Marketing: A Tale of Power, Rebellion, and Hope

Marketing: A Tale of Power, Rebellion, and Hope

Gerard Hastings (University of Stirling, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6295-5.ch001

Abstract

Marketing has a remarkably powerful influence on our lives: everyday it persuades us to embrace the lifestyle diseases which will kill four-fifths of us, collaborate with warlords to get our tech fix, and destroy our own planet so we can (temporarily) live in excess. It is time we did something about this threat.
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Introduction

Marketing – that potent mix of promotional, pricing, place and product design tools – has become ubiquitous in modern economies. We are bombarded by ads, purchase opportunities, price promotions and endless new products and services wherever we go in our real and virtual lives. Marketing’s remarkable reach derives from its power, and this is distilled in the brand: the Coca-Cola signature, the Marlboro Chevron and the bitten Apple are among the most familiar symbols on earth. Through the brand, marketing enables monolithic multinationals to present a human face to the world and add a range of social, emotional and even spiritual dimensions to otherwise routine products and services. This alchemy turns a sugary beverage into happiness and a portable telephone into an aspirational lifestyle statement, whilst simultaneously throwing a cloak of invisibility over externalities like obesity, conflict minerals and sustainability. Meanwhile the corporation has grown exponentially: a recent analysis by Oxfam showed that the combined revenue of the 10 biggest corporations now exceeds that of 180 countries put together1. Multinational corporations have become some of the most powerful organisations on earth, without any CEO every being elected into office.

Thus, thanks to marketing, our consumption has spun completely out of control, and this is jeopardising our health, our humanity, our polity and even our planet. It is time to pause and to think about how we can redress this imbalance. Three solutions suggest themselves: we can contain the power of marketing by regulation; we can become much more critical of its methods and influence; and we can fight fire with fire by using ‘social marketing’ to bring about progressive change.

1. The Power of Marketing and How to Contain It

Extensive research has been done on the power of marketing – especially in junk food, alcohol and tobacco sectors - and in each case marketing has been systematically shown to have a direct impact on consumption behaviour and health outcomes (Lovato, Linn, Stead & Best, 2003; Anderson, De Bruijn, Angus, Gordon, & Hastings, 2009; Cairns, Angus, & Hastings, 2009). Tobacco provides the best examined and most evocative case study of the three. In turning an expensive, smelly, addictive carcinogen into the cool machismo of the Marlboro man or the acceptable rebellion of Jo Camel it perfectly illustrates the power of marketing to influence our view of the world. It has been shown time and again to pull children into the market. This power is worth a great deal of money: the Marlboro brand is valued at over $32b2. The costs to society are equally staggering; WHO estimates that, by 2030, 8 million people a year will be dying from smoking (http://www.who.int/tobacco/mpower/mpower_report_tobacco_crisis_2008.pdf).

However, great though it is, the tobacco marketer’s power has been robustly challenged. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control3 is one of the most successful international treaties in history, with over 180 signatories. It commits countries to take a range of measures to discourage tobacco use; in particular it requires radical controls on marketing. In countries like the UK, where these measures have been successfully applied, it has resulted in the removal of all advertising and sponsorship, products being hidden from sight at point of sale, severe limitations on public consumption and the pack – the erstwhile silent salesman – being reduced to a standardised drab box on which the brand livery has been superseded by graphic health warnings. The tobacco industry’s marketing has been emasculated. The result is that UK teenagers – most of whom will never have seen a tobacco ad - now struggle to even name a cigarette brand, and smoking uptake has dropped off the graph.

At the same time, tobacco also illustrates the limitations of the conventional regulatory route. It is more than a half a century since the world first realised the harmful effects of smoking and only now in a relatively small number of countries have effective measures been taken; globally the pandemic still has decades to run. Furthermore, other ‘hazard merchants’ such as the junk food and alcohol multinationals, have learnt from the tobacco experience and become extremely adept in fending off statutory controls. It is now clear that, whilst it has an important role to play, it will take more than conventional regulation to save the planet.

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