One of the difficulties in discussing marketing from any but the scriptural (and monolithic) viewpoint is that hardly anything can be said that doesn’t have a ready contradiction at hand.
Saying sellers are rapaciously deceptive and weaving multiple hidden agendas seems positively psychotic when speaking of, say, a local tire shop or corner grocery. And to be fair, most small, local merchants use little or no deception in their marketing, nor do most medical practices, movie theatres or any of a thousand other examples. Their efforts more or less boil down to “We’re here!” and “We have _______!”—simple offers to do business and sell an expected product.
And in these discussions, few get more red-faced and exercised at these claims than those who have worked for years, even decades in the marketing department of such gentle players. They’re tired of hearing how they use subliminal perception and voodoo and fluoride in the water to get people into a local transmission shop or car wash chain.
However, small businesses, those with one or a few local locations, and even many that are larger and regional, neither represent any large amount of consumer business in and of themselves nor need anything but the simplest level of marketing —we’re here, we have this, these are on sale. (There’s another layer to this, but we’ll come back to that.) People don’t drive far to find a convenient car wash, and can’t drive far for a transmission repair. So “here I am” is enough, some large part of the time. It’s just a case of making the customer with the need remember “there you are” at the right moment.
When I speak of “marketing” and its excesses and its negative impact on the consumer, I mean the vast majority of marketing and advertising we encounter, done by national and international manufacturers, sellers and retail operations. These are the players that shape marketing and its impact, and the volume of these efforts (in both senses of the word) completely dwarfs the diffuse and usually benign ploys of the lower levels.
Even at those levels, though, it’s still possible to point to counter-examples: ads from national firms that say little more than “now available” or “now in four-packs.” Such counters can confuse the discussion and draw participants away from the more general truths. It is thus perhaps useful to establish a hierarchy, a taxonomy of marketing modes, to help guide that discussion and keep understanding from getting lost in frivolous arguments.
There are different ways to distinguish the spectrum of marketing; here’s a taxonomy with five basic models.
The most basic model of marketing and the only one acceptable under the precepts of ACE is what we might term Ethical Marketing. Ethical Marketing can present a product (or service—for brevity I often use the first term to stand for all things sold to consumers, even intangibles), its features and qualities (within honest terms), its availability and its pricing—but no more.
As for the ridiculously common approach of showing how a product makes life wonderful, that’s a gray area, at one end presenting some expression of real benefits and at the far and inappropriate end to imply a whole spectrum of unrelated life improvement. That is, a beer can be promoted as tasting great, but not that it will bring you friends and admiration, nor a 30-foot cabin cruiser and tickets on the 50 yard line.
Ethical Marketing cannot invoke the consumer’s desires to drive the message, although this is also something of a gray area. Referring to a relevant desire that the product will indeed address is one thing; the implication that it will make the buyer handsome and popular is not.
Manipulative Marketing is just that: marketing that uses manipulation outside of the basic statements of Ethical Marketing to convince consumers the product has desirability or value beyond its real qualities. A sweeping example is implying the consumer will be a loser, an outcast if they don’t own the product, but I could fill a book with nothing but equivalent tactics (as could most readers).
Most marketing outside of that narrow “ethical” range fell into this category until the rise and universal spread of the internet. It still forms the bulk of large-scale consumer good marketing in all fields, all areas and to all audiences. It’s not enough to say “Here I am”; products have to be turned into streetcorner sluts and thugs.
Invasive Marketing was a tiny niche before we all turned into wireheads (or WiFiheads.) The classic example, played more for laughs than anything else, was the door-to-door salesman who jammed his foot in the door to keep pressing his wares. Short of an armed home invasion or public kidnapping, there were not many venues for a marketing effort to invade the personal domain. Advertising to the captives of a movie theater audiences grew from a few intermission/snack bar break strips for popcorn and lowball local merchants to today’s full-out entertainment programming complete with commercials… as unavoidable as the kid kicking the back of your seat. Sports stadiums are named, funded and packed with ads; even live stadium shows now run ads. I have yet to see one on Broadway, though. So far.
The universal adoption of glass screens and digital personal assistants has completely changed this segment to a nearly continuous assault, even in the privacy of our homes and (with entertainment being used as the vehicle) bedrooms. In one word: Alexa. It is nearly impossible to participate in shared, virtual and online activities without marketing appearing like fungus on every flat surface. Evading this invasive content has become an industry in itself… with, recursively, its own marketing.
Predatory Marketing, on the other hand, has been around a long time but before the internet era was most often confined to ghettoes, the elderly and other vulnerable populations. Now we are all prey; invasion brings manipulation that seeks to separate maximum wealth from consumers—not from the honest desire to sell as much of a product as possible, but from a malignant approach of doing any and everything possible to shake loose shekels.
This segment is the province of most “entrepreneurs,” especially serial entrepreneurs who have jumped from one “opportunity”—once known as “get rich quick schemes”—to another and is characterized by hypercapitalism, which can be summarized as the notion that every act and action can be and must be monetized. Unfortunately, this diseased model has become quite prevalent in major marketing.
Oppressive Marketing is not completely new but like Invasive Marketing has found fertile ground in the endless connections of the internet. It is executed by the largest of the large, typical multinational companies with a finger in every consumer product type. It uses the full panoply of advertising and marketing avenues, greatly boosted by the instant, omnipresent, omniscient world of hot-connected customers. More than just intensive selling, Oppressive Marketing tends to seek out new niches and product fields to be created, that they might be controlled and exploited—that the market of consumer/buyers might be exploited—while suppressing not just direct competition but the competition of other product types (which might be sub-termed Suppressive Marketing).
If a product did not exist twenty years ago and became “essential” within some short number of years, it likely did so through Oppressive Marketing techniques. The poster child for Oppressive Marketing is the cell phone, a useful technological tool that reached full maturity within a few years of being introduced, has not advanced in features or purpose for nearly a decade, yet exists in a frantic world of ever-more-frequent must-have new models and fireball “competition” between two indistinguishable product lines.
If it’s not evident, ACE supports Ethical Marketing as an essential component of a regulated and equitable capitalist economy. The rest can join Ron Popeil in hell.
As for that marketing by small, local and regional firms, there is another consideration to keep in mind. They themselves may be within the bounds of what ACE considers ethical and appropriate, using only Ethical Marketing techniques and invading or oppressing no one. And when they are selling their own products, such as goods baked on site or services directly rendered, nothing more need be said.
However… a kindly grocery store is likely jammed corner to corner with products representing the very soul of manipulative, deceptive and oppressive marketing. If Joe’s Corner Market kindly informs you they have a BOGO sale on Pepperoni Hot Pockets, or their permanent signage proclaims LOWEST LEGAL PRICE ON PACK CIGARETTES… they’re no longer all that ethically pure, are they? No… they’re then merely spear-carriers for the truly damnable.
- to be continued
—published on Quora, 15 Jan 2022