Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Tyranny of Marketing

I wrote in an earlier post that all human beings have the same basic needs: air, water, food, warmth, shelter, and other humans. These aren’t the only needs we have of course, and one needs many other things to lead even the most responsible of lives. That doesn’t even cover ‘wants’ which everyone has and aren’t necessarily frivolous.

Some needs, like air, food, and water are obvious, but others not so much. Some needs, even abstract, derived, or advanced needs dictate the terms of their fulfillment, and must be met specifically. Others, even simple needs, such as what to eat can be in any number of ways with no obvious right or wrong way to meet them. This raises the question of how do we know what we need or want?

For most of human history answering this question has been pretty straight forward. There were only so many options available and you picked one based on ease, habit, culture, or personal preference or what-have-you, and that was that. As with so many other things, industrialization and capitalism changed all that.

Industrialism concerned itself with producing goods, and capitalism took over the business of distributing them. It’s no accident that capitalism arose when it did, at the dawn of the Industrial age – industrialism, in the interest of efficiency arranged itself so that it could produce the same item over and over, as quickly as possible, and as cheaply as possible. This worked great up to a point. The factory that made wool socks was able to provide wool socks to people who may never have been able to afford wool socks before, or even better, more than one pair of socks. Eventually though, everyone who wants (and can afford them) wool socks has all the wool socks they need or want, but the factory still has a warehouse full, and has to keep making things and selling them in order to pay off the loans they took to buy their weaving machines and maybe pay their employees.

One of the first solutions floated to this problem was to put the unwanted wool socks onto a boat and ship them off to another place and sell them there, ideally to people who didn’t have wool socks. This wasn’t an adequate solution however, and further action was required so capitalism came up with an answer: Marketing and Advertising.

The underlying principle is a sound one. Maybe there are people out there who don’t know the wonders of wool socks, or don’t know that they should wear clean socks every day. Marketers find out who these people are, what magazines they read, and design creative ways to inform them about the importance of keeping their feet clean and dry.

This doesn’t necessarily violate anyone’s morals, and underlies the basic principles of the market: make a superior product at a reasonable price. New problems start to arise however, when multiple manufacturers making the same product and begin to compete for market share. Continuing our example, all wool socks are essentially the same, a person only needs so many, and the price can only go down so far. Competition is now no longer about manufacturing efficiency or quality but reduced to who has the most effective marketing campaign.

Once people realized that there was money to be made in marketing and advertising, they became industries in their own right. The emergence of mass media was a tremendous boon and has become a mere subsidiary of the advertising and marketing industries. You might think of television, radio, print media (magazines, newspapers, etc.), and to a growing extent, the Web as a means of acquiring information and entertainment, but to the people who control those media they are nothing more than a means of delivering advertisements.

I worked for many years in the Television industry. Viewers think of television as a means of entertainment, and the commercials as an annoyance that has to be tolerated to get to what they want. Broadcasters and networks however are more concerned with the commercials than the shows that interrupt them. I once had a conversation with an irate viewer about an interruption to his favorite show. He kept insisting that he was my customer and had a right to restitution for missing his show. I finally explained to him in blunt terms that he wasn’t our customer, but in fact our product. We sold his eyeballs and ears to the highest bidder.

Television and the other broadcast media aren’t the only ones selling your eyes and ears. Supermarkets sell off their shelf space and floor layouts; municipalities auction off the naming rights to public arenas, movie producers negotiate which products you see actors use on the silver screen; news organizations alter their editorial policy for advertisers and run thinly disguised advertisements as news. And to what end? What’s their objective?

Quite simply to convince you and your family – especially your children – that you absolutely need their product to function and thrive. It’s working too. It wasn’t so long ago that a phone was considered a luxury – now one is considered disadvantaged if every member of their family doesn’t have their own cell phone. Televisions along with cable are considered essential safety equipment now, so that households can ‘stay informed about public safety announcements’. The average American is so inundated with marketing and advertising – essentially from birth - that they no longer have any real idea of what they actually need or where those needs come from, how they’re actually manufactured or why those needs exist.

When one voices these facts, the most typical response is that it’s the fault of parents. Certainly there is some blame there, but the parents themselves are also victims. Make no mistake about it. Marketing is a science and an industry. Very smart people spend their working lives figuring out new and creative ways to get to people and invade their mental space. Even if you throw your television away, rip the radio out of your car, never open a magazine or newspaper, they will still find ways to reach you. That’s what they do.

Capitalists will argue that advertisement is free speech, protected by the First Amendment. Don’t get me wrong, I like free speech. Railing against the marketing and advertising industries would seem to fly in the face of that. Maybe it does, and I certainly don’t know the answer to this problem, but it is undeniably a problem I would argue, and to a certain extent the government agrees, that advertising is a product produced by an industry, and thus subject to the laws and regulations any other product must face. The sad truth however, is that the government is in the collective pocket of industry, and is unlikely to intervene in any way that will interrupt the flow of profits to political donors.

That last statement might seem cynical until you think about it for a while. A good example is that you are essentially legally obligated to send your children to school. Schools, in the interest of funding however, allow corporations to donate in exchange for the companies being allowed to advertise to students. The school sports stadium is ringed with commercial bill boards. There is no escape (although there are some rules they have to follow).

Marketers have co-opted every aspect of our society – our culture, our clothing, our entertainment, what we eat and drink, where we go, and what we do when we get there. They do it without our permission and frequently with the implied force of government behind them. That my friends, is tyranny.

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