Resist Propaganda: Buy Nothing on Black Friday

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

from the November, 2006 edition of The Valley Scene

The late French philosopher and social critic Jacques Ellul wrote extensively about the power of propaganda in the technological age. In his classic book Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, he defined propaganda as “a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals.” Ellul argued that modern mass media creates a “constant environment” of psychological manipulation so persistent and continuous that it becomes virtually unnoticed. Modern propaganda “seeks to induce action, adherence, and as little thought as possible . . . it tends to destroy man's conscience.”

In the United States, nowhere can the effects of propaganda be seen more vividly than on so-called “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving shopping frenzy that manifests a mindless display of hyper-consumerism and commercialism. Last year National Public Radio chronicled some of the craziness: “In Orlando, Fla., shoppers wrestled a man to the ground after he tried to cut the line to snap a discount computer. In Beaumont, Texas, an off-duty policy officer sprayed mace into a crowd of overzealous Wal-Mart shoppers. Several people reportedly left the store gasping and choking as they headed for the parking lot.” No doubt readers of this rant have seen or experienced similar episodes.

The spectacle of millions of consumers lined up outside of big box retail stores at 5 a.m. in order to save a few bucks on teddies and toaster ovens would be funny were it not for the real human costs of such excess. From the depths of rampant consumer debt to our overflowing landfills; from exploiting sweatshop labor to working longer hours in order to afford more cheap junk—the consequences of uncritical consumption are vast.

The Black Friday shopping spree is aided and abetted by a barrage of print and electronic media advertising, corporate media news features, direct mail, and a host of other forms of manipulative communication. Most Black Friday propaganda features variations on the “bandwagon” technique, an appeal based on the idea that “everyone else is doing it, and so should you.” Millions of people shop on Black Friday not because they actually need or want to, but because years of propaganda has made the excursion to the mall “the thing to do” on that day.

During this month’s Black Friday, will you resist the propaganda? Will you accept the challenge to Buy Nothing?

It’s important to understand that propaganda only works when the propagandist has a willing victim to prey on. As stated by Jacques Ellul: “For propaganda to succeed, it must correspond to a need for propaganda on the individual's part. One can lead a horse to water but cannot make him drink . . . There is not just a wicked propagandist at work who sets up means to ensnare the innocent citizen. Rather, there is a citizen who craves propaganda from the bottom of his being and a propagandist who responds to this craving. Propagandists would not exist without potential propagandees to begin with.”

We don’t have to be victims of Black Friday propaganda. In the early 1990s, Vancouver artist Ted Dave established “Buy Nothing Day” (BND) as a way to contest the mindless consumerism propagated by the corporate press and major retailers. Dave’s idea was to designate one day out of the year in which consumers could fight back against mindless propaganda by boycotting all purchases for 24 hours. Adbusters Magazine became the chief sponsor of Dave’s idea, and in the United States Buy Nothing Day occurs on the day after Thanksgiving. To celebrate BND, all you have to do is resist the Black Friday propaganda and refrain from shopping for that ONE day.

Oshkosh resident Drew Mueske, a twenty-something activist with the Winnebago Peace and Justice Center, has organized BND events. His group created posters and flyers centered on themes such as “Participate BUY NOT Participating” and “Curb Your Consumption.” The group passed out and posted bills at various shopping centers and chain stores in the area.

I asked Drew what the response has been like. “From my experience, most consumers agree that our country is obsessed with shopping and that the majority of them spend beyond their means throughout the year and especially during the holidays,” he said. “Like the federal government, a huge percentage of Americans are now in financial debt, not a good thing for a population obsessed with shopping.”

Mueske argues that BND is more than just a statement about rampant consumerism on Black Friday; it’s about how our unsustainable pattern of consumption and production is the largest cause of the deterioration of the global environment. Such consumption patterns not only wreck the environment, but also result in serious human rights abuses like sweatshop and child labor.

Mueske wants us to take back the meaning of certain holidays: “Historically, Christmas and the holiday season had nothing to do with Buying, only with Giving. Santa Claus and the Christmas-ization of the season has become an obnoxious exploitation of the birth of Jesus. Now we're seeing Brand America attempting to exploit every holiday
season to increase their profits.
” Drew says that anyone wanting more information about how to celebrate BND should go to the Adbusters website:

During this month’s Black Friday, will you resist the propaganda? Will you accept the challenge to Buy Nothing?

Tony Palmeri ( is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.