Marketing (rant warning)

Geoffrey Miller thinks marketing is the greatest invention of the last 2,000 years


What he writes make me feel uncomfortable in a way I can’t really put my finger on. This means that either

a) he is right, and I’m a damn liberal who can’t face up to the truth

b) he is wrong, but in ever so subtle a way

He says Almost everything we can buy is the result of some marketing people in some company thinking very hard about how to make us happy.

Surely, it’s more accurate to say that almost everything we can buy is the result of some marketing people in some company thinking very hard about how to make us buy their stuff. This is an important difference.

If, like he notes, the marketing orientation has become common in companies that make things for individual customers, like clothes, cars, televisions, and movies. It remains rare in heavy industry that produces steel, coal, oil, and paper, where the immediate consumers are other businesses

isn’t this because businesses are subject to a different set of irrationalities than individual consumers?

One important difference might be that businesses consumers aren’t divided and vastly outsized by their producers in the same way as individual consumers.

Marketing makes us technology?s masters. This renders most of Marx irrelevant. What can alienation and exploitation mean when business listens so hard to our desires?

I guess alienation can only make sense if people can become alienated from their own desires. Which is kind of a psychological-level version of Marxist false-consciousness anyway, and remains a pretty dirty theoretical trick.

Doesn’t mean it isn’t true though.

Like fish unaware of water, we do not realize that we live in the Age of Marketing…Democracy is simply the marketing concept applied to government.

And there are different types of democracy, and democratic failures, just like there can be different types of markets and market failures. I have to be suspicious of anyone who tries to sell me One Market, or one notion of Democracy.

Is the marketing revolution a good thing? On the upside, it promises a golden age when social institutions and markets are systematically organized to maximize human happiness.

There’s that mistake again – maximising fallible human choices isn’t the same as maximising human happiness. But then, it’s hard to know what other indexes to use.

On the downside, marketing is Buddha?s worst nightmare. It is the Veil of Maya made scientific and backed by billion-dollar campaigns. It perpetuates the grand illusion that desire leads to fulfillment..It is the enemy of human consciousness, because consciousness is content with its own company, and needs nothing from the world. The trouble is not that marketing promotes materialism. Quite the opposite. It promotes a narcissistic pseudo-spiritualism based on subjective pleasure, social status, romance, and life-style.

A moment of clarity mixed with a moment of nonsense.

Marketing brings more immediate problems. Like democracy, it forces intellectual elites to confront our patronizing attitudes towards the masses. Elites do not always like companies and states that provide what the people want….Marketing, like democracy, is anti-arrogance, anti-power, and anti-idealism….For the elite, marketing?s populism can be an alarming prospect….Cultural elites usually take a dim view of uncultured human nature to justify denying the power of choice to ordinary people. Fear of an economy based on market research, like Plato?s fear of democracy based on universal suffrage, is based on contempt for our species. Elites hate to recognize the marketing revolution because they hate to admit that contempt. Marketing is the most important invention of the last two millenia because it is the only revolution that has ever succeeded in bringing real power to the people.

I look around at the six billion, as we break in waves of hunger a desire upon the eroded shore of history, and I wonder how we feel about our new, real, power. Power given to us – yes given! – by the wonderful power of marketing, marketers and the corporations that employ them.

It is not just the power to redistribute wealth, to split the social cake into different pieces. Rather, it is the power to make our means of production transform the natural world into a playground for human passions. Marketing is not just the icing on the material world. It has become the recipe, the kitchen, and the cook.

But marketing isn’t just a tool for working out what human desires are. Human desires are not some inviolate essence. They are created by social influences- created, evoked, and manipulated. Consciousness is not content with its own company, and needs nothing from the world. Consciousness is inherently social. We gauge our own status by social comparison, we want what others want, we believe what others in our tribe believe.

Marketing is not an innocent observer in this scenario, no more than markets are spontaneous entities existing aside from politics and culture. All markets are designed by a set of socially sanctioned forces, and all marketing serves interests other than those of the consumers.

4 replies on “Marketing (rant warning)”

“Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.”

— George Orwell

As a computer programmer, when I purchase a new laptop I go to great lengths to make sure I am as well-informed as possible about potential purchases. To that end, I need computer manufacturers to produce advertising literature that detail technical specs, etc. on the basis of which I can then reach a decision about which model I will purchase. On the other hand, when I purchase a pair of trainers I really can’t be bothered to find out which shoes represent the best value for money in terms of foot support, durability, etc. Instead, I just base my purchase on some spurious and almost certainly completely irrational notion of which brands are “good”.

And I think this is the problem with Miller’s article. He fails to distinguish two very different activities that are normally classified under the umbrella term of “marketing” – brand-building, and what I will refer to as informational advertising.

In the laptop scenario, Miller’s claim is relevant – that “almost everything we can buy is the result of some marketing people in some company thinking very hard about how to make us happy”. As a well-informed consumer, I simply won’t purchase products produced by companies who didn’t think very hard does apply how to make me happy. This is marketing as informational advertising.

On the other hand, in the trainers scenario I think your description is much more accurate – that “almost everything we can buy is the result of some marketing people in some company thinking very hard about how to make us buy their stuff”. The reason for this is that I am too busy/lazy to get off my backside and discover whether their products are any good. This is marketing as brand-building, and in a better-informed society we wouldn’t need it.

From an essay on affective forecasting, on

“What’s interesting to me is that while money is weakly and complexly correlated with happiness, and social relationships are strongly and simply correlated with happiness, most of us spend most of our time trying to be happy by pursuing wealth. Why?

“Individuals and societies don’t have the same fundamental need. Individuals want to be happy, and societies want individuals to consume. Most of us don’t feel personally responsible for stoking our country’s economic engine; we feel personally responsible for increasing our own well-being. These different goals present a real dilemma, and society cunningly solves it by teaching us that consumption will bring us happiness.

“Society convinces us that what’s good for the economy is good for us too. This message is delivered to us by every magazine, television, newspaper, and billboard, at every bus stop, grocery store, and airport. It finds us in our cars, it’s made its way onto our clothing. Happiness, we learn, is just around the corner and it requires that we consume just one more thing. And then just one thing more after that. So we do, we find out that the happiness of consumption is thin and fleeting, and rather than thinking to ourselves, ‘Gosh, that promise of happiness-by-consumption was a lie,’ we instead think, ‘Gosh, I must not have consumed enough and I probably need just one small upgrade to my stereo, car, wardrobe, or wife, and then I’ll be happy.’

“We live in the shadow of a great lie, and by the time we figure out that it is a lie we are closing in on death and have become irrelevant consumers, and a new generation of young and relevant consumers takes our place in the great chain of shopping.”

Julian – i think you’ve got it exactly right. We’re immune to the seductions of marketing when we have the motivation/time/resources. But then, who has the motivation/time/resources to be immune to *all* marketing?

Jen – good quoting – although I don’t think Gilbert would convince anyone who wasn’t already on-side. Saying ‘Society convinces us that what’s good for the economy is good for us too’ might be true, but without saying why and how ‘society’ does these things the argument won’t convince everyone (especially if you’re of a certain political bent that doesn’t believe in society…)

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