September 14, 2004 16:32 | Confession / Culture

Just one word: plastics.

I find myself cringing, internally and externally, as did Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate", when confronted with that bit of advice.

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you - just one word.
        Ben: Yes sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
        Ben: Yes I am.
Mr. McGuire: 'Plastics.'
        Ben: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics.
             Think about it.
             Will you think about it?
        Ben: Yes I will.
Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That's a deal.

Except today it's "marketing", not "plastics", and the advice giver is Ben, and not Mr.McGuire.

I cringe at the inherent evil in any such enterprise: pursuing so unnatural an affair, just because you know you can capture and corner a market by making a widget no one else has thought of.

Unnatural how? Marketing is the plastic of culture. And just as now we have things that could not be made of anything other than plastic, we now have cultures entirely made up of marketing. It's an oily, greasy, dirty, fake, duplicitous affaire... and I don't like it one bit... but sacrebieu can it make me some moolah...


Boris, you've said things along these lines a couple of times. I know you can't speak about the specific opportunity that's before you at the moment, but as someone who respects and trusts your opinions, I wish you would be a little more clear about why you think marketing is "evil."

But as someone who gets paid by Marketing Departments to draw pretty pixels, I can say that I've worked with all sorts of marketing people and plans, good, bad, ugly, and just plain dumb.

It's always a joy to work with people that "get it." People that do the solid market research, that know their customers and their product, or are at least interested in knowing them better.

Good marketing is about doing the research first. Then, marketing can inform Advertising and PR to find the best way to communicate the essence of a product or service to the people most likely to appreciate or benefit from it. I don't see how that is 'evil' per se.

How else would we know Macs are better than PCs, after all?

Better example: How else would iPod/iTunes become better than all their competitors out of the gate, if not for a real knowledge-lock on the essence of the product and the customer base?

Bad marketing is about selling something people don't want to people who don't want or need it, and dumb marketing is fumbling around in the dark, telling itself lies, or being cynical, and is already doomed to failure from the beginning. They are also not evil per se, but they are a waste of time and money.

And well, bad advertising is everywhere, just like bad films and bad TV, for the same reasons.

If anything is evil about the process, I think it starts higher up the chain: just watch or read The Corporation. Planned obsolescence, for one. Corporate irresponsibility and governmental complicity. War profiteering. The constant 'now, now, now' day-trader mindset of short-term gain. The attempts to privatize nature (gene patents, resource treaties, etc.) and the social contract.

It is these venal aims that pervert what is a useful tool, that turns rhetoric and argument into sophistry.

To jump back into the metaphor for a moment, "plastics" has no future because eventually, we run out of the stuff to make plastic (oil -- in about 20-40 years actually).

And marketing-as-we-have-known-it also has a shelf life because people are aware of it, give false answers to telephone polls, game the system, astroturf the campaigns.

With the power of networks, though, it seems more as if that which is interesting to me finds its way to me automatically (like RSS newsfeeds), picked out by a self-selecting group of similarly interested people (bloggers?) No need for stupid email newsletters or direct mail pieces cluttering up the place. Eventually, maybe every item in the grocery store will have its own RSS feed and my favourite items will tell me when they go on sale...


I think I understand perfectly Boris, and I agree with him. You place the value of knowing, studying the customers to make a better product, service.

As this is true on the individual person, it's not anymore true at the scale of "consumers group". When someone in a bakery does something particular when you enter in his/her shop, it's because first he knows a minimum about you, what he/she wants is to establish a kind of understanding that we know a bit each other and that "Hey look, I remember you, you have been nice, and I'm nice with you. I have a priviledged relationship with you as a customer certainly, but also as a human".

Mass marketing, I should just say, marketing, is exactly to create a better product and better service as you said (in "good"??? marketing) BUT without the point of individual human relationship, without the essence of being a human. You transform people in numbers, you are forgetting who they are. Your goal is not to make them happy, your goal is to know what they will make them buy a product.

This is completely different. And yes Marketing is exactly what Boris says. In French, I will say "Le marketing est le nivellement par le bas".

Before to be a consumer, I'm a person. And no, I don't necessary think it's "interesting to me finds its way to me automatically"... It's more the opposite.

And as for """Better example: How else would iPod/iTunes become better than all their competitors out of the gate, if not for a real knowledge-lock on the essence of the product and the customer base?"""

Sorry to disagree with you, better marketing doesn't make a better product. I'm really happy you have chosen movies, because they are supposed to be an artistic piece of work. And culture is exactly the opposite of marketing, in the sense, of it's not here to please you. It doesn't mean, art has to be controversive. But make a piece of music that will please a mass market, and you come with Britney Spears.

Ipod is far to be a good product. Ipod is mass-marketed products where the marketing department have played on the fact of "It's cool to have an ipod", and so all people want an ipod, it has nothing to do with the quality of the product. For one thing, not many people are able to judge the real quality of an ipod, the quality of the sound, the quality of the storage, etc.

... I'm going to the mass-cantin of Keio-university with my mass-brand pants and my mass-brand underwear.

Hey Karl,

I appreciate your viewpoints and I agree. For the most part, I prefer my individual interactions (and transactions) with real people, small scale, family and local businesses rather than faceless pseudo-choices foisted upon me by mass manufacturers and retailers.

Until the lack of fossil fuels forces us all back to living like the Amish, we live in a very specialized, fragmented world at the moment.

Not too long ago it wouldn't be uncommon for homes (particularly large homes with servants, which might as well be 'villages' unto themselves) to have spinning wheels and even looms to make yarn and fabric, for instance.

Nowadays, who of us even knows how to sew a button on a shirt?

Clothing, along with things like growing your own food, etc. has gone from a basic skill of life to something very specialized that "other people" do. We accept it because it is cheap and convenient (at the cost of loss of control, but that's another topic).

In a world of commodity products, even the most benevolent of corporations must think hard if it is to stay afloat. Launching a new product entails significant financial risk, and doing good market research to start with helps minimize that risk.

Even small businesses understand this. If your corner bakery is noted as the best baguette place in town, they wouldn't start offering mediocre bagels just because they could.

If they understand their customers, then they give them what they want (and in the best case, deliver things the customer didn't know they wanted, but are delighted to have, like chocolatines or something). The bakery's marketing plan could involve supplying local restaurants, or other local stores (as Premiere Moisson does, for instance). If the bread is good, people ask. Maybe someone does a write-up in the food section. They don't need to advertise, per se.

I think overall you are confusing marketing with advertising, though. It's a fact that (whether you like the product or not) Apple did better research into the field of portable MP3 players and the MP3 download market than their competitors, and thus were able to launch a much more appealing product that offered better ease of use and value-for-money, and a value-added service, the iTunes music store, on top of it. Success breeds success, and it has snowballed to become the dominant player.

Now, If the iPod were merely pretty but offered only 128MB of storage, and had a music store that only used a proprietary file format that could not be ripped to CD or shared, i.e. ultra-restrictive DRM, it would be dead in the water.

Sony sells things like this (Net MD Walkman, etc.) because they don't do market research, they match features to a price point and shove it out the door.

The iPod advertising is really all about the experience of the unit and enjoying music. It doesn't make me want to buy one: a friend showing me one is more likely to convince me. Their advertising is more about keeping the brand in the public eye.

I'd still like to know why marketing is "evil," though.

Yow! Ok I hafta keep this short:
1- I use the word "evil" for shock value. I do not believe in good and evil per se. I prefer natural vs. unnatural, integrity and respect.

2- Marketing is the necessity born of the invention of mass production. It is the direct application of communication for the use of reality manufacturing, manipulation and distortion. Do not make me use the cliché... propaganda... doh! I said it!

3- The parallel with plastics is quite apt, I think. Plastic is what "allows" us to live in the world we have today. On many levels. Think it through. How much of your lifestyle is hinged on plastic? How much plastic do you own, due not only to the fact that it exists, but that it has been sold to you.

4- How much of your identity is associated to brands you identify with? How real is a "you" that is made up, to a more or less extent, by the "you" imagined by advertising execs? How real is the world you walk through?

To address some points:
1- I am not concerned here with "good" or "bad" marketing. The workmanship quality of a gun does not defer from the fact that it is potentially lethal.

2- While I can certainly bemoan the loss of "personalized interaction with merchants", as I can bemoan the loss of "quality manufactured goods", it is not so much a concern to me either... we are moving forward, wether it is up or down is not my point.

You guys brought up some really interesting stuff and I thank you! Sadly I am way too busy (and this medium is so hard for me to really fold my head into) to REALLY get my point across (always my problem here...)

Karl speaks of mass much as I would. While yes mass production/consumerism has brought us to a lifestyle level unparalleled in history, it has also stripped us of our potential for individuality, varying of course on individual basis.

Further, and off on a tangent, there is a reversal effect happening as well, a pushback if you will, mainly due to the communication technologies all this has afforded us (no plastic, no internet!). The fragmentation of culture precipitated by the renewed possibility of self expression will further "the cause of individuality". "In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people." Things like weblogging (yeah yeah yeah), Creative Commons, community media aggregation (see, I was listening Michael) etc...

The struggle of my life is to express to those who will listen the bigger picture which I see. Pointing out the cconnections of such a massive thing is hard as hell! And whether I am right or wrong is of course another issue altogether... ;)

While I figure it out, I make websites. Hahahahaha! :)

I do not believe in good and evil per se. I prefer natural vs. unnatural, integrity and respect.

So how is marketing unnatural, corrupt and disrespectful?

Marketing is the necessity born of the invention of mass production. It is the direct application of communication for the use of reality manufacturing, manipulation and distortion. Do not make me use the cliché... propaganda... doh! I said it!

I can think of *advertising* that is cynical, designed to appeal to base instincts (Maslovian hierarchies of need, for instance) in order to sell one commodity brand of beer over another, or to shock, to stand out from the crowd.

And I guarantee you that in one's life one will meet at least 143 Lisa-from-Marketing types -- the people who have no creativity in their bones, who , like pilot fish, wait to see where the school is swimming first than to make a bold move themselves. (See: Sony MP3 players)

The Lisas-from-Marketing have a natural tendency to round off the sharp edges, to compromise brilliant concepts into merely mediocre doodlings, all in the name of trying to please everyone and offend no-one.

But that really isn't what "marketing" is: that's what it was, and unfortunately we are dealing with a generational turnover when it comes to marketing education. Everyone's ideas of it are stuck in some 1960s Dick Van Dyke Show cliché of Men In Grey Flannel Suits cynically designing ploys to extract money from housewives.

Modern marketing starts with listening, observation, intuition and insight, which is then backed up with empirical research, brainstorming, focus groups, user feedback, product testing, etc. I can guarantee that manipulation is really not part of the process, because the most desirable consumer segments are educated and media-savvy.

Frankly, mass-market advertising does not work anymore on anyone except very young children, and companies with products to sell are rapidly cottoning on to this.

But to get back to the core of the issue, I think what you really have an issue with is not marketing per se, but our downward spiral of vapid consumer culture, and the eagerness of some people to pursue that spiral right to the bottom.

But it's a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg argument -- where did consumer culture come from? Why are so many people tied to the idea that your possessions make you a better person? Why is there the need to one-up the guy across the street?

I think it comes down to fear and shame. I think we see these effects to a much lesser degree in Canada, where our identities are already pretty deracinated (we are probably the most postmodern/urbanized country, proportionally). But in places like the States where towns are small and community consists of the school, the church, the one Big Business and the mall, it's like a high school clique that goes on for the rest of your life. Tight-knit communities breed their own social standards and aristocracies, etc, and the traditional advertising appeal to fear or shame (don't let your lawn go brown!) still works.

In the big cities (or in Europe) it's very different. You really aren't threatened by fear or shame except maybe at work or within your own family. Has anyone else noticed the increasing number of ads set in the workplace? It seems like in the 70s, every ad's script was a conversation with the next-door neighbor...

AJ, I am not really concerned here with marketing processes, quality levels or "where it is at". I am simply interested in the effect it has on "us" - as individuals "alone all together", and as a group wading in a culture.

It is no longer a culture created by us, but rather one created by 'them", in order to push product, for profit, for money. Therein is the unjustness, the disrespect, the ugliness, the evil.

As Karl says in his post about democracy, it is not about "our" benefit, it is about "their" benefit.

The cushy world we live in is entirely manufactured for the advancement of a few. It is classic. This has not changed. What HAS changed is that we now stupidly believe we are free and all is well. It is all packaged up and labeled "the wondrous fruits of free markets and democracy" but it is far far far from that.

My unease with all this is that I know I can join those "few" up there. While "if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem" is an extreme position, it is not without unarguable truths.

"Give a starving man a fishing rod, not a fish." Sure! But cripes I'm starting to accept the fact that buddy doesn't to learn how to catch something, so I'm on the verge of just selling him a Big Mac in exchange for .. whatever!

Hehehehe.. now who's evil? ;)

AJ: """Clothing, along with things like growing your own food, etc. has gone from a basic skill of life to something very specialized that "other people" do. We accept it because it is cheap and convenient (at the cost of loss of control, but that's another topic)."""

Just to frame a bit. In Europe, this assertion is not true. Most of the people have still their relatives at the scale of grand-father or the generation before in agriculture. People know about the food and its quality, people know about growing products and they had to... because of wars.

AJ: """Apple did better research into the field of portable MP3 players and the MP3 download market than their competitors"""

Prove me that:
1. iPod and iTunes are better products.
2. if yes, why it is marketing.
3. and that it's the better product which made its success.

To the first question, I personally think, they are not.
- Does that mean I'm not the right target?
- Does that mean I'm a very specific user?
- Does that mean, I'm just a rebel and I'm not interesting for consumering?
- How marketing will deal with someone like me and what's the result in the end for me?

Marketing, and I'm not talking about advertising, is about statistics. Statistics is about a "mean". I don't want to be mean... but it makes mediocrity.

I disagree with you when you say that companies want educated consumers. They want "consumers who have the impression that they know", which is completely different. If the world was more educated, if people had the chance to have an education to put things in question, etc. It will be a lot more difficult to sell.

How many people will buy something because they have reviewed all technical aspects, the real UI, the ecology of the product, and not the color, the design, etc?

Naomi Klein, No Logo: """David Green, senior vice-president of marketing, expressed his opinion that Coca-Cola is nutritious because it is "providing water, and I think that is part of a balanced diet.""""

Companies don't only exist because they answer needs, but because they create new markets. And it's always the case in all developed countries, because all needs are already satisfied. So you come after a good study of a large number of persons with "Let's create a product that will attract these people".

AJ:"""In the big cities (or in Europe) it's very different. You really aren't threatened by fear or shame except maybe at work or within your own family."""

ahahaha... shame at work? shame in the family? Where have you seen that?

There's understanding the customer and their needs and then there's manipulation of their psychology by luring them into thinking that the product is one of their needs.
Just take a look at any of the life insurance commercials on tv, this golden promise that you'll be protected and looked after by life insurance, that you can rest easy at night and walk around with a constant smile and a sense of self-assurance.

Well now, that's just plain silly and blatantly transparent. People have a product to sell and they want to make a profit. So the inherently evil part that B may be refering to is the way the company sells their product as if it had a golden halo of promises around it guaranteed to make you happy. And it is this golden halo that makes the product appear bigger than life.

Which might explain why sometimes when I see the product in real life, it looks so paltry and colourless and most of the time, badly made.

My son is a classic example of a bait - he would harangue me, after seeing a tv commercial, to take him to MCDonald's just for the toy in his Happy Meal bag. I would relent and take him. He would rip open the bag and immediately find the toy and every time, a look of disappoint ment would filll his face as if he realized he had just been lied to. The toy was a piece of crap. It didn't sparkle like it did in the commercial. When we would come back home from McD's, almost every time, that toy was left behind in the backseat of the car, forgotten and unwanted.

And eventually discarded.

So let's not kid ourselves - marketing is designed to lure us and the evil part lies in the sparkle and glitter and the whistles and bells that they made us believe their product had.

and what's worse, we still keep falling for it every time.

As Karl says in his post about democracy, it is not about "our" benefit, it is about "their" benefit.

Who is "us" and who is "them" first of all?

Going back to our example of the local bakery, are they getting up at 4am to make bread every day for our benefit... or for their benefit? (It's not always for the love of it.) And who in the bakery profits more - the guy who owns the shop or the poor shlub kneading dough in the dark?

I think we can all agree that disparities between rich and poor, first and third world are unfair. Obscene levels of profits, executive compensation etc is something to get angry about. That is unjust: that, arguably, is evil.

Base fact is that Western mass-culture, mass-market (mass-government?) society is predicated on fossil fuels, which will become too expensive to continue using within our lifetimes. So marketing-as-we-have-known-it is pretty much on its way out, too. The question then becomes are we going to be too distracted to care until it is too late?

Karl: I agree with you on most everything you say. I'm not a fan of marketing used for braindead corporate hype (re: coca-cola).

Just to correct one misperception, I didn't say iPod/ITunes were the best products of their kind in the world ever, and that they were the best product for all people. That's obviously impossible. But they hit a sweet spot of physical size, music capacity, useful features, a good interface, combined with relatively unrestrictive DRM for songs ripped and/or purchased. That didn't happen by accident: it was designed that way from market research. It didn't have to be the 'best,' but it was way better than anything else out there at the time.

Are there people out there who will buy them just cos they are white and silver? Sure. But objective reviews also give it high marks, so there is some fact behind its current market dominance.

When I say companies want 'educated' consumers I mean consumers with a certain level of education, because that correlates to a certain level of disposable income. Education also doesn't mean people automatically make the right or logical decisions. Emotion does exist...otherwise we wouldn't like anything, or have preferences / dislikes.

Caroline: Again, that's largely advertising, not marketing. Developing the Arch Deluxe to target adult tastes was marketing. "I'm loving it" all over your TV is advertising. And it kind of proves my point that media-savvy adults just tune out or automatically deconstruct advertising, rendering it ineffective, and sadly, it really only works with vulnerable, impressionable young children. (My solution? Restrict the kids to PBS and CBC...)

Aj, dude, wtf are you talking about? You're just teasing me right? Nitpicking on details?

Re-reading your comments, I get the sense you are simply trying to defend your interest in marketing, which you needn't do! Because I have an interest in it too and it *is* "kinda neato".

Do you NOT see the mind wash, and it's effect on culture and on you, and me and and and?

To hell with the baker and the iPod. Yawn. ;)

"Modern marketing starts with listening, observation, intuition and insight, which is then backed up with empirical research, brainstorming, focus groups, user feedback, product testing, etc. I can guarantee that manipulation is really not part of the process, because the most desirable consumer segments are educated and media-savvy."

How can you guarantee that manipulation is not part of process?! Selling someone a product is ALL about manipulation! It is about convincing them, by whatever means necessary, that they need to buy your product/service.

Contrasting old style and new style is pointless as weell: the fact of the matter is it has already gelled as a culture, THE predominant culture of the west, overshadowed only by Hollywood (Madison Ave. and Sunset Strip rule the west!).

Look behind the curtain man! Find the Wizard!!

Mahahaa sorry couldn't resist. ;)
(I'm not *really* so wu-wu... )

Nah, i'm not defending anything, I hate manipulation and useless consumer culture as much as anyone. But no-one has come up with any solid refutation of my points except "we say so" or "isn't it OBVIOUS???"

-I don't think anyone (except perhaps the wilfully ignorant, or young children) can be convinced to buy something they don't really want.

-Marketing is not the same as advertising. I really wish people would stop conflating the two processes, it's like saying military action is the same as diplomacy, or that salt is the same as basil. It really is that ridiculous. There are 10,000 marketing strategies at work in the world right now that don't involve a post-it-note's worth of advertising. A lot of it is business-to-business marketing, or vendor-to-government. Hell, even Greenpeace and PETA have marketing plans.

-Show me some examples of "mind wash" and its specific effect on the culture (which culture?). I don't doubt that people are occasionally influenced to part with their dollars due to marketing, but not all the time. Last time I checked, we weren't living in a land of zombies... Fads and fashions have been around since Jesus' time - the only thing that has changed is the speed of their communication. "Steven Cojucaru's Hot List for 1 AD! In: Judging Not Lest Ye Be Judged! Out: Casting The First Stone If Ye Have Sinned!"

-Show me that manipulation is *part* of the process. I've worked on dozens of marketing campaigns for national companies, and I can honestly say they try to refine the product and the pricing until it really is something consumers find appealing. Selling someone a genuinely useful product should not require manipulation at all, it's a waste of time and money.

In fact it's counter-productive, because the more manipulative you are with the marketing, the more chance your audience will detect and resist your manipulation, and come to distrust you.

Of course, living in a culture of Too Much Plenty, as we do, is the real problem. Ideally, do we need 3 major car companies and 72-odd airlines? (go further: do we need cars and air travel?)

Do we need supermarket aisles clogged with sugar cereals and snack foods? (Loblaws ain't nothing, folks:any US supermarket is roughly the size of NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building. Imagine a city block of cereal, avenues of meat. It is awesome, and also very frightening.)

Free market competition (well, erm, empire really) blossoms into an embarrassment of choices that rapidly die on the vine...You see it all the time when car makers make a duff model (Pontiac Aztek?) or on a larger scale, when aircraft manufacturers fail to sell a few planes to some airline.

You see it in a plethora of dumb systemic decisions like encouraging urban sprawl, because 'new housing starts' are a leading economic indicator, which encourages people to go into deeper and deeper debt spirals. We build "nowhere" places that are spiritually empty, inhuman in scale, anti-community. We make people work longer hours in equally inhuman office parks, and drive, drive, drive everywhere to do everything. It is little wonder people fill the emptiness with shiny gimcrackery, television and recreational drugs.

We in Canada live relatively sensible lives, comparatively, because we've set things up so that losing a job doesn't mean automatic ruin or death. At least in Montreal proper, we haven't given over to the sprawlscape -- as to the South Shore and Laval, I dunno.)

I think we don't really live in a fear or shame-based culture like the US, rather one that honours integrity and value-for-money like our UK forbears, and sensible compromises like our French ancestors. I like to think we are more pragmatic, more skeptical. It is not uncoincidental that Greenpeace and Adbusters are Canadian in origin.

Or is that all just manipulative malarkey?

AJ, I think a few things are at work here:

a) you are deep inside this so your points are not "refutable" as they are "right" from your perspective. In the same way as you find what I am saying incomprehensible or flat out wrong/unsubstantiated, I read some of your words and think "dude, come ON!"

b) I'm not interested in the details, which I am already well aware of. This is always a point of contention between myself and others. I love trivia too, but not when I am talking metaphysics.

Anyways, I thank you for your participation and contribution. :)

Hmm, you may be on to something here. :)

Thanks for tolerating my rants!