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Amazon Turned Prime Day into a Massive Media Moment

Amazon Prime Day is summer’s Black Friday, and practically a national holiday.

Stacked boxes marked with Amazon Prime logos.
An Amazon fulfillment center prepared for Black Friday in November 2017.
Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

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When Amazon is flexing its formidable corporate muscle all over the place, it’s easy to forget that not all of its projects have been an instant success. When Amazon Prime Day debuted in 2015 as the company’s answer to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it was called a “digital garage sale” and “the Internet’s worst clearance rack.” One of the most bizarre and memorable items available was a 55-gallon drum of lube, marked down to just $1,361.80.

Amazon could have written off Prime Day as a loss and moved on, but instead the company learned from its curation mistakes and doubled down on its self-declared shopping holiday. Amazon sold more on Prime Day in July 2017 than it did the previous Black Friday and Cyber Monday, only to be outstripped by Cyber Monday the following November. An Amazon Prime subscription is required to shop Prime Day sales, and Prime Day 2017 brought in more membership sign-ups than any other day in the company’s history.

In addition to becoming a major driver of Prime subscriptions — $119 for a year of perks like free two-day shipping and unfettered access to movies and TV shows — Prime Day is a total PR coup. Nearly two weeks before Prime Day 2018, a 36-hour event taking place July 16 through 17, the internet was filled with coverage of the best Prime Day deals and advice for shopping tactics: “How to Make the Most of Amazon Prime Day 2018,” “Amazon Prime Day: insider tips to getting the best deals and avoiding the hype,” “How to Shop Amazon Prime Day’s Best Beauty Product Deals.”

Amazon’s homepage, by contrast, only housed a few restrained advertisements for the event. It doesn’t need to do more than that; the media takes care of marketing Prime Day (hi).

Though Amazon’s massive scale gives its growth an aura of inevitability, and though its outsize influence in US retail means that business reporters are going to cover its every move, that’s a pretty astonishing feat.

“If I send you an email about a site-wide promotion, you’re probably not going to want to cover it because you’d think it’s advertising,” says Lise Keeney, a publicist for the 3D printing company Shapeways. “But Amazon has tipped the scale, and now consumers are so interested in it that it’s actually beneficial for the media to write about it.”

Almost more incredibly, Amazon has sold the public on a fake holiday. Many young publicists will undergo the rite of passage that is pitching products and stories based on absurd made-up holidays, like National Flip-Flops Day, National Lingerie Day, or National Cheesesteak Day. It’s a tough sell. Creating an entirely new, branded holiday is even more challenging.

“For every Prime Day, there are hundreds of other PR attempts to try and create a National [Whatever] Day,” she says.

Some of them are successful, albeit on a small scale. The preppy clothing brand Lilly Pulitzer started celebrating National Wear Your Lilly Day in 2013, encouraging fans to post photos of their Lilly Pulitzer outfits on social media and offering a gift with purchase (this year, a bracelet wrapped in one of the brand’s summery, brightly colored fabrics). To date, there are 6,934 Instagram posts for #NationalWearYourLillyDay and 6,687 posts for #NWYLD.

Of course, Prime Day publicity isn’t just about Amazon. Other retailers, hoping to cash in on shoppers’ online spending plans, offer their own special discounts on the same day. Those are promoted by their PR teams, solidifying the Prime Day halo effect and further legitimizing a fake holiday that didn’t even exist four years ago.

Indeed, Google searches for “Prime Day” recently shot ahead of searches for “Amazon Prime Day,” which seems to suggest that though Amazon remains the biggest beneficiary of the event, the two have come untethered. Amazon created a holiday, not just for itself, but for everybody.