e., by choosing not buy anything. Which certainly doesn't garner as many headlines as Black Friday, but is much easier to organize - and requires no standing in line whatsoever to do it.


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