Marketing and the death of social progress

18 Feb

Marketing floats over everything these days, like the midge-filled cloud over a swamp. It is simultaneously a high-profile, highly-sought-after job, and a totally reviled occupation. I was at a Ross Noble show recently where he made a series of jibes against marketing people (and he’s certainly not the only one). Marketing is a dubious business.


But – and, as Hamlet might say, here’s the rub – is it dangerous? Well, I think so. And I think there are two reasons for this.


First of all, it’s pervasive. Secondly, it’s exploitative. And this combination is a killer one, because it generates, justifies and prolongs social and cultural apathy. (There. I used the ‘apathy’ word. You are morally obliged to read on, now, if you don’t wish to be called guilty of same. Ha!)


Allow me to explicate.


Marketing is all over the place. Whether it’s pushing Coca Cola at you from billboards, suggesting wedding photographers in your facebook sidebar or the University of Liverpool offering their online degrees (seriously?) via popup ads, you are never free of it. Turn on the radio and its there. You can choose to stay at home or leave the house, you will encounter it whatever you do. Most of it barely registers anymore. We expect to be sold stuff. Our eyes are used to it. Some are more susceptible than others, true, but the same person who gets hungry when he sees a McDonalds advert is not necessarily the same person who rushes out to Tiffany’s to buy that ring he saw in his girlfriend’s magazine (to her great disappointment, no doubt. Or possibly not. Who knows). So yes. Marketing. It’s EVERYWHERE.


All right, I hear you say. What’s so very dreadful about that? Didn’t you just say we’re basically immune to it these days? Well. Here’s the thing. People who work in marketing (and against my will and my better judgement, I am one of those people, although I doubt you’ll come into contact with anything I’m pushing unless you’re an embedded electronics engineer) are a sneaky lot. They/we are also weirdly constricted. Yes, we must find new and innovative ways to sell our products! They cry, mewlingly, to their bosses. Yes, we are original and creative thinkers! They exclaim, proudly, on their CVs. But, the bosses say in reply. You must not do anything to alienate current consumers. Don’t go crazy, folks. Work with the market, not outside it. Do your research. Make good use of what you find. *Then* pump them for everything they’ve got. Yeah. Boom.


So. This creates a slight conundrum. On the one hand, marketers are always being pushed to come up with new stuff to farm out to the public/their specific product target. On the other, they can’t do anything to challenge that public/target too much, because they’ll get bored and wander into the next field, following their fleecy friends who have found a simpler option elsewhere. In short (or rather, at some length), marketing relies on stagnation. So long as the world stays the same, marketing won’t change.


Well, now, hold on just a minute, you are saying. Nobody expects marketing to change the world. That’s not what it’s for. Surely society isn’t quite as doomed as you are making out?


That’s true, to a point. People can still come up with world-changing ideas. Society can progress, if it puts its mind to it. But – and here’s the problem – marketing makes people lazy, because it plays on what is already the case. Constantly reinforcing public opinion – whether it’s good or bad – stunts creativity and imagination. And what’s worse, it continues to embed some seriously problematic issues.


I’ll give you an example that has been driving me crazy.


In the electronics industry – consumer electronics, mostly, although the rot has spread far and wide – massive trade shows happen every year. Think CES, where the big guns get together to show off their new tablets, or 3D printers, or sustainable LED microwave hats or whatever. That sort of shebang. Now. How do these companies get people interested in loitering on their stands? How do they get them over to their stands in the first place? I’ll tell you. Girls. Girls in tiny skirts and low cut tops. Girls in nurse uniforms. Girls on rollerblades. These are all genuine tactics (the BBC even made a video article about the complaints that arose from CES this year). And they are pretty deplorable. But apparently, they are a must-have, because, like it or lump it, there *are* more men in the electronics industry, and they *are* always attracted to ladies in lycra. Sure, you’re going to offend a few people. But mostly they’ll be women, so they don’t count. Right?


WRONG. Obviously. I have argued this point until blue in the face, but I just can’t seem to get through to anyone. Not only is this sort of technique degrading to the women parading around in beachwear in order to sell mobiles, it’s also degrading to the poor men who are subject to it and expected to react on the basis of their primal urges. The girls don’t mind, you say? Well, presumably they’re being paid. And they’ve grown up in a society which says that if you flaunt your tits at someone, you’re likely to make an impact. Whatever reason the girls are doing it for, it’s shameless and underhand to suggest it’s necessary in this sort of environment. I mean, seriously, guys. And, as the few female electronics people will tell you, it makes them feel uncomfortable, objectified and concerned they’ll be subject to the same sort of leering and lech-y photography visited on these women by their colleagues. Only one guy in a company needs to say to a fellow female employee ‘why don’t you ever dress like that, hey?’ as a joke, and she will mentally count off the number of steps backwards just taken by Humanity.


That’s a little personal crusade of mine. I won’t bore you with (more) details. But there is a point here, though you may have missed it in the midst of my rantings. These companies are slowing social progress by utilising – and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to claim, reinforcing – the gender inequality already present in the industry. Women who have made it are probably pretty resilient in taking shit from their peers, family, friends etc (you’re an engineer? Oh. That’s not very – girly – is it?). But those just starting out may be put off. If you sign up for industry magazines when you’re a student and you notice that a lot of them feature ladies dressed as Marilyn Monroe talking about circuit boards, you are perhaps going to wonder what your place is in this world, and question whether you actually want to be in it.


That’s not really the sort of shit that most men have to put up with, is it? Not from marketing alone, anyway. Yeah, men feel like they are still facing social stigma when it comes to careers like nursing and preschool work – but I can’t think of any equivalent scenarios where they are so insidiously and perpetually undercut in this way. Maybe I’m not thinking hard enough. You tell me! I am happy to be disproved. I fear, however, that I won’t be.


So. Marketing. Sometimes, it’s ok. I’m kind of fine with (and in some cases, all for) Comic Relief and the Samaritans and the Army and the V&A and even Apple and Sony and Asda marketing. That has kind of become life. But what I really, really object to is the way marketing contributes to a complete apathy, disinterest, wilful blindness, even, to look at and engage with social issues.


I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t think there’s an awful lot we can do about marketing on our own. I suspect that the answer lies in promoting other ways to reengage culturally, politically, socially. We have to counteract sluggish movement by pushing forward in other areas. We need more women represented on stage, on tv, in management, in government. We need to understand that only we can change the world – one step at a time, in a flood, on our own, in a team.


I think it was Gandhi who said ‘you must be the change you wish to see in the world’. Maybe it’s dangerous to wish all these changes into existence.


But then again, maybe it’ll be that much more exciting.


2 Responses to “Marketing and the death of social progress”

  1. Anonymous February 27, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    the whole function of marketing is to find out what people want and give it to them. companies are always accused of manipulating innocent consumers by making them want things they don’t need but if this were so we would not have a situation in which a high proportion of new products actually fail!

    • Natasha February 27, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

      I certainly take your point – but I think marketing reinforces a lot of social prejudices and problems along the way. Giving people what they want is inappropriate if what they want harms others (or indeed themselves, although I’ll grant you that this is a tricky one ethically, too). Try reading the first book of Plato’s Republic and you might see what I mean!

      (also, thanks for reading and commenting – I do love a bit of debate)

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