Invented holidays: A celebratory cash grab

Amazon Prime Day and Singles Day have turned spending money into a party

A conveyor belt full of Amazon packages
Photo: Soren Larson (Reuters)

What day is it again?

Welcome to another day on planet Earth as an adult with a credit card. We have a selection of merchandise for your perusal, and a selection of special days on which we sweeten the deal: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday—you take your pick, make a payment, and we’ll take care of the rest.

In the new economy, every day is a Day, be it pi, pie, pancakes, pickles, or talking like a pirate. There’s a movement of some kind to designate a day for celebrating just about everything under (and also not under) the sun.


These frivolous holidays may seem like one of the more mundane parts of modern culture—harmless and charming or crudely capitalist, depending on your POV—but the truth is, the designation of random holidays has been a marketing tactic for at least a century. (Spoiler alert: They’re mostly a crude capitalist tool.)

Amazon Prime Day, a brainchild of the largest e-commerce company in the world, stands at the pinnacle of made-up consumer holidays (though China’s Singles Day certainly rakes in more cash). It is a day so singularly lucrative it once moved former CEO Jeff Bezos to climb on top of a giant glass ball and hold up a “Thank You” sign.


If you want to know how Bezos makes his bucks, keep reading for a totally free primer on the Amazon machine.

By the digits

$12 billion: Total, record-breaking online sales on Amazon Prime Day 2022

100,000: Number of items sold per minute worldwide during Amazon Prime Day 2022

200 million: Number of Amazon Prime subscribers globally, according to 2021 figures

~400%: Amount more that Prime subscribers spend shopping on Amazon compared to non-Prime shoppers

38,609: Total number of Amazon workers injured on the job in the US in 2022, according to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration


6.6: Injury rate per 100 full-time workers at Amazon warehouses in 2022, outstripping the non-Amazon average by nearly double

150%: Turnover rate of hourly workers in Amazon warehouses, according to a New York Times investigation in 2021


$14.2 million: Money Amazon spent in 2022 on labor consultants to help it quash unionization efforts

Prime time

Amazon’s moneymaker

Prime Day, which runs from July 11 to 12 this year (except in India, where it begins July 23), is at the core of the e-commerce giant’s business model. It all hinges on Prime membership. The subscription first launched in 2005, at a time when eBay was still outpacing the book and DVD vendor as the go-to store for everything.


But Bezos and his team came up with a major breakthrough: offer customers free 48-hour delivery, with a catch. That catch was a Prime subscription, which required paying a flat fee for the year (originally $79), in exchange for an all-you-can-order buffet of merchandise delivered straight to your door in just days.

At the time, Amazon’s 48-hour delivery without a subscription cost $9.48, making the math simple. Buy a Prime subscription, and save (though as it turns out, subscribers actually spend even more on the site). By 2008, Amazon’s valuation exceeded eBay’s for the first time, and by 2015, the company reported having “tens of millions” of Prime members.


The meteoric growth of Amazon’s business, and swiftness of its delivery service, has not come without a cost. It is the second largest private employer in the US, but has an atrocious safety record for workers, far exceeding the average number of employee injuries in the industry. It also has a documented history of underpaying its workers, or dropping their benefits without notice, in addition to inhumane working conditions.

(Not so) fun fact

Amazon generated 709 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2021, according to ocean conservation nonprofit Oceana, which is enough volume to circle the Earth 800 times in air pillows. Amazon has contested Oceana’s numbers, saying the nonprofit’s 2020 estimate of 599 million pounds of plastic packaging was an overestimate “by more than 300%.” Amazon has not released its own waste figures.


Unsubscribe—if you can

How Amazon keeps you in Prime condition

Given Prime’s central role in Amazon’s business, it’s no wonder that unsubscribing from the membership is a nightmarish process. It’s so bad, in fact, that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued Amazon in June, alleging that the Prime cancellation process was once made intentionally “labyrinthine” to entrap outgoing customers.


Internally, Amazon called its system of obfuscation the Iliad, after Homer’s epic poem relating the events of the Trojan War. Involving four pages, six clicks, and 15 options, it’s no wonder the process was compared to a 10-year conflict.

Pop quiz

Gif: Giphy

Which of the following was a top-selling product on Amazon Prime Day in 2022?

A. Toilet paper

B. Chanel No. 5

C. Crocs

D. Le Creuset

The bottom of this email is a prime place to find the answer.


“We are being conditioned, as a population, to never wait, to never delay our gratification, to accept thoughtless, constant consumption as the new norm. But how we think about consumption and willpower carry enormous implications for the environment and the culture of society as a whole.”


—Jenna Wortham in her 2017 article, “How Alexa Fits Into Amazon’s Prime Directive”

Brief history

1904: Apple Week, one of the first food-related holidays, is founded after an apple event at the 1903 World’s Fair in St. Louis generated “good effects.” According to the New York Times, “by the 1970s, the week became a month, and by the 1990s the apple celebration had grown to three months.”


1954: June 16 is celebrated as Bloomsday in Ireland in honor of the character Leopold Bloom, one of the protagonists of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

1975: Charlie Papazian declares that January 23, his birthday, is National Pie Day (not to be confused with the international, and relatively non-commercial, event Pi Day).


1995: US Congress gets sick of wasting time and money on declaring official holidays and enacts a ban on passing them.

2005: Amazon Prime launches a little over a decade after the ecommerce company was founded, offering “all-you-can-eat” shipping in 48 hours.


2015: Amazon Prime Day launches in Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, the UK, and the US, and lasts for 24 hours to celebrate the company’s 20-year anniversary.

2024: The year Amazon may run out of people to hire in the US for its warehouses because of its high rate of worker attrition.


Take me down this 🐰 hole!

In the 1990s, unattached university students in China started celebrating Singles Day on November 11—so chosen for all the solitary number 1s in 11/11.


It grew in popularity over the years, reaching something of a cultural apex on 11/11/11. The day saw an above-average number of marriages in Hong Kong and Beijing, according to The Wall Street Journal, which explained another reason the date was attractive: “The pronunciation of the numbers “11/11/11” is similar to the Chinese idiomatic expression “one life, one lifetime” ( 一生一世, yi sheng yi shi in Mandarin), which means “forever.”

Along the way, it also gained stature as an excuse for shopping. In 2012, Alibaba, one of the world’s largest online retailers, trademarked the term 双十一 (“Double 11”).


Singles Day has become the world’s largest retail holiday, exceeding the combined sales for Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the US. In 2022, Alibaba’s 24-hour sale brought in 262 billion yuan ($36.7 billion), over triple the amount of money made on Amazon Prime Day last year.


Gif: Giphy

Which of these invented holidays do you favor?

  • Nothing Day (Jan 16): It really sounds like an ideal day
  • Lost Sock Memorial Day (May 9): Forever in our hearts, no longer on our feet
  • Pretend To Be a Time Traveler Day (Dec 8): You’re telling me it isn’t 1986?!

Vote for a new opportunity to spend your hard-earned dollar bucks.

💬 Let’s talk!

In last week’s poll about Zelda, 42% of you are Ocarina of Time fans, 38% are all about Breath of the Wild, and 20% of you just want the original The Legend of Zelda on repeat. 


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🤔 What did you think of today’s email?

💡 What should we obsess over next?

Today’s email was written by Stacy Conradt (the prime author), updated by Julia Malleck (lost in the Prime unsubscription Iliad), and edited and produced by Annaliese Griffin (used to celebrate 11/11 as “Stick Day” with friends, by hanging out and eating churros, pretzel rods, and other stick-shaped foods).


The correct answer is D., Le Creuset. Other top products included Korean skincare products and baby diapers.