“Look inward, to your origins. For brutish ignorance your mettle was not made;
you were made human to follow after wisdom and virtue”
- Dante Alighieri
How we got in this mess
The fate of our planet hangs by a crass economic truth: profits depend on demand exceeding supply. If we have more wants than there is stuff to satisfy them, the seller has control and can protect their margins; if there is more stuff than we want, it becomes a buyer’s market, the seller loses control and profits dwindle. It is a crucial balance and the multi-billion-dollar marketing industry has been developed to keep it favourable to the sellers. All the advertising, sponsorship, glitzy packaging, tempting deals, influencers and 24/7 availability which pervade our lives is there to stimulate, even create, our needs, wants and whims. To keep us shopping. To turn us into hyperconsumers.
Marketing in its modern form emerged just over a century ago in response to two forces, which started in the USA but swiftly globalised. First, commerce, which had until then been dominated by lots of small businesses, began to coalesce into a much smaller number of bigger companies. Capital became concentrated in fewer hands and the modern business corporation came of age. Hand in glove with this, mass production methods were developed which vastly increased the availability of consumer goods. Cars, washing machines and vacuum cleaners could be produced in unprecedented numbers at much reduced cost. For us in the rich north of the planet, it was the dawn of an age of plenty.
The emerging corporations were, from the outset, acutely aware of the danger of supply exceeding demand and a parallel industry was therefore spawned to encourage us to consume. The first half of this paper looks at the workings of this corporate marketing machine; the second half at how we can resist, rebel and overcome it.
The Corporate Marketing Machine
It began with advertising, a tool as old as human commerce, but now taken to an industrial scale and informed by the latest social science. Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was a leading light, and his book, called simply ‘Propaganda’, published in 1928, provided the road map. The aim was to wage ‘on behalf of the producers and sellers of consumer goods, a relentless war against saving and in favour of consumption’. The importance of this work to keeping the economic show on the road was appreciated way beyond the business community: Bernays became an establishment figure toasted on Capitol Hill and in the corridors of academe as well as on Wall Street. He had worked out not just how to turn us into customers, but into biddable and needy ones.
Robotisation, computers, global supply chains and the digital revolution have continued to make production more efficient and supply more abundant (for us rich ones), and the customer-building, demand-stimulating industry has more than kept pace. In the 1950s the focus on advertising expanded to take in the broader field of marketing. This introduced the idea of ‘customer orientation’ and the benefits of using market research to learn as much as possible about us and so sell to us even more effectively.
In principle, this is a good idea: manufacturers can produce things we want to buy, rather than making things and then trying to sell them to us. In practice, though, studies of our needs soon became studies of our wants and whims; of our frailties and aspirations; of how to create needs; of the best sales pitches…. So the war in favour of consumption continued, and was now informed by a sophisticated intelligence service. The spoils of victory were also immense – once you start digging into the human psyche there are no limits to our needs, wants and whims.
Marketing also provides a better range of tools for forming and shaping us customers. Advertising has morphed into ‘marketing communications’ and grown to include all types of publicity, from the pack to the sponsorship deal to the global brand. These communications are not expected to stand alone, they are deployed in close conjunction with the rest of the marketing effort: product design, packaging, pricing, distribution and point of sale activity. Each of these variables is also informed by careful market research: which colour of widget do we prefer? Would a price cut compromise our perceptions of quality? Which aisle of the supermarket best triggers us to buy? Everything is then brought together into a comprehensive marketing strategy engineered to maximise sales and returns.
Turning us into customers is a lifelong project, so corporate marketers take a particular interest in children – indeed, in the guise of the infant formula industry, they reach even into the womb. We adults have done little to protect them from this grooming: in most of the world, for example, it is still perfectly legal to advertise junk food to 8-year-olds even though we know a) it harms their health and b) they can’t even understand what an advert is. Fortunately, our kids have more sense than we do, and the Thunberg generation is rising up against this madness.
At the same time, however, digital is turbo-charging the power of the corporate marketer. The data being trawled from our online activity puts analogue market research in the shade. Corporate marketers now know more about us than our own mothers ever did, and we pay for the privilege of keeping them informed. Algorithms and artificial intelligence have honed the rest of the marketing effort: we can get whatever we want, whenever we want it and at bargain prices. At the same time, our materialism is justified and primped with comforting lies about ‘lovin’ it’, ‘being worth it’ and ‘unbottling happiness’.
Corporate marketers also work diligently with politicians to ensure the business environment remains favourable – that ads to children aren’t banned, for example, or social media properly regulated. To a large extent they push at an open door: marketers and politicians have a great deal in common and have long worked closely together. Their shared agenda dates back to antiquity but has become much stronger over the last hundred years with the birth of corporate capitalism. CEOs and Presidents have a mutual interest in economic growth and increasing consumption: the corporation gets profits; the politician reliable tax revenues – and both gain power. Furthermore, the marketing techniques used to manage customers work just as well on voters. Political policies can be branded, packaging and sold as successfully as burgers and booze. Digital technology, as Cambridge Analytica revealed, has made this alliance particularly sinister.
From a consumer perspective corporate marketers provide the goodies and lots of superficial pleasure. It is agreeable to have facetime with family on the other side of the world and to be able to buy grapes 365 days a year. Only a bore would mention the conflict minerals and food miles; the digital surveillance; the harm to nature. From a human perspective it is utterly debilitating, trivialising our lives and turning us into spoiled brats who want ever more and care ever less. We are locked into the marketing machine and condemned to a life of hyperconsumption. Think how much more we now consume compared to our parents and grandparents. Ponder the insanity of an average supermarket stocking more than forty thousand different items. Consider that our smartphone has more processing power than the Apollo mission needed to land a man on the moon. And remember that there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that this excess has made us one jot more content.
From Gaia’s perspective our thraldom to the corporate marketers is a catastrophe.
The spectacular success of corporate marketing is showing itself today in two ways. First the persuasion business has grown exponentially. By the turn of the millennium, in the US alone, a detailed review showed that the “aggregate marketing system” employed some 30 million people and drove consumer spending worth $5 trillion a year. To illustrate the magnitude of this figure, the review authors explain: “if we were to try to count it at the rate of $1 per second, it would take more than 150,000 years, or much longer than the history of civilization. Although the aggregate marketing system in the United States may not stretch quite to ‘eternity’ it certainly does stretch a very long way.” This is just in the US, and marketing is very much a global force. It has become even more invasive in the 21st century, and latest figures show that more than $550 billion is spent on advertising alone every year.
On the back of this maelstrom of marketing corporations have grown exponentially. A recent analysis by Oxfam shows that the combined revenue the world’s 10 biggest corporations – amongst them Wal-Mart, Shell and Apple – is greater than the combined revenue of 180 countries (amongst them Ireland, Indonesia, Israel, and Greece). They couldn’t have done it without our (carefully choregraphed) support.
The second indicator of marketing’s success is the woeful state of the planet. We have become so beguiled by consumption that we are despoiling nature, destabilising the climate and threatening our children’s survival. A recent study published in Nature notes that in 2020 the amount of stuff we humans produce now weighs more than all the life, plant and animal, on earth. There may be no limits to our needs, wants and whims, but the planet is finite and reaching exhaustion. Covid 19 is just the latest warning that we need to reduce, not increase our consumption. Corporate marketing is indeed bringing us all closer to eternity; we need to rebel and rethink.
We Shall Overcome
Despite the predations of the corporate marketers there is much hope. For a start, not all businesses have been corporatized. Take Michael and Morag, for example. They run a small green grocery in my home town and remind us that business can be a joyful occupation and a welcome presence in all our lives. Life is complex and sometimes difficult; we depend on others to meet many of our material needs and bring us joy and fulfilment. Self-sufficiency maybe a noble endeavour, but for most of us it is impossible: our lives work in collaboration with others, by doing deals and working collectively. Business is the name we give to this communality and a shop is its most obvious manifestation. The problem is that doing deals and working communally depend on the parties having a similar level of power. When one is bigger than a country but lacks any democratic checks and balances, this parity evaporates. Michael and Morag remind us it need not be so, that small is beautiful and there are alternatives to the corporate marketing machine.
The other profound source of hope is that we are still very much human beings: the corporate marketers have demonstrably failed to turn us into mere customers. I wouldn’t have written this paper, and you wouldn’t be reading it, if it were otherwise. This means, in Dante’s words, we are indeed capable of following after wisdom and virtue – and makes us more than a match for the admen.
It is our humanity that enables us to think critically and consider the repercussions of our own behaviour. So when the corporate marketer’s offer is found wanting – when the costs to our fellow creatures and the planet are too high - we can say no, we can refuse our consent. The marketer will do all they can to disguise the downsides, but once we know how their black magic works, their spells lose their power. When the curtain is drawn back we can easily see that there is no wizard or wizardry – only tricks and gullibility. It this knowledge which enables us to rebel, and in the process connect with our fellow human beings – in Albert Camus’ words: ‘I rebel therefore we are’. In the last century this collective responsibility achieved global recognition in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights include the entitlement and responsibility to be actively involved in improving our polity; this we can do.
We can also rethink the way we do business. In the over-powerful hands of the corporation it has become debased and manipulative. But this is an aberration, a corruption of how things once were and could be again – as Michael and Morag show. Marketing is not a twentieth century invention; it is as old as human society. Human beings have always done deals, made exchanges and have developed complex protocols to manage this collaboration. This is marketing in its original form and it furnishes the invaluable ability to see the world from the viewpoint of others as well as ourselves; to strive for mutual benefit. It has been usurped by the corporate marketers in the pursuit of profit and power; we can reclaim it and set it to better purpose. This will improve our consumption behaviour – make it fairer and bring it into harmony with nature. It can also enhance the other behaviours that underpin every civilised society - justice, race relations, equity… . It is, if you like, marketing for the angels.
This brings us, inevitably, to capitalism itself, and the need to question our whole geopolitical system. To undertake a fundamental rethink. What is the purpose of the human project? Why has modernity hitched its cart to the insane notion of perpetual growth? How did we ever allow the corporations to become so powerful and their marketing so insidious? What are the alternative models which don’t depend on us being hyperconsumers rather than human beings? To answer these questions, we have to look outside our business system, to disciplines that can imagine better and cultures that have not succumbed to our senseless consumerism. We need the help of poets and artists, sages and shamans. We need the help of indigenous peoples “who” as Arundhati Roy points out “still know the secrets of sustainable living”. We need open and willing minds.
Then, as Dante advised, we can follow after wisdom and virtue and so build a sustainable future.
Hastings G (2022) Hyperconsumption: Corporate Marketing V the Planet, Routledge UK ISBN: 978-1-032-21464-1
Ghosh A (2017) The Great Derangement University of Chicago Press ISBN: 9780226526812
Zuboff S (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism Profile ISBN 13: 9781781256848.
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