It's no secret that "Black Friday" is an invention designed to drive consumer behavior. Retailers and consumer brands deploy discounts and promotional tactics that ultimately bring out the worst of humankind. Our society literally stops to allow for merciless consumerism - banks, post offices and the stock market all close, while stores open their doors as early and for as long as humanly possible. We've all seen the images of hordes of ferocious shoppers, wrestling each other to get a flat screen TV. It's the story of big companies compelling a false sense of longing in everyday people, while driving them to compete, abuse each other and fall deeper in debt, all in the virtuous pursuit of corporate financial gain. Yes, it's that depressing.
A lot has been written about how businesses can hack Black Friday and seize the season of gift-giving. But it's not about how businesses and retailers can make the most of Black Friday. Instead, it should be about understanding why people are motivated to hit the stores. By discerning the deeper consumer needs, perhaps we better understand the void that brands fill and the delicate and important responsibility they have in people's lives.
After all, in some ways, Black Friday is obsolete. Virtually all of these deals can be found all year round, in one way or another, on the internet. And people are actually buying less and less of stuff these days - they want more experiences. But somehow, without exception, they go into a frenzy on the day after Thanksgiving.
How is it that on this particular day of the year, consumers abandon all civility and assert a deeply unapologetic sense of greed? The answer is evolutionary.
The reason you see ravenous primates in the wild trying to survive at a Best Buy is because that's exactly what it is. People are reverting to primal tendencies, exhibiting the conscious and unconscious motivation to survive. Their biology, behaviors, emotions and sense of self-control are all working in service of one thing: don't die. Black Friday isn't about the things people want. It's about the things people need.
Here are the three reasons Black Friday is actually about survival:
The fear of scarcity - In some ways shopping is like hunting and gathering. And the moment a good or resource seems unavailable, we are hardwired to want it more, for the sake of survival. The more limited it seems, the more we are willing to sacrifice rationality to seize it. And manufacturers and retailers know this, often contriving a false sense of scarcity that gets people shopping like they're preparing for a natural disaster. By promoting shortages, they're creating an artificial urgency that gets us wanting more.
The threat to fairness - Humans, like all animals, have a deep desire for fairness - it's genetic. We are predisposed to value our greatest advantage or benefit over anyone else's. So when we see a seemingly unbelievable deal, say, a roundtrip ticket to Paris for $100, we can't help but buy it even if we never had the intention to travel. Black Friday deals are so stark that they assure us that we're not paying an unfair price at some other time. And if we know someone else is paying less for the same stuff, it feels deeply violating and against our primal drive. Black Friday arouses our competitive spirit. The only thing people care about as much as their stuff is justice. Our brains can't resist it.
The sense of belonging - In nature, the way to ensure survival is to be part of a group. Eating, sleeping, hunting and traveling as a group provides a sort of peace of mind when it comes to survival. Humans need to belong. We feel safe when we are part of a group, and insecure, threatened even, when we are on the outside. Black Friday propaganda suggests everyone is engaging in one specific behavior - hunting for deals. As a result, we adopt that same behavior to stay in sync with the greater group. Afterall, if you take the anxiety, commerce and violence out of Black Friday, it really looks like fun.