A bus stop containing a poster that reads "plant art not ads"

Behind the Black Friday Ads

A Festival of Consumerism

Black Friday approaches. What started as an obscure American custom has become an annual global festival of consumerism spawning scenes of shoppers crushing inside shops to grab bargains on everything from electronics to clothes. 

Whilst bagging household goods at discount prices is welcome – especially in a cost of living crisis – Black Friday turns the dial up to 11, warping our need into excess. The consequences for our health, workers rights, and the environment have been well documented, even back in the 1950s.

“Our enormously productive 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 satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.… We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

– Victor Lebow (US retail analyst) 1955

Advertising is of course central to this in the way it manufactures demand for products we didn’t even know we needed. The sheer scale and omnipresence of advertising in our lives then amplifies this message to the point where buying itself becomes the purpose, rather than satisfying whatever need we originally had. 

Satisfying basic needs should not be a publicity stunt for big corporations. The primary beneficiaries of Black Friday are the corporations themselves. They are not lowering prices out of the goodness of their hearts but in a bid to attract more customers and more revenue.

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Why is consumerism bad?

As noted, there is nothing wrong with satisfying basic needs. But consumerism takes this to an extreme where needs can never be satisfied because they are constantly being reinvented. The term ‘planned obsolescence’ has become popular in recent years for the phenomenon of corporations – especially tech companies – deliberately making products that will be useless or outdated within a short space of time. Think about the annual release of a new iPhone; is it really any different to the old one? 

Advertising injects this consumerism into our daily lives, surrounding us with it, sometimes imperceptibly. The message to buy buy buy becomes, as Dr Nason Maari put it in his contribution to our guest blog series, the ‘water in which we swim’. 

In her guest blog, Dr Amy Isham records how advertising promotes materialist values such as measuring success through the objects we own, and likewise the success of others through what they own. This ultimately can undermine a person’s mental health and self-image, or make them less socially-minded and less likely to care about the environment. 

This is especially problematic in children. Children who are exposed to a greater amount of consumer advertising go on to display stronger materialistic values and a greater desire to purchase the advertised products.

Class matters here, too. A study of 9–13-year-olds in the UK found that when compared to affluent children, twice as many (47%) children from deprived households agreed that “I would rather spend time buying things than almost anything else”. 

Graphic image in which a large billboard looms over a street as people flee before it. The billboard reads "Bad publicity: an Adfree Cities blog series on how omnipresent advertising shapes our lives"

So what can you do?

Fortunately there are lots of actions you can take right now to help reduce the noise of the advertising machine in our lives.

The ZAP Games: 11 – 24 November 2023

ZAP Games is an international, creative response to Black Friday and the advertising that fuels it. Teams of activists take to the streets to repurpose advertising spaces like billboards and bus stops for art, community and anti-consumerist messaging. 

ZAP (Zone Anti-Publicité) is french for Anti-Advertising Zone. It is a framework for taking action against the outdoor advertising industry originating in the streets of Belgium in 2020. This is the first time ZAP has taken place in the UK. 

Everyone is invited to take part in the Games. Actions could be as simple as using stickers and tape to interrupt marketing slogans on posters, turning off the lights of an advertising billboard, repurposing an ad stand with greenery and nature, or removing the posters from ad sites to reduce the volume of commercial consumerism in our lives.

ZAP is organised by the Subvertisers International: you can find out more about getting involved at the SI website. If you live in London or Brussels, there will even be an ‘Activist Awards Shows’ celebrating all the actions with prizes on Saturday 25th November.    

A graphic promoting the ZAP Games

Join an Adblock group

In this blog, Adblock Bristol offer some creative ways to respond to the calls of advertising in the run-up to Black Friday. These include cover-ups and community art projects, both great ways to engage local people with the issue of outdoor advertising and the possibilities available to us when we reclaim public space.

Adblock groups are a great way to join like-minded people in stopping outdoor advertising where you live. Find out more about joining your local Adblock group (or starting your own) here

A person stands on a ladder facing the camera and smiling. The ladder is stood against a billboard.
Members of Adblock Bristol install artwork on a community billboard.

Get political

You can lobby your local council for action against outdoor advertising, such as taking down billboards and not installing new ones.

Adblock Manchester and Adblock Cardiff are currently fighting to block new digital ad screens on their local streets (read more here and here) and you can do the same. Adblock Bristol have successfully block over 40 new ad sites from being installed – each makes a massive difference to the city.

Four people hold an Adfree Cities banner.
Adfree Cities and Adblock Bristol outside Bristol City Hall.

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