Cohesion and Commerce

In his Akimbo podcast, Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

In this podcast, Seth discusses the US tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving and how cultural cohesion and commerce go together in many ways.

Before 1910 and the era of mass media, celebrating Thanksgiving had not been the cultural phenomenon that we see today. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the modern Thanksgiving as a national holiday. But even then, we did not all celebrate the holiday the same way that we do today.

In the early 1920s, Macy’s started to hold a parade on Thanksgiving Day. The Thanksgiving Day parade had a very specific purpose, and that purpose was to get people into the holiday mood. With Christmas is just around the corner after Thanksgiving, the holiday mood can spur more shopping. The idea that we should buy lots of gifts for other people for Christmas is a deliberate invention by people who have lots of stuff to sell us.

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has routinely been the busiest shopping day of the year in the United States for many years. The National Retail Federation saw an opportunity to create shopping in both a business event and a sport. One retailer after another would go out of their way to create a loss-leading sale with which they hope can jump-start people’s holiday buying mood.

Thanksgiving and Black Friday are just prominent two examples of cultural dynamics. They demonstrate the human being’s tendency that we want to do what other people like us are doing. That tendency for cohesion is a good thing because it enables us to have a community that leads to a society and a nation.

The marketers, aided by mass media, have amplified that tendency within us and tried to turn that cohesion into commercial activities. The commerce, in turn, leads to profits for the marketers. By tapping into our deep-seated desire to do what other people are doing, or to conform, many of us willingly become the participants of the Black Friday sales and promotions.

Modern culture has been taking family events and personal interactions to remind us that we are part of the culture. When we see others and want to fit in and be in sync, that synchronization and cohesion enable further commerce, too many of us, the mindless buying promoted by Black Friday, can also be a cultural trap.

While the cohesion and commerce are not necessarily bad, it is important to remember that we can avoid the cultural traps by not have to fall for the traps that do not benefit us. We can take the part that we like about the holiday and leave out the rest, not because someone else decided what sort of holiday we ought to have.

Over time, we have loaded up these holidays that are fraught with cultural compliance. For the marketers and merchants’ benefit, compliance leads to cohesion and cohesion enables commerce. As educated consumers, we do not have to enable either mechanism to our detriment if we do not want to.