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November is the new December

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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.


All photos by David Cain

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Fabian | The Friendly Anarchist November 28, 2011 at 7:05 am

Smart as ever, David. It’s really surprising how the “old tricks” (like the pricing models) still work. One thing that I find particularly striking is how ugly malls normally are. Sure, the facades are generally tidy and clean, but if you take a close look you will soon see how the marble isn’t real, how the light comes from cheap neon tubes, how the print advertising isn’t really well-made, how the sales people are tired, stressed or bored. This whole atmosphere puts me off pretty fast and indeed requires a detox afterwards.

Still, my belief in personal sovereignty remains intact: As no-one forces us to become part of the game, we can take Christmas into our own hands and make it worthwhile, even for average-looking friendly anarchists like myself! ;)

David November 28, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Yes, everything is such a cheap veneer. As people have become more and more used to having more stuff all around, we’ve also become used to lower quality stuff. We’ve traded value for volume.

Renee Sala November 28, 2011 at 9:29 am

Hey David! Love this, and I am a Christmasy kinda girl. I avoid the mall like the plague, and make all of my gifts, decorations and baking. I’m also teaching a little army of kids to hand-make stockings to gift to other kids in our community who don’t have it so good. There are lots of us out there avoiding the consumer craziness….we’re just not at the mall to observe ;)

David November 28, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Hey Renee. Bless you for helping the next generation learn to make things with their hands.

Collin Ferry November 28, 2011 at 10:38 am

Malls definitely creep me out. Everything is so fake. Even the shoppers. It seems like one big stage production. I always overhear people talking to each other, trying to justify paying premiums for branded items.

I can’t remember buying anything from a mall in a couple years, but whenever I end up in one I become very irritable.

Thanks the post – when people ask me why I hate malls so much I’ll send them here.

David November 28, 2011 at 5:03 pm

It was really a different experience for me this time, in my documentarian role. Nothing irritated me about it. I found it really interesting, instead of annoying like I usually do.

Laura November 28, 2011 at 10:51 am

Thanks for the great post! Even though we don’t have many big malls in the Netherlands like you do nor do we have Black Friday or Thanksgiving, the same thing can be seen in the shopping streets and smaller shopping centers, especially around Christmas.
But I am curious: why were you asked to leave the store?

David November 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Commercial establishments, I learned, don’t like you taking photographs inside their stores. They are protective of their format and displays and don’t want to make it too easy for others to copy their methods. I looked this paranoia up in photography forums afterward and everyone has a story about being kicked out of a store, even for just taking pictures with a phone.

EcoCatLady November 28, 2011 at 11:22 am

Wow… you are much braver than I am. Haven’t set foot in a shopping mall for many, many years.

When I was younger I used to see commercials with some guy giving a girl a diamond necklace and some part of me thought “wouldn’t it be wonderful to have somebody love me enough to give me diamonds?” Now I just think that I’d never want to be with a man who would waste money on such a stupid superficial thing.

The older I get, the more I see all of this as an extension of our culture’s pathological desire to exorcise genuine humanity from our lives. The whole society seems to be engaged in a massive game of picture painting. It’s like people are subconsciously saying “If I can make myself look like a plastic mannequin, perhaps I will become one, and then I won’t have to deal with all of the uncomfortable, out of control human emotions going on inside of me.”

David November 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm

“If I can make myself look like a plastic mannequin, perhaps I will become one, and then I won’t have to deal with all of the uncomfortable, out of control human emotions going on inside of me.”

I think you nailed it right there.

Jo November 28, 2011 at 12:31 pm

In 1999, my then-BF gave me $500 on December 24th and told me he was too busy working to pay off gambling debts to do the xmas shopping, and would I be so kind as to do it. It was all plastic krap for his kids, stuff that they would break and cry over. I remember pushing the Zellers cart in this MESS of people and deciding then and there, that was it. No more. I have not ‘celebrated’ xmas since. And by ‘celebrate’ I mean aknowledge, participate in or even tolerate. I get under a quilt on the 25th and write. Or read. I decline invitations to stupid affairs and tell people I’m available for socializing 364 days of the year, let me know on which one they’d like to see me. Inevitably, they don’t. They don’t want to get together in February. They want you to come to their house in December and admire all their silver, red and green crap. Thanks but no thanks. I’m MUCH better off having avoided the whole thing for more than a decade, now.

David November 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Haha, that’s great. Cold turkey non-participation. I still like the fact that there are frequent get-togethers during the season, but I hate to say the magical quality I felt as a kid is pretty much gone.

Jacqueline November 29, 2011 at 9:02 am

Jo, so glad to meet you! I “opted out” of the holiday long ago as well! I do remember the stress of getting perfect gifts, fighting traffic and crowds, etc. Now it is completely stress free (except for the stress of avoiding all the food at work), and I am able to observe the frenzy from a (figurative) distance. So peaceful! I even opt out of any “Secret Santa” exchange at work, and no one can ever understand it. Have you considered celebrating the winter solstice? I’ve been wanting to attend a celebration for years.

Doug R November 28, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Excellent post. The impressions you describe are the kinds of things that someone who is actually conscious perceives in great abundance. I used to perceive these things but have fallen mostly asleep. Thank you for your blog, and for this reminder in particular – I need to work on myself more, and to cease being afraid of the things that I might see as a result of being more alive.

Greetings from Saint Paul, Minnesota!

David November 28, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Greetings from your sister city in Canada.

I am normally asleep while I’m in the mall too, in that sense. But when I had my camera with me it kind of woke me up, and everything struck me as much more bizarre and interesting.

Basil Stathoulis November 29, 2011 at 5:16 am

Your piece is well put together; what a great experiment.

Even in South Africa we have this consumption problem. What makes it weird is how it crosses the “religion” barrier in our multicultural society.

Malls are best avoided and hats off to everyone who makes gifts by hand!



David November 30, 2011 at 6:49 am

What do you mean by “it crosses the religion barrier?”

Silvia December 1, 2011 at 9:16 pm

It’s probably a case of non-Christians sort of “celebrating” Christmas as well. As you mentioned yourself in this (great) post, Jesus is nowhere to be seen, and the vast majority of “Christians” are so only because they have been baptised. The religious character of the festivities has largely disappeared; no wonder there probably are people from other faiths who get sucked in.

Michael November 29, 2011 at 7:42 am

My thoughts exactly. Everything is so fake and it seems to be in our sense of normaility now.
On a side note, I hate how increasingly life-like the mannequins are starting to look. It’s frustrating to have to apologize when I walk into them, only to realise it’s just a model! hah

David November 30, 2011 at 6:49 am

They always feel like a real human presence when they’re in my peripheries.

Jko November 29, 2011 at 9:03 am

This is really a great post David. I love photography, really your very incredible in the sense that you captured your photos in a mall. Right? Here in our country you can’t get inside a shopping mall with a handy camera or a DSLR.

David November 30, 2011 at 6:52 am

I just walked in there and took pictures, ignoring reactions. I know I got a lot of weird looks but there are a hundred people who will give you a weird look for every one who will say something.

Becca November 29, 2011 at 9:05 am

I want to know what happened with the senior dishwasher salesman.

David November 30, 2011 at 7:02 am

I was looking through my camera at dishwashers, and then I heard someone go “Sir? Excuse me sir? Sir?” and I just kept taking pictures, waiting to see if he’d come right up to me. He just kept saying “sir” and eventually I responded in a super friendly way and started walking towards him.

When I approached him he sidestepped behind a line of dishwashers and talked to me from there.

“What are we doing here?” he asked, and I said I was doing a photo essay on Christmas shopping. He said “Oh, I think you’ll need the store manager’s permission for that, you can’t just walk around taking pictures.”

I said “why not” and he said he didn’t know exactly but that his cousin from Poland or something was taking pictures in a store and security asked him to leave.

“So, we don’t want to be calling security…”

So I asked “Why? What’s the problem?” and he said “You just can’t take pictures in here. We can’t allow that.”

I started to say something, but I just left without finishing my sentence. I wasn’t going to convince him and if security did come they might think they could take my camera or make me delete my pictures. They can’t, but I knew I had nothing to gain by being a stick in the mud. I had all I needed anyway.

Karen J November 30, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Poor fellow! Feeling the need to parrot a line about a “policy” but he doesn’t even know if it’s a real policy or not! And I’m willing to bet that you won’t be buying a dishwasher (or anything else) from that store, any time soon!

Good call, to leave before a ‘scene’ ensued.

Mel November 29, 2011 at 12:46 pm

I guess I enjoyed Christmas as a kid because back then, our family had little money so the focus was on enjoying our time together (we only had each other in Canada) rather than on gifts. I do wish that people started giving the present, as in the present of self in the company of others.

In other things, maybe you’d like to see some stats and headlines a site posted on Black Friday: http://www.bgr.com/2011/11/28/black-friday-2011-spending-sets-new-record

nrhatch November 29, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Wonderful anthropologic experiment and documentation.

We watch the consumeristic craziness from a safe distance during the holidays . . . steering clear of the malls and making fun of the ads on TV which proclaim that “diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”

Less. Is. More.

Nitya November 29, 2011 at 2:30 pm

It’s all rather tawdry, isn’t it?

Jane November 29, 2011 at 10:38 pm

There’s something kind of empty in all the images, plastic and clutter. It all seems a bit soul-less. But hey maybe I’m just having a melancholy day.

Crys November 30, 2011 at 7:44 am

oh David !! I especially love the mannequins with attitudes of superiority who still cannot dress themselves. So true and so funny !!

Nitya December 1, 2011 at 12:43 am

Actually, I’ve revised my thinking on this one. Although not a believer in miracle births, the supernatural and all that supposedly authentic Xmas stuff, I do fervently believe in having fun, no matter how flimsy the pretext.Admittedly the malls are full of tasteless tat. Who cares? We are all aware of the ploys advertisers use to suck us in, but we adults have become very adept at filtering it out. To me, it metamorphasises into tat, the day after boxing day! Until then, I’m happy to put my good taste aside and enjoy the moment.
I feel sorry for those hiding under the covers, waiting for it to all end. Fun is there to be had. Lighten up!

Adelina December 1, 2011 at 8:00 am

Dear David,
I simply loved reading though your article! I grew up with simple things, few but good. I married and came to live in US (from Moldova) 10 years back, and it happened to be Christmas time and my head was spinning. I had never seen more hustle and bustle in my whole life. When my awe died off (about the time shoppers tried to return their unwanted Christmas presents), I felt there was something funny about it. All these years I have been watching “the Christmas Miracle”, and am trying hard to resist the pressure of “oh, you are not doing Santa for your little one?” {the phrase alone is hilarious). I have an excuse to spare myself of the “Christmas Socializing” event- we celebrate it on January 7th back in Moldova….and no presents. We usually take off somewhere, with mountains and serenity.

….but I do see a trend in US of going back to basics, to the need rather than want, but it still in its infancy. And the rest of the “poor world” (Moldova Including) is catching up with the BigBuzz!
I love the shots you took though, photographically speaking!

sui solitaire December 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Shopping malls used to be the only place to hang out when I was growing up. Now, I rarely step into them unless I really need new clothing– which is close to never.

We’re so used to waif-proportioned mannequins and plastic Santa Villages that their ridiculousness is almost transparent to us.
I love, love, LOVE this sentence.

Brilliant, David. Thank you for sharing your insight with us. I love this post :)

Penelope December 4, 2011 at 10:01 am

Awesome pics! The mannequin does look a little creepy though.

Francoise December 5, 2011 at 7:18 am

Nice pictures David! Looking at those mannequins makes me wonder, why is it they can carry different kinds of clothes and why can’t I. That is why I’m not used to go in the malls, i’m intimidated when I saw a nice dresses wore by those mannequins.

Jonathan December 21, 2011 at 7:32 am

Very entertaining read. I was once chucked out of a supermarket for taking photos and found it incredibly offensive. Worse still, I asked them why I wasn’t allowed and they didn’t even know. Just another ridiculous aspect of this whole retail circus.

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