In 1998, I was writing a weekly humour column that was self-syndicated in several newspapers in western Canada. For about two years I riffed on a mix of politics and pop culture and as someone who started reading Adbusters with the magazine’s debut, how could I not write about Buy Nothing Day or — as it is being renamed this year — #OCCUPYXMAS? (Bonus twitter tag: #BUYNOTHINGDAY)
My favourite market for the column — because they ran everything I wrote and paid me better than anyone else — was The Yukon News. My column on Buy Nothing Day ran as usual, but the response… Not so usual…
The paper printed a letter from a local business owner attacking me and my story and condemning the idea of taking a holiday from shopping and, in a startling coincidence, I was informed that there was no longer a budget for my column.
Here’s what I wrote in ’98…
I have made one change to the original — the date for Buy Nothing Day in ’98 was the 27th of November. This year it’s being celebrated on Nov. 25th in the US and the 26th in Canada. In order to avoid confusion I’ve switched references from the 27th to the 26th – although I’m sure the Adbusters gang won’t mind if you leave your wallet at home for an extra day.
The Shopping Season
I heard my first Christmas songs in late October. I was taking a flight and as we were “de-planing” the muzak consisted of jazz renditions of classic Christmas carols. The sinister marketing wizards were obviously hoping that as we all exited the aircraft we’d start thinking anxiously about booking our Christmas vacations. The next day I was in a mall and spotted a small gift shop hustling Christmas cards. I feel compelled to repeat the fact that this was October. Before Halloween. Meanwhile, my mail had already begun to overflow with catalogues, fliers and ominous reminders that the holiday season was creeping up behind us like Norman Bates in a jolly red suit.
It’s no news to anyone that in an age when publicly mentioning the actual event being commemorated at Christmas is practically a firing offense – that event of course being, the birth of Santa Claus – that what began as a religious occasion can now most safely be described as “the shopping season.”
Stores are open around the clock, commercials become even more frenetic than usual as they remind you of your social shopping obligations and the sweetest people on the planet suddenly find themselves fretting about whether they’re still good souls if they can’t find the perfect gift.
‘Tis the season to buy Hallmark cards tra la la la la la la la screech.
What if everyone stopped shopping? No gifts, no cards, no freshly brewed non-fat decaf lattes and especially no chasing after whatever this year’s answer is to the Tickle me Elmo Doll. What if, for one day, everyone kept their wallets in their pockets and their credit card numbers to themselves?
Seven years ago Vancouver’s Media Foundation started promoting what might be the most subversive proposal of the 1990s – International Buy Nothing Day. The holiday, which now falls annually on the Monday after American Thanksgiving – the most frenzied shopping day of the year in the country that does most of the world’s shopping — was promoted via Adbusters Magazine and the rest of the media was mildly amused.
Some of the magazine’s readers, however, were outraged. They practically charged Adbusters’ publishers with treason — as if the idea of leaving the chequebooks at home for a day was some sort of perverse threat to democracy.
When I first heard about the holiday I thought the idea sounded like an amusing publicity stunt – which it was and still is. Then, last year, I got a call to write about the event for Time Magazine. I quickly discovered that all over the world mini-revolutions were being staged as Buy Nothing Day celebrants publicly cut up their credit cards, closed their stores or handed out Christmas Gift Exemption Vouchers (how’s that for a subversive thought?) where people promised their loved ones quality time in lieu of gift wrapped goodies.
Kalle Lasn, the co-founder of Adbusters, explained that their world wide web site www.adbusters.org had spread the Buy Nothing Day concept like some kind of anti-Claus. He showed me a commercial his band of self-proclaimed “culture jammers” had prepared to promote the holiday to help combat the spending disease he calls “affluenza.” The 30-second TV ad features a snorting pig straddling a garbage covered globe while a somber voice intones: “The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, ten times more than a Chinese person, and thirty times more than a person from India.
“We are the most voracious consumers in the world… a world which could die because of the way we North Americans live… Give it a rest. November 26th is Buy Nothing Day.”
Lasn tried to buy advertising time on NBC, CBS and ABC. All three networks refused to air the commercials – although CNN ultimately agreed to put the ad on the air and the global economy appears to have survived intact.
I heard the message direct from the source, and I know the statistics that Canadians produce more garbage per capita than any other nation on the planet (yes, we’re number one), but I still couldn’t imagine myself celebrating Buy Nothing Day. Although I’d love to cut my credit card bill in half I can’t actually picture living without my card. And the idea of going an entire day without spending a thing seemed noble in a hair shirt wearing kind of way but anachronistic, absurd and possibly even sacrilegious.
But last year the Christmas marketing machine at least had the amazing grace not to rev up before Halloween. And if the marketers can’t stop themselves from marketing Christmas in October then just maybe it is time to jump off the consumer carousel. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep my wallet in my pocket for 24 hours, but this November 26th I plan to try. I’m sure there will still be plenty of things on sale the next morning.
Happy Buy Nothing Day.
Seattle’s Buy Nothing Day shopper-stoppers offered the following list to help people think they before they bought…
-Do I need it?
-How many do I already have?
-How much will I use it?
-How long will it last?
-Could I borrow it from a friend or family member?
-Can I do without it?
-Am I able to clean, lubricate and/or maintain it myself?
-Am I willing to?
-Will I be able to repair it?
-Have I researched it to get the best quality for the best price?
-How will I dispose of it when I’m done using it?
-Are the resources that went into it renewable or nonrenewable?
-Is it made or recycled materials, and is it recyclable?
-Is there anything that I already own that I could substitute for it?