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Why Do Marketers Do What They Do?

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In this chapter from his incisive critique of economic globalization, Johny K. Johansson explains why marketers ignore multiculturalism and localization in the pursuit of an easy and universal marketing program.

Is marketing ethical?

There are many people around the world—and in the U.S. as well—who wonder how marketers can do what they do without feeling sick to their stomachs. It is the same feeling I get when I read about the tobacco companies and the managers who work for them. How can they face their children? Their spouses? Even themselves in the mirror?

My own solution has always been to believe in the product I am selling. If you can convince yourself that the product or service you are selling yields positive benefits to the customer, that it's "good" in the sense that the customer will be better off for having bought it, then you are doing something good. A good product is by itself not enough, of course. In-your-face marketing involves tactics that can appall and affront people, regardless of the essential goodness of the product. But, a starting point for "ethical" marketing must be that the product is good. I teach this to my MBA students, and have had some of them (though not all) quit companies like Philip Morris for that reason. Other students, of course, do not even consider working for some of the companies disparaged for similar reasons.

Whether or not a product yields positive benefits can of course be a tricky question, especially since in many advanced markets, the needs satisfied are typically not very basic. I mean, we are not usually talking about feeding the poor and hungry or offering a drink to the thirsty masses. Marketers tend to make use of a theory of needs that is hierarchical, meaning that once basic survival needs are satisfied, there are higher order needs—the need for recognition, for achievement, for belonging, and so on—which also have to be satisfied for a person to be happy. A product that makes a person feel good is therefore also a "good" product to sell. While marketers prefer to speak of "satisfaction" instead of "happiness," there is always at least an implicit assumption that products and services will bring happiness to a person's life. This assumption is the source of the materialistic and commercialization dynamic of marketing. "We bring good things to life" as the General Electric slogan goes.

In-Your-Face Logic

The in-your-face marketing efforts discussed here, however, go way beyond the question of the goodness of the product. In fact, in many cases, the product itself is only tangentially involved in the effort. This is because to a marketer, perception is everything. A high-speed computer is a high-speed computer only if the customer thinks it is a high-speed computer. Think about it for a second and you'll see how it works. Take a car, for example. How do you judge if the car is fast or not? Figures seem to tell the story— "0–60 in 8 seconds"—but most people don't know how to read the numbers. "Sportiness" is the typical attribute automakers use, and this comes from styling, something everyone can judge. Now take a more mundane product like a bar of soap. How soft is it on the skin? According to market research, most people apparently use perfume strength to assess softness. Anyone can smell the soap. How about food and drink? Well, we know that people can tell beers apart when tasting—but only if they are allowed to see the bottles (although Guinness stout is an exception). As for food, there is not much scientific evidence that I have seen, but think about the effect on people when you tell them sushi is raw fish, or that chicken breast is actually rabbit meat. I make my students squirm in their seats when I tell them Swedes are very fond of smoked horsemeat. I doubt the same reaction would occur if they tasted it and were simply told it was smoked venison. Perception might not be everything, but it's small wonder if for marketers it seems more important than the product itself.

This is why the marketing efforts discussed in this book go far beyond the product. They also involve the design, the color, the brand name, the logo, and the whole marketing communications apparatus. In fact, the in-your-face marketing effort that affronts me most is the repetitive advertising slogans and noisy commercials I see on TV and hear on the radio. It's not easy to illustrate this on the written page, but we all have our favorite offenders. For me, the worst are the loud and abrasive TV commercials (with lots of sex, confrontation, and "attitude") my teenage daughters see, but then I am not in that market, so those shouldn't really count (I do tell them, however, to please watch something else). But how about those inane car commercials about zero financing, the insipid beer commercials touting sentimental patriotism, and Bob Dole hawking Viagra? Talk about a product to believe in—at least he is a person one can empathize with.

Promotional tactics

A few features make for the in-your-face character of many of these commercials. As you may have noticed already, when the commercials on TV come on, the volume automatically increases slightly. This is to catch your attention. The same intent is behind the quick editing and striking images that typically are used to pull you into the commercial's story. This can involve sex and violence, as we all know. Sometimes, the beginning trades on what is called "fear appeal," as when the tires of a car slip on a wet road, with a young mother driving and a baby in a baby-seat. Sex, violence, fear, and guilt are always assumed to be reliable motivators, used as glue to hook you to the screen. Not surprisingly, to choose between alternative cuts and edits of a commercial, ad agencies sometimes use tools such as pupil dilation measures, eye movement cameras, and "galvanic skin response," electrodes to monitor sweaty palms.

Having established "the problem," the story usually moves into a more rational mode, explaining why the advertised brand might in fact help solve the problem better than any of the competing brands on the market. These kinds of problem-solving commercials are staples of brands from many packaged goods manufacturers and are really not that objectionable, except when they try to get low-involvement products to seem very important for your emotional well-being. If you are "in the market" for some of these mundane products, getting some comparative evaluation of battery life, absorptive capacity of paper towels, or why a particular toothpaste fights cavities better than all the others, no real harm is done. If you are not in the market, you can just tune out—like we all do.

A lot of the in-your-face advertising really has little or no problem-solving purpose at a functional level. Rather, it plays on insecurity and inexperience, as well as a desire for status and other higher order needs to create emotional tensions (emotional "problems," if you will) that can then be cured by choosing the right brand. The situations often involve individual aspirations and social pressure. The commercials depict the dejection that comes from the disapproval of some significant other, and the subsequent catharsis that choosing the right brand will yield. Contrary to what you might suppose, this is not a simple logic that applies only to teenagers, but is at work in all segments of the market—and with all kinds of products and services. These kinds of emotional appeals are used for personal care products and apparel most decidedly, but also in ads for household products (the "good mother" image of Pampers), for major purchases such as computers and automobiles, and even in business-to-business markets (the way IBM and FedEx play on their recognition factor, for example). The right choice of brand will ease the tension, satisfy the customer, and fill a need, albeit a higher order one, awakened by the promotion. We might think we are immune to such obvious "tricks," but research consistently shows that such denials are empty gestures. For example, back in the 1970s when generic brands first appeared in the stores, even the black and white "Beer" cans turned out to have their own special cachet. My older daughter's Army surplus shirt makes its own statement. People are social animals.

In-your-face promotion also, of course, includes all that repetitive advertising that we see and hear, impressing brands and their slogans on everybody's mind. We all know the way jingles, logos, and spokespersons (or cartoons, or animals—take your pick) for certain products "help" us remember the appropriate brand name. It's Ronald McDonald, the Bud-wei-ser frogs, the "just-do-it" swoosh. These reminders are intended to be in your face quite literally, so that when the time comes to make a choice, you "naturally" and without thought reach for the embedded brand—or get upset if you can't find it on the shelf. In the beginning, marketers thought that these repetitive messages would be useful only for the first three occasions or so (after which a fatigue factor would reduce the effect to nil or negative), and then only for lowinvolvement, impulse-style products, where choices become almost instinctive. These research findings might still be valid in some countries, but the clutter of commercial messages in the U.S. has grown so dense that marketers have apparently decided to keep the barrage going for most kinds of products. The reason is simply that as the noise has grown, we have become increasingly desensitized, losing the use of our senses the way hard-rock fans lose their hearing. This is why in-your-face promotions sometimes seem akin to a frustrated parent shouting at his or her multitasking offspring: "Listen to me!"

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