Marketing, Autonomy, and Dignity

In years as working as a privacy advocate, I developed the theme that the private sector, particularly marketing companies, was an equal threat to information privacy as the government. After all, the largest providers of personal information to the government now are big marketing companies, like Acxiom and Choicepoint.

At a more base level, I thought privacy may be instrumental in fostering autonomy and shielding individuals from (what I believe to be) the indignities that marketing perpetuates on our culture (think billboards, for instance). This is a very difficult argument to make. Many see it as cultural elitism, an attempt to engage in censorship or the like. But sometimes, marketers themselves make the argument for me.

Consider this article written by two professors of marketing at UNC’s business school published in the Journal Report yesterday. It discusses how to get through to consumers who increasingly try to tune out advertising messages. I think that some of these practices are gross; some of them are right out of Gotcha Capitalism. Dr. Balasubramanian and Dr. Bhardwaj suggest:

Consider a series of billboards along a busy interstate proclaiming the approach of a business, but not really saying what the business does. To find out what the business is all about, travelers have to take an exit off the highway. While some may be disappointed with what they find and may not plan a second visit, there are always millions more of the uninitiated coming down the highway. This technique has been used to good effect by South of the Border, a Mexican-themed shopping and food cluster on I-95 near the border of the Carolinas.

So, if your business sucks really bad, you can use vague brand advertising to trick people into visiting it. Congratulations. What’s next, professors?

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., for example, has teamed with Adidas AG on a range of motorsport-inspired driving and sports shoes. The soles of these shoes are made of rubber with tread patterns designed by Goodyear. If customers viewed the shoe purely as an Adidas product, Goodyear’s contribution would remain unnoticed. However, the Goodyear brand is prominently displayed on the outsoles of the shoes. The result is that every person wearing the shoes is now a messenger for the Goodyear brand.

Because we really care about “Goodyear’s contribution,” we should wear advertisements for the company?

Does this not suggest that these people think the public are just morons? People to be painted upon with logos?

Professors, share some more strategy with us.

Successful marketing messages excite customers not only when they first encounter them — they ingrain themselves into the customers’ permanent memory. Once a message is embedded, customer resistance to processing it drops when it is encountered in the future.

This goes directly to my point out autonomy. “Embedding” messages? Reducing “consumer resistance?” This reads like a scientology manual.

Finally, professors, why not commodify some cultural objects, to make life less meaningful?

Cough-drop maker Ricola AG, which uses herbs cultivated in the Swiss Alpine regions for its products, invokes the image of the Alpine mountains and meadows in its advertising, which often features herders who harmoniously sing out the word “Ricola” into open, echoing meadows. The singing is accompanied by the blowing of an alpenhorn — a long, curved wooden wind instrument with a distinctive, booming sound that was used by Swiss herders to call their cows from the pastures. The company has employed the sound and the imagery with such remarkable consistency that today, for many people, the sound of the horn alone is sufficient to invoke the rich imagery and heritage associated with the brand.

If economics is the dismal science, what kind of science is marketing?


  1. Personally, I call it the eeeeeeevil science.

  2. D. C. Sessions

    Allow me to speak up in favor of marketing and advertising — and I’m an engineer, normally the natural prey of those people.

    Or at least, of intelligent marketing and advertising. That rules out almost all of the stuff readers here will be familiar with.

    However, there have been times in my career where I subscribed to professional magazines strictly for the advertising. In fact, the magazines’ editorial staff didn’t seem to be under any illusions about their purpose in existence; they put minimal effort into producing what was transparently a fig leaf pretense that there was editorial content instead of a giant advertising flyer. On the other hand, the advertising itself was always very, very carefully organized so that subscribers could skip the stuff that had no relevance to them and concentrate on the ads that were useful. It was wonderful.

    In the end, advertising serves the essential economic function of letting consumers know that products exist. Ideally, we would only encounter ads for things that we would want to buy without any manipulation at all, since it would be information we could use. We can get a hint of how valuable this would be just from looking at Google’s P/E ratio — because Google, at base, offers a step in the direction of connecting advertisers with customers who are actually interested in the advertising.

    The tricky part with that is it implies that someone knows what we would want, and that’s a privacy loss in itself. Think Steph Murky and his … unusual tastes in mail-order goods. That’s an issue to work out.

    However, most of the current antipathy towards advertising comes from the absolutely indiscriminate broadcast variety that tries to annoy as many people as possible in order to manipulate a small fraction of us.

  3. Yes, D. C. Sessions, intelligent marketing, it’s something entirely different. What’s so offensive about this article is how it treats the consumer as an object. One that is forced to view ads, one that is tricked (the billboard thing), one that is commodified (Goodyear), and one whose culture is commodified (Ricola). This is bad advertising, the type that’s irrelevant, devoid of price information, comparisons, or objective quality signals.

  4. Interrobang

    Call me a cultural elitist if you must (and I’ll nod and say “Yup. Got a problem with that?” at you), but I’d be much happier with the world if marketers weren’t trying to plaster every square millimetre of it with corporate logos. For instance, I really do not appreciate closing the door on the bathroom stall and being greeted by an ad. That’s intrusive and annoying and it needs to go away. Having stupid, intrusive, or annoying ads is also a way of driving customers like me away from your product, service, or brand…

  5. “Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., for example, has teamed with Adidas AG on a range of motorsport-inspired driving and sports shoes. The soles of these shoes are made of rubber with tread patterns designed by Goodyear.”

    Didn’t the Viet Cong drive the capitalists out of their country wearing sandals made from old tires?

    Historical baggage aside, how is the goodyear logo any better or worse than the Adidas logo that’s already there? I reckon that if the shoe is going to be a logo platform, they might as well take the racecar approach, and load ’em all up.

  6. I had a minor in marketing. At least the classes I took treated consumers as people, and a number of professors talked about shallow rebranding in very negative tone.

  7. well, as an engineer and an MBA_marketing guy, I agree that what they promote is bad advertising from the “informed customers” standpoint – unfortunately it works just fine as their examples are for B2C (business to customer companies) and their the numbers you are adressing counts for more than the quality…at least to get the attention of the customer or hammer home the aspect of your advertisment to will be most likely remembered by the customer…that said…the interesting thing about the “science” of marketing (and I agree it isn’t really one)is that it gives you examples of how groups of people react to stimuli, how their brain and memorys react to information and to which kind of information (the Coca-Cola red is branded [couldn’t resist]into the brains of most people, the Nike-logo, etc.)…and therefore I think that it tells us something about (wo)mankind, doesn’t it??!!

    Lab Lemming: as far as I know Adidas has used the tire rubber in the past and is trying the vintage approach to get the “new”hot group marketeers are catering too the “best agers”.

  8. Luna_the_cat

    …what kind of science is marketing?

    Psychology. Of course.

    …On a side note, you will not be able to get marketing to go away. The world economy is underpinned by an absolute need for expansion (and has been for some time) — and given that we do not have any “new frontiers” for colonization at the moment, that need for expansion translates to a need for more and more money to be shifted through different markets. Consumerism isn’t a bad habit, it is the current economic base. And while I would venture to say that the majority of people here see the downside to this clearly…what do we have to currently replace it?

    And, how will you convince the bulk of the population that they need to turn away from the fun and seduction of “get new stuff, get more stuff” that generations have been now been raised in? Not the high-minded rhetoric outlining the fact that we are overstressing the planet. Most people who are comfortably insulated from the physical reality of that, in cities especially, really truly don’t care. Your only hope is to find something equally fun and seductive to turn people towards, frankly. May I say good luck with that? Because I don’t have any astonishingly good ideas for those alternatives either. But I’m sure it will have to involve some fairly intensive advertising.

  9. I have to agree with Luna_the_cat. We’running out of people to sell something to, and if we insist in having an expansion, that is needed…where are the aliens that we can sell our colourfull beads to??

  10. @Luna, I don’t think it will go away, but I hope we can shape it through public policy so that advertisers are encouraged to provide objective information, price information, product comparisons, etc. People are quick to point out that advertising informs consumers about products, but so much of it simply teaches them about a brand. I’d like to see real competition, like the current Progresso/Campbell’s soup campaign:

  11. I agree that a great deal of manipulative psychology goes into these things. Look at the personal care and household products industry. Walk down the laundry detergent aisle. Pull any box out at random, chances are the company that owns the brand is either Proctor and Gamble, or Unilever. These companies compete with themselves to create a shelf-full of different brand names that create the illusion of choice

    Some substances are added to the things we use partly because of marketing appeal rather than rudimentary use. Dish soap, for example, has extraneous surfactants that may serve little practical purpose, but creates bubbles. Bubbles appeal to consumers in their thinking that the product cleans thoroughly, even though bubbles themselves lack the requisite friction to actually have an impact on dirt removal. Still, we even have brand names based on this conception: Scrubbing Bubbles.

    Tocopherol is found in even the cheapest shampoos these days. It’s vitamin E, and although there is no evidence it has any beneficial effect on your hair, it’s now a tradition in shampoos.

    People complain all the time of “chemicals” in the water and food. However I would argue that the most insidious use of chemistry is as a marketing tool, rather than as something inherently harmful.

    A documentary, the Century of the Self by the BBC covers a lot of how companies manufacture demand artificially. It’s a problematic film in some ways, but provides some interesting insights.

    Personally I’ve taken to “scrubbing” my wardrobe and belongings of logos. When I get a new (used) car soon, the hood ornament will be one of the first things to go.

    Want me to advertise for you? Pay me.

  12. I love it, Chemist! I “debadged” my Mazda and don’t wear any clothes with logos, except for my running shoes. There doesn’t seem to be a pair of athletic shoes in existence without loud logos.

    Debadging was easy–you can do it with dental floss! It cuts right through the adhesive, and then you just clean away the adhesive with Scrubbing Bubbles. 🙂

  13. Does this not suggest that these people think the public are just morons? People to be painted upon with logos?

    Given the number of people I see with clothing that has corporate names and logos on them, and no other artwork, I’d have to conclude that many people are, indeed, morons, and quite happy to be thus painted.

  14. llewelly

    Consumerism isn’t a bad habit, it is the current economic base.

    1/3 of CO2 emissions come from the manufacture of consumer luxuries.
    But it’s not just about global warming. Nearly all consumer goods use up finite resources. Does the good contain plastic? Well, natural gas and oil are running out quickly, and unfortunately, recycling of plastic is still not 100%. Wood? Most wood is still not farmed in a sustainable manner. Electronics? Nearly all modern electronics use multiple rare earths, such as tantalum, niobium, barium, yttrium, etc. These metals are, well, rare. Meaning much rarer than mundane elements such as gold or platinum. Recycling of electronics has improved greatly in recent years, but most electronics are still not recycled, and few electronics recycling programs reclaim significant amounts of any rare earth element.

    If consumerism is to continue to be the base of the economy, we really only have a few decades in which to shift to 100% recycling, in all domains, and 100% solar (including wind) power. The more we consume, the faster this shift will need to be made.

    I don’t have children. But most other people do. It is very likely that today’s children will pay a heavy price for our consumerism.

  15. I love it, Chemist! I “debadged” my Mazda and don’t wear any clothes with logos, except for my running shoes. There doesn’t seem to be a pair of athletic shoes in existence without loud logos.

    I don’t even know what brands of clothing I wear. As for shoes, they’re completely black. Average looker probably can’t spot the black N on the black background. Only stuff I advertise is what I’m a geek for.

  16. Chris, Blake Stacey from Science After Sunclipse wanted me to press-gang this post for our next Carnival of the Elitist Bastards. I agree: it would be a fantastic fit. If you want to join the crew, email me at by Friday, 10/24 to let me know. Hope to see you on board!

  17. There doesn’t seem to be a pair of athletic shoes in existence without loud logos.

    Chris, the next time your in the market for new shoes, you might want to look at Simples. I don’t know if they’ll have what you’re looking for in a running shoe, but I don’t believe they have a logo on the outside of the shoe.

    I’ve been debranded as far as clothes are concerned for some time. One of the most frustrating things about shopping for clothes, in fact, is finding things I would love if it wasn’t for the enormous logo across the chest. When I was younger I used a seamripper to great effect on sweatshirts and such, but now that I have to dress professionally I don’t really care to take the chance that my edit job will be noticeable.

  18. Paul Merda

    I would have to agree that marketers in general are eeeeevil, preying upon humans psychological weaknesses to sell them crap that they don’t really need…

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