The short, convenient, feel-good answer: “No.”
“Is marketing evil? Absolutely, but only in the same way that the gun or the printing press is evil. It is a tool that takes whatever form its owner wants it to take. Power is afforded to whoever uses it.” – David Fallarme
Marketing is indeed a tool. But some questions naturally arise about the “owners” of the tools:
- Who are they?
- What are they doing, and why?
- What are the outcomes?
Exploring these questions can lead into some rather unsettling territory.
Power is unequally distributed: The “game” is “rigged”.
“Powerful, extensive alliances craft the most insidiously persuasive messages they can – then use vast resources to hammer those messages home as forcefully as possible.” – Tom Albrighton
Consumers are hopelessly outgunned by the marketers who manipulate them. Marketers construct meanings for us more deliberately than we construct our own identities. They study us more thoroughly than we study ourselves. And the end result is that they control our actions more predictably than we control our own.
He who pays the piper calls the tune. While anyone can hire a marketer, it’s typically the “big, bad” corporations that can afford the best. Just consider the forceful reckoning that is Coca-Cola.
We can’t just wave our hands and make marketing disappear.
There will always be competition and there will always be a need to prove your worth in relation to competitors.
Farmers in tribal villages, fourth graders battling for class president and entrepreneurs seeking funding all rely on marketing. Marketing answers the consumer question: Why should I pay any attention to you? – David Fallarme
“Nudges are everywhere, even if we do not see them. There’s no such thing as an objective point-of-view, and there’s no such thing as an unbiased choice.
“Choice architecture, both good and bad, is pervasive and unavoidable, and it greatly affects our decisions.” – Annemari Koppinen
Legislation is never enough. While it might be a good step in the right direction, legislation will always be a step behind marketing. Teenagers are still going to smoke cigarettes if other teenagers romanticize smoking, warning labels be damned. Marketing can be so subtle, insidious and calculative that it can change someone’s worldview before a legislator puts his pants on.
The only way to defeat “evil” marketing, then, is with “good” marketing.
Consider the following two examples:
1: Tesla’s marketing has gotten its fans to view all gasoline sports cars as inferior.
They love the brand so much that they promote it at every opportunity. But this isn’t “evil-free” marketing. It’s still playing on human needs, wants and desires.
Tesla understands that people want to feel cool, smart, “ahead of the curve”. Buying a Tesla allows you to do that- that’s the whole premise of the brand.
As DHH put it, one of Tesla’s many genius moves is positioning a luxury car purchase as an act of charity.
2: Strong Is The New Skinny is a slogan that started gaining traction in 2010, when Adam Farrah wrote a blogpost about his friend Marsha’s slogan tank top.
The phrase resonated with people, and the Facebook Page has over a hundred thousand Likes today.
It takes one narrative to displace another.
In both cases, the human impulses remain the same. However, the net outcomes are arguably superior. Tesla is a step in the right direction for the future of sustainable human transportation. “Strong is the new skinny” isn’t quite self-acceptance… but surely there are health benefits from being in good shape!
In both cases, quality of life is improved. That’s the power of good marketing.
“Marketing is beautiful when it persuades people to get a polio vaccine or wash their hands before doing surgery. Marketing is powerful when it sells a product to someone who discovers more joy or more productivity because he bought it. Marketing is magic when it elects someone who changes the community for the better.” – Seth Godin
So how do we move forward?
Marketing is a tool that inevitably gets co-opted and abused by people with power. We have to acknowledge this. It’s impossible to stop or ban, so we may as well learn how it works, get adept at it so we can inoculate ourselves against its negative effects best as we can, protect one another.
But in the meantime, if marketing is to lose its “evil” gleam, we’ll have to roll up our sleeves… and we’ll have to replace “unhealthy” stories with “good” ones.
Our benchmark for “good” (healthy, affirming, enriching) will definitely change over time. That’s progress.