I was curious how bad things had gotten in the Christmas shopping world, so I conducted an anthropological experiment which ended when I was asked to leave the store by a senior dishwasher salesman.
This year, Canadians — or at least the people who sell them things — have openly embraced the dubious American phenomenon known as Black Friday, even though our Thanksgiving happens on a Monday in October.
Up here our consumer culture isn’t really that different than it is south of us, it’s just a little more self-conscious and toned down. Canadians would be embarrassed to buy, for example, a velvet-and-rhinestone painting of a waterfall at a truck stop, or a five-pound pack of Nibs. And so it’s not on offer up here. I kind of like that, and I guess that’s why the widely-welcomed invasion of Black Friday left me a little uneasy at first. I liked our Canadian consumer self-consciousness while it lasted.
Maybe it’s not so bad. It’s a symbiotic relationship that was bound to happen. Retailers are always looking for The Sale, and customers are always looking for The Deal. Black Friday is a day when both parties are guaranteed to get what they’re looking for with no shame implied on the part of either, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a little like what happens when the fleet comes into port and the local seaside establishments turn on their red lights.
This exchange is happening all the time, but Christmas is when the retailers really want to get the turnstiles spinning. There’s nothing terribly clever about the way they market their clothes and perfumes and phones, certainly nothing more clever than the now-ancient custom of pricing an item at $9.99 instead of ten dollars.
They don’t need to be clever, because both parties come to the table willing. And maybe that’s why it’s all so absurd. We’re so used to waif-proportioned mannequins and plastic Santa Villages that their ridiculousness is almost transparent to us.
So that’s why I went to the mall with my Nikon this weekend. The plan was to take images of the decked halls and gay apparel, then go do something in real life like read a book or walk in the park, and then look at the photos later when I’ve detoxed from the mall air, and see how silly it all really is.
The whole Christmas mall menagerie is so silly that it can barely offend anymore. It doesn’t warrant a serious condemnation, and being hard-nosed about it is a little like picketing a WWE event to convince showgoers that it isn’t real wrestling. More than anything I wanted to be entertained, and I was.
What fascinates me in particular are the images and displays that retailers use to lubricate this mass-transaction and get us in the mood. Fake boughs of holly hung with no hint of irony or kitch. Sterile plastic trees with wrapped empty boxes beneath them. White, flaky fuzz sprayed on window-corners by the canload, meant to remind us of some Charles Dickens book we know about but have never read.
The mannequins alone, with their severe faces and swagger, appear so fashion-serious and superior yet remain unable to dress themselves, and that makes me laugh inside.
Having said all that I had never really looked at the Christmas shopping frenzy critically before, because normally by the time I get to the mall it’s already December 20th, my list is only a quarter done, and I have to engage myself in the parade very seriously.
On my trip to the mall I noticed two distinct themes they used to move product.
1) The Ideal Human
The most prominent theme I encountered was the ideal human. Products used to be sold on the emphasis of their own merits. But for the last fifty years, products have been sold by deliberately associating the product with the person you want to be.
I have mentioned this before. There’s a gem of a quote that makes this explicit:
[Our economy] demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns.
~American retail analyst Victor Lebow [emphasis mine]
During my trip to the mall I found two specific incarnations of the ideal human, sometimes together but usually separate — giant, perfect faces, and slender, perfect bodies.
Many times the bodies didn’t need heads of their own. The heads were presented separately with more force, wilder colors, and usually an accompanying fragrance.
I found different versions of the same face staring at me everywhere. I presume it is the face I want to have, either as my own or as that of my significant other. Sometimes it was prominent, other times subtle. But there was nowhere you could stand in a department store where there wasn’t at least one large, ideal face looking at you.
And more often they were presented in multiples — entire squadrons of the same ideal face in fours and sixes, the way indie bands staple their concert posters to dominate public bulletin boards. More must be better.
You. This could be you. And it’s on sale.
We should know better. We’re smart people and this should not influence us. But it must, because it is absolutely everywhere.
I think we know it’s a lie but hope that it is only mostly untrue, because then buying the product might made us at least fractionally more like the person we want to be.
It’s the same reason they still advertise a five dollar for one cent less than five dollars. It’s not that we’ve never seen this trick before. It’s so ubiquitous that it seems like it couldn’t possibly trick us. But it remains ubiquitous precisely because it still does work.
2) The storebought sentiment
If there were any moments when I did feel a real pang of offense, it was when the human bustle died down for a second and I could hear Bing Crosby singing faintly over the PA, as if he approved of the whole circus. Of course they have every reason to play Christmas songs at Christmas, but I felt like this one was a genuine corruption of the Christmas spirit. It is, conspicuously, still November, and to me the playing of I’ll Be Home For Christmas came off as a cheap shot, like when they bring you a free drink in the casino just as you start winning, so that you stay at the machine until you aren’t anymore.
There were little bits of this forced sentiment everywhere, and other than the hijacking of Christmas music I hold dearly, it was fairly harmless.
Nothing gets me in the mood to buy a diamond like storebought cookies and a dollar-store Santa hat.
At this moment my local mall probably contains over 500 semi-trailers’ worth of fake trees, plastic reindeer, frosted metallic balls and tinsel. All of it was bought and trucked in to try to stir up the spending impulse in me and my fellow citizens. For this I pass no judgment on retailers, because evidently we are happy to pay for it all.
But, among all of this flamboyant holiday stuff, there were two important Christmas-related figures that were conspicuously absent in all of the advertising and hall-decking:
Average-looking people, and Jesus.
The birthday boy Himself isn’t welcome at the mall. Bad for business. And so, I guess, are honest representations of the people paying for the whole thing.