EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT BLACK FRIDAY IS WRONG
Retailers worried the phrase would scare people away. A few weeks after the 1961 game, which President John F. Kennedy had attended, the P.R. pioneer Denny Griswold described in her industry newsletter, Public Relations News, the efforts by Philadelphia merchants and city officials to rebrand the day Big Friday, in reference to the start of the holiday shopping season. (“The media coöperated,” Griswold wrote.) Big Friday didn’t stick, but the idea behind it did, in Philadelphia and, eventually, beyond. A few decades later, when the term came to describe a day when retailers’ ledgers shifted “into the black” for the year—a connotation also pushed by marketers—people assumed that had always been the connotation.
That idea never made sense to Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an amateur etymologist. “Since when was ‘Black Friday’ ever used in a positive manner?” she wrote in an e-mail. She searched for the earliest uses of the phrase, finally landing on Griswold’s reference, a discovery Taylor-Blake reported to the listserv of the American Dialect Society.
It turns out that a lot of what we’re told about Black Friday is invented by retailers and the marketing experts they hire. Retailers like Black Friday because the earlier customers start their holiday shopping, the more they are likely to spend over all. This year, the competition is heightened because of a relatively short window between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In search of holiday-season profits, retailers work to exploit people’s worries about missing a good deal—and the media, looking for a fun story, joins in.