Dec 21, 2009
Is Marketing Mainly Manipulation or Might It (also) Be Education?
Last spring, while attending a lovely brunch, I got into an unexpectedly heated dispute with the host and one of the guests, professors at a local business college, about the Nazi philosopher, Martin Heidegger.
Having told me that they sometimes taught Heidegger’s essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” to their students, I told them that Heidegger’s unrepentant allegiance to the Nazi cause, coupled with his very conscious desire to provide the philosophical groundwork for an as yet unrealized hyper-elitist society in which the Many served the Few, made such a pedagogical choice highly problematic.
To my way of thinking, I explained to them, introducing impressionable minds, or any minds for that matter, to the diabolical musings of the old, forest-dwelling, Swabian sorcerer was to fulfill his clearly articulated plans and, therefore, to be avoided at all costs.
Naturally, they thought me mad.
Flash forward to a recent dinner party featuring many of the same characters. Recalling our bygone dispute, one of my erstwhile protagonists found it ironic that I considered teaching marketing the better alternative to teaching Heidegger. Ascertaining that he equated marketing with manipulation I asked if he didn’t in fact try to manipulate his students, an imputation he vociferously rejected before absenting himself.
There ensued an illuminating discussion with his colleague concerning the way “marketing” had supplanted “sales” in the college’s curriculum. Whereas the institution had once upon a time striven to steep students in the subtle and not-so-subtle arts of persuasion proper to business, this was now deemed “kind of sleazy” and had been replaced with the more oblique, and ostensibly scientific, rigors of marketing.
On hearing this, I remarked that, funnily enough, with the ascendancy of “content marketing,” it was now education that provided sales and marketing with its dominant paradigm. And so we sat down to eat.
Customers don’t want to be marketed to anymore than they want to be sold to. They are, however, hungry for information, if not knowledge (or, perish the thought, wisdom). For this reason the contemporary marketer begins to increasingly resemble a research assistant or a reference librarian and, in some cases, a teacher.
Which is why I would like to suggest that, while education may, in its way, be manipulative, we must also allow that manipulation, in its turn, may also be, at times, educational.
Don’t you think?
Image Courtesy of coyote2012.
Hey Matt, how complicated does it have to be? I have to buy something, toothpaste, a car, or some scientific gadget for my lab. I want to know the price and what it can do, and whether it can do it better than some other cheaper or prettier choice. But the seller wants my money, my purchase, and is looking to create a relationship to tap into my loyalty, and uses any emotional tug to start that strand weaving. This bugs me personally, but other people like knowing how their purchases can give credence to their aspirations. Call it what you want, some people want to be influenced by status and affiliation, others just want the facts. Nice that now we have multiple channels for segmented messaging. It’s all sales in a cash society, and marketing at it’s best can be educational.
Advertisers take advantage of consumers all the time. They study our shopping habits in every way. There are people who make it their life’s work to study and watch videos of people in stores. The information these people get from the videos is then interpreted to mean something about how a consumer acts in a store. Then after interpretation the information is sold to companies so they can better manipulate and get the consumer to spend every dime they have. It does not surprise me that there are companies like Lambert Pharmacal Company would make up a fake illness like halitosis to scare consumers into buying a product. The advertisers have made us think so many different things of all the products around us today. Take the iPhone for one very obvious example. The iPhone is advertised as a music player for teens and young hip kids who love listening to music. Then it is also shown as an awesome way to play videogames online for those who take gaming as their interest. Finally for the older more business like people among us, the iPhone is great for keeping up on email, sales presentations, and web communication. The manipulation is everywhere the consumer just needs to bother to think about what the advertisers are shoving down our throats. The advertisers even try to manipulate the consumer on everyday items like the gas we put in our car. Believe it or not there is no such thing as nine tenths of a cent, so why do we pay for nine tenths of a cent when we are paying for gas? The consumer is not even partially paying for nine tenths of a cent because for every gallon that nine tenths of a cent gets added to another nine tenths of a cent making one cent and another eight tenths of a cent. Well the consumer gets to then pay for that eight tenths of a cent with, guess what one cent. The oil companies are ripping the consumer off on so many levels, and that is not even considering that the oil pumps we rely on are not anywhere near as accurate as the advertisers would try to make us believe.
Thanks for the comments, Connie and Katherine.
At a gut level, I agree with the way you both characterize the conventional sales/marketing mode of communication which has as its clearly intended goal: exchange of a good or service for your money. While I believe that no form of communication is free of intention, this one often appears to cross the line from influencing decisions to crass manipulation.
Connie makes a good point, however. People actually do have needs, desires, and ambitions and they are willing to pay money to achieve or attain them. Marketing content can help people meet these needs and realize their ambitions by letting them know what their options are. However, as you point out Katherine, this information is inherently biased to the benefit of the author: people marketing a product.
Marketing has changed in two critical ways. On the one hand, everybody already equates marketing with manipulation so companies, some anyway, have responded by becoming more open, more engaging, more “real.”
On the other hand, and this is key, they have invited people to comment freely on their products realizing full well that a third-party recommendation (a good review, perhaps, on Amazon or Yelp or one of a million different forums) can be more valuable – more influential – than any copy or content they could generate themselves.
Are marketers being manipulative when they allow for reasonably moderated comments on their blogs or sell their products through Amazon where they can’t control the comments at all? On the contrary. If education involves the free exchange of ideas on subjects of mutual interest, then that’s what the marketers making these decisions are allowing to happen.
The best thing that could come of this is that products will really just compete on quality or their specific merits and differences, not on the psychological/emotional “tugs” promulgated by the agency.
Though that raises a question. What if there actually are social benefits to using certain products? If a product not only meets a physical need (“I’ve got to wear clothes”), but also meets a social need (“Look at that suit! That guy must be loaded!”), isn’t that social piece part of what the product does?