Advertising and promotion and lobbying cost money. And organizations pay for it because, by and large, it works. Not all the time, and rarely as big as people hope, but sure, you can influence the public by spending money.
Which leads to the key question: are you responsible for what you market?
Some people will tell you that the market decides. They’ll remind you that most consumers are adults, spending their own resources and doing it freely. That people have a right to buy what they want, even if what they want isn’t good for them (right now, or in the long run). That’s what living in a free country is all about, apparently. Buy what you want.
I thought we agreed that marketing works.
If marketing works, it means that free choice isn’t quite so free. It means that marketers get to influence and amplify desires. The number of SUVs sold in the United States is a bazillion times bigger than it was in 1962. Is that because people suddenly want them, or is it because car marketers built them and marketed them?
Cigarette consumption is way down. Is that because people suddenly don’t want them any more, or is it because advertising opportunities are limited?
Others will tell you that if it’s legal, it’s fair game. If it’s legal for Edelman to post a blog called Working Families for Wal-Mart (when it’s really working Edelman employees for Wal-Mart), then they have every right to do so. In fact, they have an obligation to their shareholders to do so. Or so they say.
I believe that every criminal, no matter how heinous the crime, deserves an attorney. I don't believe that every product and every organization and every politician deserves world-class marketing or PR.
A neighbor was complaining that the baseball field in my town needs upkeep, and wonders why we don’t go ahead and take $100,000 from Pepsi for sponsorship of the field and a long-term contract to put vending machines on site. It doesn’t matter to him that obesity and heart disease are the number one preventable cause of death. He says that it’s a personal choice, and if we can get the money, we should.
I was surprised at how angry I got in an email exchange with John, a reader near Detroit. I wrote, “I'm sorry if I seem like a curmudgeon, but the arrogance and blindness of Detroit's management really and truly annoys me. Tens of thousands of innocent workers lost their jobs while clueless overpaid company men drove the industry into the ground for decades. These were the guys who had plenty of time to fix their problems (20 years) but instead lobbied hard to maintain SUV subsidies and gas subsidies and on and on. They're sort of like cigarette companies, but with far more side affects. They've let down our country, in my opinion, and just because they are lip synching a bit now, I'm in no hurry to tell you that the problems are gone.”
And now Detroit is marketing hard in DC to fight against mileage standards again, claiming that they make the cars that people want to buy.
There are two problems with blaming the market:
The first is that the market is short sighted. Which means that in a year or two or five, when the market changes its mind and wakes up, you’re left holding the bag. By not taking responsibility for growing and nurturing the market in the right way, you get punished later.
The second is that if you poison your market, it all goes away. Not just your job, but your community too.
Let me be really clear, just in case. If you think that the world would be a better place if everyone owned a handgun, then yes, market handguns as hard as you can. If you honestly believe that kids are well served by drinking a dozen spoonfuls of sugar every morning before school, then I may believe you're wrong, but you should go ahead and market your artificially-sweetened juice product. My point is that you have no right to market things you know are harmful or that lead to bad outcomes, regardless of how much you need that job.
Along the way, “just doing my job,” has become a mantra for blind marketers who are making short-term mistakes in order to avoid a conflict with the client or the boss. As marketing becomes every more powerful, this is just untenable. It’s unacceptable.
If you get asked to market something, you’re responsible. You’re responsible for the impacts, the costs, the side effects and the damage. You killed that kid. You poisoned that river. You led to that fight. If you can’t put your name on it, I hope you’ll walk away. If only 10% of us did that, imagine the changes. Imagine how proud you’d be of your work.
The amazing thing is that over and over again, we're discovering that marketers who actually take responsibility for their marketing are actually more successful. Go figure.