Black Friday vs Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Black Friday vs Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Black Friday Private Sector Rationale

We all know what "Black Friday" is. In essence, it is originally an American custom that has been exported to much of the rest of the world. It began in the 1950s, as a way to boost sales (yes, the private sector is involved, just as in the case of Father's Day, and Mother's Day) after Thanksgiving, which is on the 4th Thursday in November. It arrived in Western Europe a few years later. In the early 1960s a large mall near Oslo in Norway introduced Black Friday with the goal of addressing a lull in sales. Thanksgiving is not celebrated in Norway, so the original rationale, whatever one feels about it, was completely absent. It was a success, and today Black Friday is celebrated "everywhere" in Norway. It has gradually come to be understood as the start of the Christmas shopping season. Retailers tend to start Christmas sales even early in November, thus diminishing the importance of Black Friday. This phenomenon has come to be known as "Christmas creep".

It is another example of the spread of American culture to the most remote parts of the world. And while it means that American citizens living abroad may feel at home, we should not take for granted that people in the receiving country are as happyperhaps on the short-term (as prices for selected goods are cut substantially) but not necessarily on the longer term.  As seen from the outside this can be understood as an intrusion into other cultures. More importantly, however, is that it is part and parcel of globalization, and of the commercialization and focus on material culture that are characterizing larger and larger parts of the world.

There seems to be no stopping this. At the beginning department stores would open on Black Friday at normal hours. Gradually the time was put forward, and finally the step was taken to open at midnight. People has since several years refered to a "Black Friday Weekend", and even to a "Black Friday Week". At the same time there is also Cyber Monday, which is the Monday following Thanksgiving, which, in turn, seems to be extended into "Cyber Week". This is an interesting phenomenon, as it aims to get people to shop online. Cyber Monday is accordingly a clear competition to Black Friday, and especially to Black Friday Weekend, not to mention Black Friday Week. This points to a recent aspect of Black Friday. It started out to attract customers to shops and shopping, and it did this through offering goods at reduced prices. Due to other developments including especially online shopping the malls and department stores feel compelled to reduce prices more and more, because of the competition between outlets. The result is that customers, or some of them at least, get to purchase items at bargain prices, while malls and department stores experience an ever-decreasing profit margin and strive to survive. In effect, the long-term implications of the Black Friday syndrome may be that department stores and malls actually paint themselves into a corner.

There are of course a number of concerns raised over Black Friday. One comes from environmentalists, who argue that discount deals encourage people to purchase things they do not need, and that this overproduction contributes to climate change.

A positive argument is that Black Friday represents an opportunity for the less well to do. The often sharply decreased prices mean they can afford things that they otherwise might not be able to purchase.

Black Friday Social Psychology

Humans are social animals. One of the implications of this is that we tend to do things together, at the same time if not jointly. You might say that we copy each other. One reason for this is perhaps because we subconsciously find support in numbers. Being social animals means that we often like to be together, be part of a collective. These arguments go a long way towards understanding and explaining such unacceptable behaviour, while at the same time not excusing or condoning it. For, while we are social animals, we are or can be also competitive animals. And the Black Friday setting, where shoppers typically compete for a limited number of choice bargain articles for example, flat-screen TVs is just the right occasion for this competitive behaviour to come to the surface. Awkward episodes do occur, including while waiting hours and days in lines outside department stores, and, of course, disagreement over particular articles. In the United States, over the years there are reports on several deaths and many more injured. And, as the Black Friday phenomenon in essence, American consumer culture is now available worldwide, the Black Friday hysteria has followed.

It is important to separate between Black Friday as a shopping phenomenon, on the one hand, and the ensuing mass hysteria, on the other hand. The latter is not, of course, an American phenomenon. Rather it is a human phenomenon. The social psychology of it is what may happen when people socialize in this way, and when there is a strong competitive aspect to that drives interactions and goals.

This points to how everything seems to stay the same in our globalized culture. Large gatherings of people bring out qualities in us that we under normal circumstances do not ascribe to. As the causes are located at the individual level, and in inter-personal relations between persons who do not know each other, it is hard indeed to address it. Some might want to focus on the fact that especially in Western democratic governance systems, where the individual is largely part of as well as integrated into society, mass hysteria should in theory not take place. Conversely, in countries where the relationship between the individual and society is less strong, and where there are social groups or subgroups to which the individual has stronger allegiance, this is more prone to happen.

Black Friday versus Pieter Bruegel the Elder

he images above consists of a typical scene in a US department store on Black Friday, and a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This side-by-side comparison is more than a little apt. Both show totally chaotic situations. No rules for inter-personal relations exist any longer. Moreover, everybody is on the defensive, given in to external forces in one case to mass hysteria, and in the other to Death, writ large.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder shows an uncanny understanding of the human condition. The shoppers, on the other hand, completely lack the ability to step outside of themselves and observe their own behaviour, what they are part of, and why.

Lars T Soeftestad

(1) I am indebted to Dirk Meulenijzer (Melle, Belgium), who first posted these two images on his Facebook page, side by side, but without any comments, on 20 November 2019. The post reached me via Anita Takeff (Sofia, Bulgaria).
(2) Image credits: The top photo is from a Black Friday sale in the US (details not available). The bottom photo shows part of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's work "The Triumph of Death" (ca. 1562, oil on panel, 117 x 162 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid). For the whole painting see Sources below.
(3) Permalink. URL:
(4) This article was published 30 November 2019. It was revised 3 December 2019.

Black Friday. "Black Friday (shopping)". URL:  (accessed 2 December 2019) "The Black Friday Experiment: Mind Control and Mass Hysteria Gone Viral". URL:  (accessed 2 December 2019) "These photos prove Black Friday is the true American bloodsport". URL:  (accessed 2 December 2019)
Wikipedia. "The Triumph of Death" (by Pieter Bruegel the Elder). URLs:  (accessed 30 November 2019)
Wikipedia. "The Triumph of Death" (by Pieter Bruegel the Elder). URL:  (accessed 30 November 2019)
Wikipedia. "Pieter Bruegel the Elder". Wikipedia. URL:  (accessed 30 November 2019)