Marketing has created some of the things I like least about modern society. I hate strip malls, big box stores with endless parking lots, luxury fragrances, watches, handbags and the like whose marketing preys on the social insecurities of potential buyers. As marketers we have found the vulnerabilities of human beings, often in the dark fissures between what people think will make them happy and what does make them happy, and we exploit them. We have helped build a world rampant with consumerism, and we are mentally and spiritually poorer for it. The struggle for things, and more things, creates unhappiness as we trade precious time we could be spending with friends and family making sure we tend to the activities that secure us more things. If research in the psychology of happiness has taught us anything, it is that this is a bad bargain. This trade-off in favor of consumption over free time, based partly on evolutionary predisposition towards conspicuous consumption, creates less happy human beings.
These are the easy, knee-jerk thoughts for me. They contain both a great deal of truth, but also a lack of understanding about the role of marketing in world.
Without marketing a good idea lives out its life in the head of its creator. It may be a good idea or a bad idea. Who knows? Almost anything you can think of that makes the modern world an exciting place started as an idea that was communicated to others, tested by some kind of markeplace and finally either adopted or rejected. This is true whether you are talking about an i-Phone, P&G’s Swiffer, or the Protestant Reformation. These ideas were marketed.
And we are better off for it. YouTube, Facebook, Vespa Scooters (yes – I am a sucker for the retro, enviro, uberurban image), Retail Relay, Cardboard Safari, the movie “Julie and Julia” I saw last night are all things that add to my happiness. They are ideas, tested and shaped through commercial pursuit — through marketing, that allow me to experience some of the joy and creativity of the creators.
Much like the discipline of physics, or anything else worth studying, marketing can move mankind forward or visit horrors upon him. What is harder about marking, I believe, is that it is not always so obvious what creates and what destroys. Does iTunes add to our ability to enjoy our leisure time or just add to the clutter of modern consumerism? What about a new flavor of ketchup? I think there are some obviously bad ideas (payday lending establishments) some obviously good ideas (healthier varieties of food) and then a whole lot of ideas about which it is difficult to be sure. But I don’t have to be sure. That is why marketing exists, to create, test and to refine. And that process is made more socially productive when marketers are careful and honest about the potential benefits of their products. Socially productive marketing relies on ethical behavior, and a legal stucture that nudges the wayward marketer in that direction. That admission should come as no surprise. A skilled financial adviser can protect the retirement assets of her clients, or create a Ponzi scheme. A nuclear physicist can spend their life working towards clean energy, or a dirty bomb. A skilled marketer can bring forward ideas and products that have real benefits, or those whose commercial viability rely on half-truths and the exploitation of common human weaknesses.