Reading about Stalin reminded me of another trend in thinking about marketing: the bold comparison between marketing methods and other more coercive forms of social control.
The question of just how powerful advertising really is seems to depend on your POV. Pros in finance and sales often speak about advertising as a necessary evil at best, and a complete waste of money at worst. Academics and social critics often portray advertising as an incredibly powerful source of nefarious social control, making us fat, covetous and generally unhappy. I’ve heard that Sut Jhally, a professor of communications at University of Massachusetts has various speeches and short films called how "How television exploits its audiences," “Advertising and the end of the World.” It's a bracing set of arguments (which I'll take on in a later post) for any marketer who thinks they are engaged in a positive act of consumer empowerment.
Lately, pro advertisers have started to think that maybe these scathing critics have a point, but being good marketers, they used the critique as a source of raw material, drawing analogies to to coercive modes of behavioral modification and social control. Marketing books over the past couple years have analyzed the role of iconic brands in cultural change (Doug Holt’s How Brands Become Icons), have turned to cults as a source of potential marketing techniques (Douglas Atkin's The Culting of Brands) and have deployed the term ideology to articulate the ultimate power of marketing (beyond reason, beyond emotion, beyond culture, there lies something even more…) to sweep consumers up in a psycho-social wave of behavioral transformation.
I’m all for stealing tricks from parallel disciplines of persuasion and strategy (readers of the screen know that game design, political strategy and behavioral economics have all been fruitful sources of new ideas for me) , but it strikes me that many of these branding manifestos efforts overreach with their analogies on at least two fronts.
1) They fall prey to a characteristic vice of brand books, which is deriving principles from rare, if not unique examples. Coke, Harley Davidson, the Ipod are powerful brands indeed but they are hardly typical, and provide few lessons for most Internet start-ups. Of the books cited above, Doug Holt’s is, by far, the most sophisticated. While he deploys a classic post-Marxist mode of cultural analysis (Althusser seems an important theoretical foundation) to understand how certain brands reconcile the cultural contradictions of late capitalism (our fantasies clashing with the reality of our socio-economic conditions), he is the first to admit that Iconic brands are a special case, and what he calls “cultural branding” is not for every brand. There is no question that advertising in conjunction with the right cultural forces can produce quite a powerful force of persuasion, but it doesn’t follow that most or even many brands (because of the category, the budget, the competition) can interact with larger cultural forces to change behavior. In fact, some of the world's most powerful marketers these days are moving in the opposite direction, spending money on consumer services rather then the mass communication of big ideas. E.g, Nike+ in today's NYT's.
2) Many of these arguments, however, seem to forget that there remains a enormous gap between ideological power (as exerted by cults or restrictive political regimes) and persuasive power of advertising. For anyone who has bothered to read a page about what it’s like to actually live under a truly restrictive regime (the former USSR, China during the cultural revolution, Nazi Germany), under the constant threat of betrayal, imprisonment and death recognizes that there is a big difference between spending 20 years in solitary confinement because you once made a critical comment about Stalin (or not even that; see, for example Eugenia Ginzburg's Journey Into the Whirlwind if have a strong stomach and a want an inspiring taste of the real thing) and feeling uncomfortable with your body image because you are constantly subjected to unrealistic images of beauty by the fashion industry. The constituent differences between marketing and totalitarian regimes are so numerous that it’s almost embarrassing to list them; but the most obvious one is that ideological regimes (whether political or social) tend to work by systematically crushing all competitive viewpoints. Advertising often thrives on and plays off just such competitive views on how to live your life. Now, it's certainly true that it can feel difficult to refuse to participate our consumer society (with all it's joys and broken promises) but we all know people who have the chosen to go off the grid--to various degrees--and don't end up in a prison camp for it.
There is more to say about ideology—including the trickiness of defining it in the first place--but this is getting long so I’ll save it for tomorrow.