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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Marketing versus happiness

A good post from No Impact Man:

"Most people," [Seth Godin] wrote, "have a better standard of living today than Louis XIV did in his day. So why are so many people unhappy?"

He said that what makes people unhappy is not what they have but what they want. And that the job of companies is to create want for their products.

Therefore, Seth wrote, "Marketers trying to grow market share will always work to make their non-customers unhappy."
What makes people happy, Arthur Brooks, author of Gross National Happiness, reminded me the other day, is a sense of transcendent meaning, success in living our lives in accord with our values, and a sense of control of our destinies. Marketing often depends on convincing people they don't have these things and then tricking them into thinking that the product on offer will somehow provide them.

I would add that this becomes especially insidious in an age when marketing is less and less about convincing you of the objective advantages of one product over another (Axe Body Spray reduces odor by 71%!) and more about connecting the product to your self-image or identity (Axe Body Spray makes you irresistible to women!). With so many companies trying to get us to buy stuff, it adds up to a constant barrage of messages that we are not as happy/successful/respected as we could or should be. And those efforts get more sophisticated all the time, with marketing going way beyond 30-second ads and billboards into all sorts of electronic and social media. Once marketers figure out the intricacies of how to use the way our brains work to very efficiently influence our opinions and decisions, the effect of marketing in framing our perceptions will be even stronger.

I'm not sure what it would take for us to break out of this. No Impact Man envisions commerce remade around providing "the meaning, success and control to people instead of selling them material proxies. What if business actually tried improve life on this planet and make a profit doing it?" This may be feasible to some extent, but it would require huge changes in what consumers demand from companies. Some consumers, mostly upscale ones, do seem to be getting more sophisticated about their relationships with companies...ironically, this usually takes the form of them wanting the company's identity to comport with or reinforce their own identity (e.g. seeking out companies that have a "green" philosophy, or local businesses where they can know the owner personnally). I'm not sure if this can lead to what No Impact Man wishes for, but maybe...


doug said...

Ever read Juliet Schor's _The Overspent American_? She makes exactly this point. “The difficulty is the demand of keeping up: the emulation process never ends," Schor writes. "Growth is built into the very structure of our economy.” The natural result of this process is that there is a constant demand for the new, the quirky, the latest and best, to replace the old and outdated. Money can buy happiness!

teague said...

I haven't read it...that is a good point, though. I don't think you can take the social competitiveness out of people, but perhaps it could be channelled to other things besides material consumption. (Actually, charitable giving, volunteering, etc. could already be seen as part of such competition, though that's sort of a crass way to view it...)

bush said...
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