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?