I once had a friend in one of my business classes say to me, “You do know what marketing is all about, right?” After I had listed off three of the Four P’s, he interjected, “No, no, no. I mean, what it is at the core–you know, convincing people they need something that they don’t. It’s the definition of deception. If I were you,” he said solemnly, “I would think long and hard about how you can morally defend the field of marketing.”
At first, I shrugged it off. But before long, his words began to gnaw at the back of my mind. As a Christian, I firmly believe that I am to hold myself to an uncompromising standard of integrity. Could there possibly be a moral defense for engaging in an activity that endorses such stark materialism? As a Christian, is it possible to obey Christ’s call to “Be holy, as I am holy” while involved in a profession that seems largely unholy? I believe it is.
The “Core” of Marketing
If there was a primary moral hangup for the profession of marketing, in my mind, it would be my friend’s argument: that marketing is all about “convincing people they need something that they don’t.” Author Fiona Harris would agree, arguing that the marketing industry indeed tends to work toward the “corruption of higher values,” resulting in “rampant materialism and extravagance.” In other words, the industry seems to thrive upon convincing people that their cars, houses and clothes need to be nothing short of the best. If this is marketing, I agree completely–it’s disgusting, and a mark of the backwardness of our society.
However, I do not believe that this actually is marketing. The Marketing Society uses this definition: “the creation of customer-led demand, which is the only sustainable form of business growth.” Key phrase? Customer-led. Marketing at its “core” is about companies finding innovative ways to respond to consumer demand by meeting needs–not creating them. It’s an information game, and without it there could be no efficient economy. “There’s absolutely no point in producing something that nobody wants or in producing something everybody wants and then not telling anybody!” argue David Beardshaw and John Palfreman. “Marketing is how we get our food…” says George Brenkert, “and items we use every day.” It’s information. It’s efficiency. It’s a fundamental piece of the free market economy.
On the other hand, the “more, more, more” mentality we see forced on people today, I will argue, is more a perversion of the “true” function of marketing than marketing itself. It emerges from the dark when companies try to manufacture “needs” in an effort to attract more customers. The “need” for a new car, house or pair of fashionably ragged jeans, however, is nothing more than a construct of a sadly materialistic society. I struggle to call that marketing. I prefer to call it greed.
Where Have All the “Good” Marketers Gone?
They’re there, trust me. I challenge you to find a small business that doesn’t continually strive to adapt to the changing needs of its community–they have to for survival. Of course, there are also plenty of large corporations who do practice “good” marketing, not to mention all the nonprofits, religious groups and other philanthropic organizations that rely on it for support. There are always some who do right in this world; it’s just those that do wrong are the ones who get noticed.
Thus, my preliminary answer to the question of morality in marketing begins here: to limit the practice of marketing to just “convincing people they need something they don’t” is, at best, ignorant. Though indeed stained with the slime of American consumerism, marketing remains at its core a necessary and positive foundation of the free market economy. For now, at least, that’s all I need to say, “I’m in.”
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