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ACE & Marketing (IV – Knocking Down the Pedestal)

Okay, one more swing at marketing and we’ll move on. It’s important but there are other issues.

Marketing resides, as much as a concept can be said to reside anywhere, atop a rather special pedestal. It is the rara avis of business, finance and commerce, and if I hadn’t exhausted my quota of erudition, I’d add sui generis.

It is a segment that for all practical purposes has no contrarian participants.

Yes, of course, there are detractors, about as many as there are consumers—plus the odd bot, AI and “anti-advertising group.” And there are disagreements within it; even those who champion and feed marketing as part of their profession have long lists of complaints about its execution. But none of that is the same thing as a fundamentally contrarian viewpoint, organized opposition or negative analysis. There are few other components of economics that do not have a body of opponents, contrarian minds who find negative conclusions using the same tools, data and precepts as those who champion it.

Put more simply, marketing is unique in that it is always seen in positive terms, even when the viewpoint is negative.

If you’re hopelessly confused, consider this: there is nothing like a negative or contrary journal of marketing; even within the many fields and publications, there are almost no papers or presentations that say any form of “marketing is bad.” The closest you will come are analyses of marketing campaigns or elements that failed to achieve desired goals (or were even howled down by their intended market, if not the public at large)… but only in the context of how the failure can be used to improve future efforts.

Writings about the egregious excesses of marketing are confined to largely amateur venues and audiences, with nothing like peer review or even decent editing; anyone can write a rant about marketing in general or any marketing campaign at hand and some site or another, or even a general-topic magazine, will print it. This, again, is not the same thing as a genuine contrarian viewpoint; it’s like rants about how awful organized medicine is, published as an op-ed, vs. a peer-reviewed paper on the irremedial faults of a particular pharmaceutical or medical therapy.

Marketing gets a free pass, in other words, even when it fails on a titanic scale.

Failures are seen only as something that has to be “fixed” for the effort to be successful. The idea that some aspects of the field are inherent failures, or counterproductive, or (in the viewpoint of ACE) contrary to the best interests of the consumer is never presented. Even medical journals will conclude that a particular practice or treatment is “contraindicated”—which often means “kills too many patients.” But marketing’s approach is “let’s change it and try again, because it might work (boost profits) this time”—never “this is a stupid idea and should be abandoned for all time.”

One goal of ACE and its collateral fields must be to knock the bird of marketing off this special pedestal and start forcing its constituents to consider more than “keep trying (regardless of detrimental aspects) until the profits go up.” There needs to be a genuine contrarian, negative-results, stop-that! faction in the field.

While we’re dreaming about marketing brought to a collective court of open minds, it’s worth noting two other facets of this same topic.

There is genuine negative, investigative writing about marketing, but it is rare and appears far outside business and marketing publications and thus has little impact. Insightful, contrarian writing is found occasionally… in psych and sociology journals, where it is little more than the humor column of the issue, a break from extremely dense lab and field analytics. Even then and there, the authors (possibly urged by the journal and reviewers) maintain the attitude of “on the other hand” and muse about ways the negative findings could be turned into profits. Because marketing is never the problem, even in that far-flung realm; only the specifics.

Being in the shadow of corporate grant money probably has nothing to do with it. I mean, the very idea.

The other interesting aspect is that within marketing journals and academic publishing, a vast amount of the work is tepid, outdated page filler. It is publication to avoid perishment, academic calisthenics, often far removed from the actual industry practices and even further from the cutting edge of tools and techniques actually in use.

Real marketing research and application takes place in private consulting firms and in the departments of the multinationals, guided by some of the best minds in behavioral science, with budgets measured in collective billions and more secret than most government weapons projects. The findings are not published, to put it mildly. What does appear in the journals advances the field little; they may as well start including work from that contrarian viewpoint to make their existence meaningful.

The extension of this is that most outside of that active and largely proprietary core of marketing, including most consumers and even university-level observers, know far less about the real state and practice of large-scale marketing than they believe. Published and “known” practices and theory are often decades old and either no longer relevant or of no special value. I frequently have casual correspondents cite things back to Vance Packard’s writings of about 1960 as if it’s savvy, insider understanding… and Packard’s shocking ‘persuaders’ were old-hat, old news at the time he published them!

Here’s an example of how disconnected and outdated current academic writing about marketing is. A few years ago, researchers noted that products aimed at children, primarily cereals, used marketing icons with great big googly eyes that look out from the shelf, not at mom or dad’s face, but down at the child’s. It’s well established that eye contact, even in cardboard, creates an illusion of friendliness and likability; it can thus be argued that Cap’n Crunch, Tony the Tiger and all the other carefully polished hucksters on the cereal aisle persist in existence because their purpose is to bypass even a child’s judgment with a hearty “be my friend” pitch. Shocking, right? Well, maybe. But finding those findings shocking in 2014 is a bit late… as the big googly eyed friend trick has been used since at least the 1950s. The researchers are a bit slow to catch on.

And even that article and its immediate cites are laden with “branding expert” comments about how this technique is a grrrrrreat! way to build brand loyalty and trust. Instead of, you know, being utterly shameless manipulation and an ethics-free way to sucker our kids into demanding a grossly overpriced food substitute whose box has more nutritive value, by playing on a hardwired, hindbrain behavior instead of presenting their product for judgment on that “level playing field.”

I leave it to the reader to muse about marketing tactics that might have been developed since 1955 and await their shocking exposé in coming decades. Even those in between Lucky the Leprechaun and the rise of the superheated, invasive, controlling platform of the internet. While you’re there, you might think about that universally-assumed immunity… to tactics you don’t even perceive; tactics that hammer behavioral cues over which few of us have conscious control.

But then, everyone’s after those Lucky Charms.

—published on Quora, 16 Jan 2022

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