Applied Consumer Economics may be unique in its viewpoint that marketing is a largely negative force.
(Pauses, sips ice water while audience recomposes itself. Glances at watch. Drums fingers on lectern.)
Yes, yes—most economics models regard marketing as both essential and a positive force. Marketing drives sales, which result in profits, which are good… but that’s the end of the thought process in conventional econ. Despite that pleasant whiteboard, of-course, rah-rah conceptualization, marketing is not an unalloyed good. It is not even an overwhelming positive except when profits are the only consideration.
The consumer perspective of ACE sees marketing a little differently.
Conventional economics rarely makes any judgment about the ethics of a sale, or its comprehensive value, and even less so about the marketing that drives that sale. Sales (and remember, every sale is also a purchase) are judged only on a financial level with a vague sense of whether the consumer has been treated “fairly”—a concept restricted to the monetary terms, and with only the concern that “being unfair” might reduce business, sales and profits. That a purchase might carry disastrous negative consequences for a consumer is somewhere in a Venn diagram of overlooked, ignored and dismissed.
We need only look at tobacco products, horrendously non-nutritious foods and, to some extent, alcohol as a few of the most common and egregious examples of the limits of conventional economic viewpoint. Economics barely glances at lung cancer, obesity and alcoholism except through the lens of employment and how these syndromes affect job performance and income. Yet these are only simplistic, ABC-123 representatives of a vast, well-populated spectrum of products that produce detrimental results, do the buyer no good or simply waste the consumer’s wealth.
But marketing is a sacred thing unto itself, even for Camels and Hot Pockets. The lack of consideration for ethics and broader consequences of its use lies in the well-established idea that, with only a few legally-mandated exceptions such as sales to children, a consumer is responsible for hir choices. Thus, if a company sells a box, bottle or package of crud that has long-term toxic effects (but legally so), and $10 is judged a “fair” price by both parties, the choice to buy that crud lies entirely with the consumer. If s/he buys it, consumes it and eventually dies of appendix failure, the choice was hirs.
For this widely—approaching universally—accepted idea of consumer goods to make any sense at all, it has to assume that transactions take place on some kind of level playing field. Seller and buyer stand as equals, making a whiteboard-simple exchange of item for pelf, with each side, the world and a stern, judging god approving of the terms and fairness.
Which is horsepuckey.
There is next to nothing in the entire realm of consumer goods, the more so the larger the seller gets, that is sold on anything like a level playing field. To view the interactions in any such way is perhaps the signature difference between the business/wealth-based viewpoint of conventional economics and the consumer-centric views of ACE. The idea that consumer goods are sold in billions of meeting-as-equals exchanges is self-serving nonsense, warmly promulgated by the sellers and blankly accepted by a great majority of consumers.
Unraveling that nonsense is a key element of ACE’s focus, but in the interest of keeping these essays at reasonable length I won’t make the full argument here. But the idea is nonsense in at least three major ways: that major consumer good sellers operate under a broad umbrella of assumed, assigned and purchased authority that resists and deflects all challenges; that a nearly universal subtext of most marketing is that each consumer is “so smart we couldn’t fool you if we tried”; and that as a result the consumer is not dealing with the seller on anything like an equal basis, but as a child to a malicious adult with hidden agendas. And no aspect of any of those agendas has the consumer’s benefit in mind.
What marketing is, more than anything else, across audiences and participants and viewpoints, is misunderstood. A misunderstanding that is promulgated by the marketer/sellers themselves for entirely deceptive purposes, the foremost facet of which is fostering that ludicrous idea that sales come from a meeting of equals. But even more, that misunderstanding is wholly supported by conventional economics as the tool of business and wealth, having little to do with those… what are they called? Oh, yes. Consumers.
- to be continued
—published on Quora, 14 Jan 2022