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The Psychology and Advertising Behind Black Friday

advertising research / behavioral research / blog / in the news

Hi MeganI have a confession to make – I am the woman in this Target Black Friday commercial. The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving not only excite me because I know I get to spend time with my whole family, but it also means it’s the start of Holiday shopping – signified by Black Friday. After my family’s Thanksgiving feast, the women in my family, young and old, circle up with piles of ads and start discussing stores and deals. Over the years, 5 am alarms turned into 3 am alarms, which turned into shopping all-nighters. Nothing makes me happier than frolicking in the aisles of Target at 2 AM and grabbing the very last iHome that’s 50% off retail price. This year, an expected 140 million people plan to shop in stores and online over Thanksgiving weekend (1). Additionally, Accenture reports 55% of Americans plan on hitting the shopping malls on Friday – an increase from previous years (2). But one has to wonder, what motivates all these men and women to stand in line for hours to grab the “best” deal? Is it advertising that pulls people in or is it the feeling behind saying “There were only 5 TVs in stock at 40% off, and I got one!” Well, it’s a little bit of both.

Every November, major retail companies air Black Friday ads on television. The more entertaining, attention grabbing, and humorous they are, the more likely consumers will remember them. But do these ads push consumers into these retail stores? Maybe yes, maybe no. However, the newspaper ads for these retail stores can help explain the psychology behind this shopping event a little bit better. These ads not only list the discounts and sale prices, but they also contain a key phrase “Limited Quantity.” These two words can send people in a frenzy and can be explained by a simple principle called the scarcity principle – thinking that this deal is so rare, so hard to get, that we must have it (3). (How much is “limited quantity”? Is it 10, 5, or 15?!). Additionally, Black Friday fanatics themselves also play into the psychology behind this 24+ hour shopping event. A principle called the social proof principle involves us thinking that if all these other people are waiting in line with us then something must be good inside. Our own excitement of possibly catching a deal drives us more than the advertising does.

These retail companies create an environment to make people believe that they are truly getting a rare deal. However, research shows that Black Friday sales do not necessarily always offer the best prices (4). People are more likely to get a better deal on certain items by waiting until right before Christmas to purchase their gifts. According to BFAds, toy prices typically drop a couple weeks before Christmas since retail stores want these items off their shelves by December 25 (5).

Whether you decide to enjoy your post-turkey trptophan daze or immediately hit the stores on Thanksgiving night, I hope you 1) have fun with your family and 2) are able to grab all the deals you set your eyes on. But remember, if you miss a Black Friday deal, there is always Cyber Monday!

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