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Marketing illusions that make us selfish (Part 1)

June 16, 2014
In Winter and Spring of this year, I was teaching a course in which I try to get students to look critically at what marketing is and what it does.
The 7 Graces of Marketing book cover

The 7 Graces of Marketing

I’d come across Lynn Serafinn’s remarkable book The 7 Graces of Marketing online and (quickly) read it. I immediately knew I had to recommend it to these students and, even better, Lynn agreed to come and talk to the students in the midst of my course.

Now the course has ended and all the marking has been done, I want to try to sum up why I think Lynn’s ideas are important, not just for marketers, but also for consumers i.e. for all of us.

I need to start by saying I can be quite cynical.  I don’t think that the world’s problems are solved by opting out and knitting muesli or, indeed, by developing a new kick-ass web service that develops into a muti-million dollar corporation.  Revolutions tend towards the dictatorial…and people get hurt.   I do however, recognise that there are things wrong with this world.
In my own research and reading, I’ve come to recognise that in a consumerist society, we have a problem.  Marketing is part of the problem, not the whole of it, but part.  Without going into this in detail, for various historical reasons we have a form of economy that is based on the assumption that everyone is in competition with everyone else and that the competition is largely measured by money. It is an ideology which, even if you don’t accept it as ‘false consciousness’ still distorts the way we see our place in the world and, therefore, how most of us behave.
Allied to this is a ‘scientistic’ notion; that, given enough resources, we can solve any problem.
Possibly the most pernicious  part of this ideology – and you can measure the extent to which this idea is embedded in your own culture by your reaction to my next statement – is the myth that we are all individuals.
Hang on, you might be saying, we ARE all individuals. You can’t tell me what to think, no-one can. I do what I want.  Well, yes, of course but the fact of our physical individuality doesn’t take away from what we might call our sociability.  We are both individuals and, very essentially, part of a (often many) social groupings. We have to be: we simply couldn’t eat, drink or procreate without sociability.
Acknowledging this ’embeddedness’ leads us to recognise that we are always subject to social influences (including marketing) and, indeed, that we cannot escape from our culture. We cannot exist outside of a social nexus – much as we might sometimes wish. As Pierre Bourdieu once said we are all like “fish in water”.
But it would be a mistake to think that social groups are just an aggregation of individuals; they are greater than (or at least other than) the sum of their parts. In any case, it makes little sense to base all your (social) science on the assumption that only individuals exist, even if sometimes those individuals may be considered to be part of a group. Granovetter famously called this the error of ‘atomisation’. We can further assert that the very existence of groups and the various relationships between these, to some extent, shapes social space in a way analogous to electromagnetic fields distortion of space/time.  It’s called ‘social physics’.  Yes, we’re atoms, but we’re in a field of forces.
So how does Marketing contribute to the problem to which I refer? Well, that’s where Lynn’s thesis about the 7 deadly sins of marketing comes in.  In her book, Lynn lists the key mistakes that marketing, based I think, on thisatomised view of humankind, makes and the consequences of these.

Brian: You're all individuals Crown: Yes! We're all individuals! One voice: I'm not.

Brian: You’re all individuals
Crown: Yes! We’re all individuals!
One voice: I’m not.

  • Disconnection 
  • Persuasion 
  • Invasion 
  • Distraction 
  • Deception 
  • Scarcity 
  • Competition
I’m not, in this post at least, going to go through all of the 7 deadly sins, but they are all reflective of a misunderstanding of humans as individual and ‘agentic’ – entirely able to make their own decisions.
There is one of the 7 sins I would like to bring to your attention, the illusion of scarcity.
I said that Marketing contributes to the world’s ills, but this is not to say that all marketers, or all marketing does so. Indeed some of the insight and the skills of marketing have been harnessed to achieve good things and, I’m sure, many people reading this will think of themselves as good people.  That’s okay, because there are many good people out there doing good things. Of course there are many people also (like me) unwittingly do not-so-good things through choice or error, with the best of intentions.
As marketers, we work with tools (models, techniques) that, predominantly, are based on that view of the customer as individual.  We talk of needs and wants as being, somehow, within the individual – in their mind perhaps. We acknowledge that these are influenced by outside factors such as age, wealth and, of course, our efforts to remind, inform and persuade. We also use ‘models’ such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to imagine the separation of physiological needs from social or even spiritual ones.
We’re just wrong. Every need, indeed every aspect of our selves, our personality even, is mediated.  Everything that we think defines us is, to a greater or lesser degree given meaning by our place in a social setting; that field in which we operate. We even view our interior, secret life, through the lens of others’ (imagined or real) judgements.
Yet despite this truth instinctively known by us all and especially by (social) psychology, marketers continue to act as if appealing to individuals with personal and limitless needs.  Consumers will always want more…or better. And in the face of this, how can any amount of product or service be ‘enough’? And if all marketing (indeed much of the media) agrees on this view of the world, who are we to contradict?
In fact, the situation is even more curious, because as marketers we wouldn’t really want consumers to be satisfied. If they were, they would stop consuming. So, it’s in our interests to ensure that consumers continuously discover new needs or, indeed, new dissatisfactions. Infinite needs and wants.
The myth of scarcity, that it is impossible to ever meet these needs, is I believe Orwellian double-speak for the fear of looking at ourselves as we really are. We are afraid to be satisfied, to stop and be still and to ask for nothing more. Perhaps it is too close to giving up on life.  As marketers we seem unable to acknowledge that OUR demand for more, now, is not necessarily reflected in the needs of consumers. They might not want the ‘more’ we want to sell them.
A recent talk given by Brian Wheeller of Breda University in the Netherlands reminded me that one of the tools of control used to get consumers to consume is the (marketing) manipulation of taste and fashion; telling us what we ought to be wearing or experiencing ‘this season’.  Why this should be the case I hope to discuss in a future post, but for the moment it is enough to acknowledge that there is a contradiction at the heart of the marketing logic.  Marketing ‘sells’ need, not satisfaction.
In order to truly meet people’s needs therefore, and at least one of these must be happiness, we have to enable them (and therefore ourselves) to see how this can possibly be constructed.  How can we break away from the needs we are constantly being sold? How can we see that even if we work harder to buy more ‘stuff’, there will be a new need along in the future. As many a person who has ‘had it all’ has testified, there are many things that money just can’t buy. Indeed, it seems that because money can’t by love and friendship and respect, they are all the more precious.
Of course money helps but more money doesn’t help more and a lot of money doesn’t add up to a guarantee of these things. Pretty much everything we really, really value involves other people, people who have a commitment to us and our values and family and friends. And it’s an old truism that you get more of these things by giving them.

Incidentally, this is one of the points of another book from a colleague, Michael Babula, on what he calls the coming age of altruism.  That hierarchy of need doesn’t stop when we reach ‘self-actualisation’ because when we recognise that our essential needs are met, we begin to recognise our ability to achieve more… for other people.

Incidentally, this is one of the points of another book from a colleague, Michael Babula, on what he calls the coming age of altruism.  That hierarchy of need doesn’t stop when we reach ‘self-actualisation’ because when we recognise that our essential needs are met, we begin to recognise our ability to achieve more… for other people.

In truth I suspect that ‘I’ (and by extension ‘you’) don’t really exist as individuals. Instead in my family and social network, there is a ‘me’ shaped hole; I occupy it, but it defines me.  To think of ourselves only as individuals is to deny the most fulfilling aspect of our humanity: the acceptance by, indeed love from, other people.
It is, I think, a sign of maturity to realise that we exist within that nexus of ties and values and to understand the extent to which so much of what is important exists outside of ourselves and our selfish impulses. It is the third stage of Kohlberg’s idea of moral development and is crystallised for many of us in that moment we become parents or, as poignantly, when we face the death of our own parents.
This realisation of our social being can be helped by us coming to know how lucky we are (in relative terms), how much we have and how little we need.   And then, beyond that, we need to recognise how little some others have and how powerful we are to help them.  Some of these findings are reported in these BBC articles and the associated programme.
It’s here that marketing (and politics, and education of course, and all forms of public discourse) can play a part.  Not by picking out particular ‘classes’ in need charitable largesse like a dish of the day, but by drawing attention to the way in which such inequalities are allowed to persist in our society. And reminding us that we (and by extension, our elected Government) have the power to improve things.
I’m particularly reminded of this last point when reading Harry Leslie Smith’s affecting book about the decline of the post-war ‘land fit for heroes’; Harry’s Last Stand.
If marketing is as powerful as it seems, if it can influence values and attitudes, and it must as no business (or Government) seemingly can succeed with out it, here is a real challenge. To make people realise that they are not only individuals, but they are also part of a social ‘organism’ the health of which depends upon every part.
Many people have been credited with saying “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members” but this isn’t just a question of assuaging our guilt by donating to (ie ‘consuming’) a packaged solution for the very poorest, weakest or sickest.  It should, I think, be a recognition that we are responsible for them just as surely as we are responsible for the parts of our body or the members of our family. And that means rejecting the insidious notions of competition and scarcity.
For the things that matter it’s simply not true that “there isn’t enough to go around” or “it’s them or us’.  We don’t need more and more resources or endless economic growth, we just need to give and share and be honest about the things that bring us real happiness.
See also my personal blog post on Fear and Loathing in UK Politics
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