Friday, 27 November 2015


Black Friday on My Mind

Thursday is the day our Edmonton Journal drops crammed beyond capacity with retail flyers. Unfashionable and wasteful as they are, flyers remain proven, reliable vehicles for advertisers. They ain’t broke, so to speak and probably never will be. Alas, the universal theme in yesterday morning’s batch was today: Black Friday.

Black Friday is not a breakaway cell of Black September. It is an American economic phenomenon tethered to Thanksgiving, the biggest, richest consumer holiday in the USA. The day after everyone has watched football and digested their turkey dinners major US retailers are supposed to switch into glide, transform lead into gold, red ink into black, and realize their profits for the calendar year as Christmas approaches. Everything’s on sale because every cent gained on approved credit is gravy for the Q4 train.

Canada has no cents since the penny was eliminated from our currency. Our history has made us a bit schizoid. Thanksgiving Day, a North American tradition, comes early here because of the vise of the short growing season north of 49. Christmas is the rich consumer holiday. Boxing Day, after the country has already opened its wallet, is blow-out sales time. These two dates reflect our founding by Catholic France and a subsequent, commuted, sentence as a British colony.

Black Friday is now a major marketing event in Canada, quite a trajectory for a phrase born in the financial pages of newspapers from another country. I attribute the initial dawn of Black Friday up here to proximity, cross-border shopping and traditional media spillover. Expanding American retail chains simply imposed their sales sensibilities on what they conceived as a mere common market. Amazon invented the e-tail model and created continental competition in sectors once confined to neighbourhoods or big box suburban malls. Canadian advertisers and marketers, too often unoriginal anyway, got on board or jumped in.

A story this week in the National Post indicated that an insanely absurd percentage of the Canadian workforce will call in sick today in order to Black Friday shop. This in a land of citizens overloaded with credit card debt and little cash money in the bank. The article went on to say that Boxing Day deals would be slightly better, although the waiting is the hardest part. The more you spend, the more you save!

My flyer mound consists of publications by Best Buy, Golf Town, Home Outfitters, The Source, Leon’s, Hudson’s Bay, London Drugs, The Brick, The Brick Mattress Store and one so poorly laid out that I will not waste 30 seconds trying to figure out who the retailer might be. The Black Friday headers collide into a fever dream collage. The price and item format is necessarily restrictive, but I’m sure each designer was certain their flyer would stand out from the herd. That however becomes Mission: Impossible when the brief likely insisted upon utilizing the same headline and colour scheme as competitors and unrelated businesses.

This is not nationalistic moaning about the encroachment of an American pseudo-consumer holiday. The simple fact is that successful banners and brands do not run with the pack. Years ago I worked for Canada Safeway. I remember sitting in a marketing meeting listening to the consternation around the boardroom table. We’d just opened a new store and had distributed a templated flyer wrap rife with Grand Opening! specials. The rival down the street had anticipated every item featured and had undercut every price. How did they know? Was there a leak? After all, we’d only employed the exact same strategy nine times previously. Eerily, the unsolved mystery recurred again and again. I moved on to my first ad agency job with a very sore forehead.

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