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« Fearlessness is not the same as the absence of fear | Main | Different or remarkable? »

The perfect crime

Sometimes, marketing enables a pickpocket to steal a wallet--and be thanked for it.

Marketers are responsible for what we do, it's not an activity without effects.

Last year, just one of the big fast food companies made more than $1,300,000,000 in profit (billion with a 'b'). They've also paid their CEO nearly $200 million in salary in the last five years. Sometimes, a big profit is the sign that you're doing something right, creating real value for people able to pay. Sometimes, though, it means you're exploiting a weakness in the system.

The big food companies are brilliant, relentless, focused marketers. Marketing works. It gets people to take action, to change their minds, and most of all, to do more of what they might have had an inkling to do in the first place. Sometimes a lot more. When the ideas of marketing (and the products are part of the marketing, optimized for high consumption) are weaponized like this, they are extraordinarily effective at achieving their goals.

The side effects of this marketing are obvious: both short-term satiation and long-term health degradation. Kids on little league baseball teams may smile with delight when treated to a post-game feast, simultaneously, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity all rise dramatically over time as a result of consistently consuming vast quantities of the products that these companies market. This is beyond dispute.

In some communities, 70% of the targeted population is now obese.

The challenge doesn't come from one slice of pizza. No, the failing is in abdicating the responsibility that comes from industrial scale. Organizations at scale do far more than give people choices... they change the culture, and must accept responsibility for the changes they choose to create.

If your organization uses terms like share of stomach or hires lobbyists, you've already made a decision to market in a way that changes the culture to benefit you and your shareholders.

What's fascinating is this: the marketing is so powerful that some of the people being hurt actually are eager for it to continue. This creates a cultural feedback loop, where some aspire to have these respected marketing jobs, to do more marketing of similar items. It creates a society where the owners and leaders of these companies are celebrated as risk-taking, brave businesspeople, not as the modern robber barons that they've become.

The cultural feedback loop can't be denied. The NAACP, which represents a population that is disproportionately impacted by the health costs these products create is actually allied with marketers in the fight to sell ever more and bigger portions to its constituents.

The crime continues because the money taken by corporations that change our culture is used to fund campaigns that conflate the essential concept of 'freedom' with the not-clearly-articulated 'right' to respond to marketing and consume stuff in quantities that would have been considered literally insane just three generations ago. And we like it.

[I'll write the previous paragraph's point again here to be clear: we've decided that consumers ought to have the right be manipulated by marketers. So manipulated that we sacrifice our long-term health in the face of its power.]

We ban accounting that misleads, and we don't let engineers build bridges that endanger travelers. We monitor effluent for chemicals that can kill us as well. There's no reason in the world that market-share-fueled marketing ought to be celebrated merely because we enjoy the short-term effects it creates in the moment.

Every profession we respect has limits created and enforced by society. Doctors and undertakers and actuaries live with these limits because it's clear that building for the long run benefits all of us. Sure, it might be fun or profitable to take a shortcut, but it's not the right thing to do. The rules make it more likely we don't race to the bottom as we cut those corners or maximize our profits.

The question is this: are you responsible for the power in your hands? If so, then we need to own the results of our work. If not, someone else needs to step in before it's too late. No sustainable system can grant power without responsibility.

Just because marketing works doesn't mean we have an obligation to do it. And if we're too greedy to stop on our own, then yes, we should be stopped.

[It seems like you could make one of three objections to this line of reasoning:

1. Marketing doesn't work, it's not powerful, it can't get people to do things not in the long-term interest.

2. Marketing does work, but marketers ought to have the right to sell anything they want, and they're not responsible for what they do.

3. If we regulate the dramatically obvious bad cases, we're on a slippery slope to regulating everything.

It seems to me that all three of these straw horses don't hold up under scrutiny.]

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