It’s 2:50 p.m., 10 minutes before Amazon’s airing of the first-ever Black Friday football game. The corporation is airing a minute-long spot. At first glance, it’s a classic holiday ad: a family gathering for dinner, replete with a red-and-green palette, plenty of bells and cranberry sauce spills.
But it starts to skewer American holiday institutions. Why do we do our silly little holidays, it seems to ask, from the 4th of July to Valentine’s Day—just because we’re told they’re “tradition”? Why do we “feel the need to light things on fire every July?” the narrator asks. Or to “shell out a month’s rent in the name of love?” Well, he explains, because these “traditions connect us.” Duh!
In case you feared this ad was a cutting cultural critique, don’t worry, it was quite the opposite. Amazon was pitching viewers a “new American holiday tradition”—the one that it was airing right at that very moment. “Welcome to America’s newest holiday,” the narrator says. “NFL football on Black Friday.” Brought to you by Amazon Prime.
“Black Friday isn’t what it used to be,” read a New York Times headline this morning. Sales simply last longer, people shop consistently well into Christmas, and recent inflationary pressures have been tough on people’s wallets. Perhaps that‘s why Amazon has taken on the heroic role of revitalizing the holiday in its own interest . . . er, image.
They are doing so with a Black Friday NFL game—the first ever, they will waste no opportunity reminding you—with a barrage of ads teeming with QR codes so you can get your deals right then and there. You don’t even need to be a Prime member—not today, on this special day. That’s a “gift” from Amazon, in the words of Jay Marine, VP and global head of Prime Video Sports at Amazon.
So, as I sit down to redeem this generous gift, I have so many questions: What are the “product drops” that Amazon keeps talking about? What is the over-under on Jeff Bezos appearing in the crowd and recreating his inexplicable Vogue photo shoot in a cowboy hat with his fiancée? Oh, and will the Jets or Dolphins win?
Football almost feels like an afterthought here, as the biggest question of all is how will Amazon handle the spotlight of hosting this NFL game on the biggest shopping day of the year? What happens when Amazon’s Super Bowl collides with a week-12 NFL game on the road to the Super Bowl? Just how over-the-top will the consumption and excess be?
The 90-minute pregame show is a whirl of emotions. Seconds into the broadcast, the hosting team starts the first of many bits. Former Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick introduces us to two turkeys, whom he has named Mangold and D’Brickshaw, after his former Jets teammates. “They lost 44 million of their friends last night,” he says matter of factly, a jarringly explicit acknowledgment of the cost of animal lives in Thursday’s holiday tradition. Fitzpatrick is going to get the two birds roaming in a pen to pick the game later, so clearly we haven’t seen the last of these poor, unwitting guest stars. Hopefully, this is more of a presidential pardon situation than a live-sacrifice-at-halftime situation.
Suddenly, Amazon is channeling Vox—screening an animated, historical explainer that delves into the history of Black Friday. I gather it has something to do with the Panic of 1869, as I watch from what might become the Panic of 2023. Again, kind of a weird message to kick off the day’s events! The segment ends by reminding us that this apparently rich cultural “holiday” is one “that combines two things we all love: shopping and football.” That’s right, all of us.
Chef David Chang is in an apron and “Black Friday Football” beanie, lurking around the tailgate outside MetLife Stadium. The man has six James Beard Awards and owns a restaurant with two Michelin stars, but surely that doesn’t compare with being asked to make the ultimate Thanksgiving sandwich on live television. He says he’s figuring out what will form the “structural integrity” of said sandwich.
If you haven’t gathered so far, there is no structural integrity to this broadcast. It’s all over the place, an assault on six senses—the five regular ones, and a new one that senses QR codes.
And there are ads throughout. You know brands can’t resist a made-up holiday (or NFL football), so even competitors can’t resist (again, somewhat surprisingly) this opportunity: DSW, Kohl’s, JCPenney, Duracell, Energizer, and many more. There are ads for Gillette, Carnival Cruises, and Hershey’s. Many show on-screen QR codes that take you to the Amazon app and right to the specific deal. The codes don’t last long on the screen, so you need to have your wits—and phone camera app—about you . . . much like an open receiver.
Some ads feel like they have big budgets. Last week, Danielle Carney, Amazon’s head of NFL ad sales, told Variety that the spots were all sold out. She declined to share the price to buy a spot, but there’s a Super Bowl ad quality to some of these. The ads abound with B-list celebrities: Jack Harlow for New Balance; Jennifer Coolidge for Discover Card; both Jimmy Fallon and Ludacris for State Farm.
Now, something called “Dude Perfect” is happening. More on this later if I figure out who and what this is. (Oh, I’m joking: They’re YouTubers! But I still have no idea why they’re here.)
The first “product drop” is happening, for a Hogwarts Express Lego train set. Cohost Richard Sherman is dressed in a Harry Potter cape and scarf. The deal will be “unlocked,” offering 30% off, if Fitzpatrick can make four accurate football tosses in 30 seconds. He does so over the franchise’s John Williams soundtrack, then celebrates a disproportionate amount for this service he has provided America’s children.
Okay, the turkeys are back, and, as promised, they are picking the winner of the game. They are offered two bowls of seeds, each branded with a Dolphins or Jets logo. Neither turkey is interested in either—and start running away! This feels extremely symbolic. We are all Mangold and D’Brickshaw at this moment.
Cohost Tony Gonzalez is now throwing seeds at their faces. This feels like Amazon lobbing deals at us. Symbolism is strong today. (The turkeys’ collective wisdom to run is even more evident after sitting through the 34-13 Dolphins win that was never really in doubt.)
As if a stern reminder of the live turkeys, Chang returns with his Thanksgiving leftovers sandwich, the Wedge Buster. What’s great is it only consists of 15 items. It has white meat but also dark, mashed potatoes but also sweet potatoes, ham but also bacon, mac and cheese but also extra cheese. What’s happened to “structural integrity”? There is no structure and certainly no integrity, especially after Chang is seen unwrapping a steak swathed in Whole Foods butcher paper (Amazon having acquired Whole Foods back in 2017 for more than $13 billion). Gonzalez is blissfully unaware of the symbolism, delighting in the “symphony going off in my mouth.”
Soon after Amazon’s new holiday ad—there’s an Amazon ad in every commercial break, for everything from AWS (which powers NFL stats or something) and Prime Video to the Prime Visa card—it’s 3 p.m., and oh right, there’s (still) football.
The start of the game itself is a mostly welcome respite from Amazon’s runaway consumption, with announcers Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit playing it straight and the chyron no longer urging viewers to “shop the game.” But as soon as the first ad break hits, we have a flurry of ads that feel like a who’s who of capitalism: Apple and AT&T, Oral-B, Volkswagen, Energizer . . . and of course, Amazon. Comedian Adam Devine is slow-dancing with pre- and post-game cohost Andrew Whitworth.
In case this all feels like Amazon is the corporate embodiment of jolly old St. Nick, it’s worth noting that Amazon workers are striking across 30 European countries from (Black) Friday until Monday, over pay disputes and working practices. French activist group Attac has a different view of Black Friday: a “celebration,” yes, but “of overproduction and overconsumption.”
The ads are getting meta. Amazon is doing Amazon Black Friday ads on its Amazon Black Friday broadcast. Etsy, an e-commerce competitor, is advertising on Amazon. Peacock is offering a discount for its own streaming service—and marketing its own holiday football exclusive, a festive Bills vs. Chargers special on December 23.
I now realize that I don’t need to get up and stand in front of my TV to scan the QR code; it works simply by zooming in from my couch. I now can buy my deals without having to move a single limb. Panic briefly ensues as I think my phone is out of reach . . . but don’t worry folks, it’s just under a cushion.
The ads keep coming. There is a Nerf gun ad because nothing spells a new American tradition like a product that “fires five rounds at once.” JCPenney and Dick’s Sporting Goods both show images of people going into brick-and-mortar stores and manually purchasing items. Wait, what is this—a period drama?
It’s 17-6 Miami. What was a pretty bad game has had some excitement two seconds before halftime. Dolphins’ Jevon Holland picks off a Hail Mary and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown. “That’s as crazy as anything you’ll ever see,” says Al Michaels, who maybe chose to ignore the on-screen promo promising that during halftime we’ll find out about Marshawn Lynch’s shopping plans.
Did I mention the new holiday extends into the evening? Amazon thinks the way to keep us tuned in is to broadcast a post-game Garth Brooks concert live from a dive bar in Nashville. Brooks is previewing the event during halftime. “I don’t see how you lose on this one,” he says of football and music. Oh Garth, haven’t we already lost? Though honestly, he’s so earnest that the cringe is sort of endearing. The same cannot be said of a duet now happening between Brooks and Amazon host Charissa Thompson, who says she can’t sing but proceeds to do so, anyway.
Miami keeps dominating the second half. I’m now starting to realize that each time Devine and Whitworth appear, there’s a new product drop. And on the app, you can preview that the 4th quarter deal-to-come will be from the TV set manufacturer TCL and the post-game deal from Dyson. If you want your new TV and vacuum, however, you’ll have to sit through more Jets’ fumbles.
As if the TV ads aren’t enough, Amazon is also emailing me Black Friday deals. Clearly, they’re not tailored to me. They want me to buy a Lancôme perfume (I’m more of a Burberry guy), a Noco Boost jump starter box (I don’t own a car), and flea-and-tick prevention for cats (I don’t have pets—or fleas). But with 20% off, who am I to say no?
I’m guessing we won’t end up knowing how successful this endeavor was—in monetary terms, at least. Doubtful Amazon will be publishing detailed conversion stats of Aquaman figurines or Essentia water bottles. But Marine, Amazon Prime Video Sports VP, set the (low) measures of success beforehand. He said they’d be happy if everyone just tuned in and had a good time with friends and family, regardless of how much they spend. Of course! Because capitalism is measured in smiles, not dollars.
But I can think this event will only get bigger as Amazon’s sports ambitions grow. It hasn’t been shy in declaring it wants NBA rights, for instance. In the U.K., Amazon has been showing Boxing Day football (real football, sorry, Americans) since 2019; it was originally a day, and now it’s a whole slew of festive fixtures, including this year’s first Christmas Eve match in 28 years. I’m sure this will be the template for years to come with Amazon and the NFL. Football all Thanksgiving week? An advent calendar of QR codes right up until Christmas?
As Miami wins 34-13, the turkeys are nowhere to be found; hopefully they (literally) flew the coop. But Michaels has taken on the voice of reason. As he receives a portion of Chef Chang’s sandwich, he doesn’t hide his revulsion (though, it’s more the inclusion of spinach that seems to bother him.)