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Monday, May 23, 2005

"I'm all lost in the supermarket"

Posted by: Jambo / 3:51 PM

There's an article in today's Star Tribune that has touched on one of my pet peeves. (Yes, I know, I have dozens.) It is about advertising directed at children and like most Strib articles it is overly cursory, devoid of much real information, and lacks any analysis that is not obvious to any slightly educated reader. But still, it raises a good issue.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but marketing, especially to children, is evil and the marketing business is the greatest collection of social parasites the civilized world has. Now much advertising is clever, creative or otherwise entertaining. And you do find better music in VW commercials than on most any commercial radio station, but that is a peeve for another day. But ultimately marketing adds nothing of value and serves only to convince consumers to purchase things that left to their own devises they would not buy. This is especially invidious when directed at children.

Like all consumer industries, we compete on consumer-driven innovation and then by communicating to consumers benefits from our innovation," Ken Powell, General Mills executive vice president, told the Institute of Medicine Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth in March. "Advertising is a crucial part of delivering innovation to our consumers.

Explain to me exactly what innovation is being delivered by placing Shrek on a package of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs other than getting some five year old to yell "I want it!" at a beleaguered parent? Last year General Mills spent approximately a quarter of a BILLION dollars on cereal advertising alone. A number of years ago I did some legal work for a major cereal manufacturer and ended up having to read thru years' worth of the company's marketing plans. The report that has stuck with me is the one entitled, "Getting Past the Gatekeeper." Gatekeeper is ad speak for parents. This company, and all its competitors, knows full well that their products are not good for kids. And they know full well that parents know it as well and want to keep their kids from eating it. To get around that these companies hire teams of well educated professionals and pay them huge salaries to find ways to get parents to buy things that they know are bad for their children. In the day to day professional world is there anything more evil than that?

Any other profession you can name has at its core something of value; law, medicine, engineering, science, banking, investing, art, entertainment, manufacturing. Of course many of those are used to non-productive or even detrimental ends (and my own profession not the least) but modern marketing does not even start from a respectable position. At its core is the attempt to get people to act against their self-interest for the enrichment of firms that are deceiving consumers.

Some would say that this is just the free market at work and like it or not it is the price of capitalism. But even that is not true. Advertising (beyond purely dispassionate information) subverts the free market producing irrational consumer choice which by its nature is economically inefficient. And this should not even be a left/right issue. If both Karl Marx and Adam Smith could see the modern marketing machine they would each find it doing great damage to their proposed systems. Marx assumed that capitalism would eventually give way to communism when it produced so much capital that the needs of all consumers could be met thereby ending the need to compete for scarce products. Market ensures that consumer needs will never be met since artificial ones will always be created. (Yes there are plenty of other problems in his economic theories but that's not the point.) Smith on the other hand felt that consumer choice would lead to an optimal production of goods because firms would find it in their self-interest to produce exactly what consumers needed. That theory also goes out the window when companies no longer react to consumer need but create it.

Let companies make their products, put them in the stores, and see which ones people like best. That's the free market at work.

OK, I've run on a little too long so just remember today's take home message: marketing=evil.

[As I read this back I see that I have not really drawn a distinction between marketing and straight forward informational advertising. For the record I have absolutely no beef with the dissemination of information that recites accurate descriptions of product qualities and information about price and availability.]


Yes, there are myriad examples of evil marketing, but I don't think marketing itself can be said to be inherently evil. I would say that it can serve the legitimate function of bringing consumer and producer together.

Your proposal to "[l]et companies make their products, put them in the stores, and see which ones people like best" is a little naive. Every product will just be carried in every market, just because somebody made that product? I don't think so. Stores have to have a reason (potential profit) to carry products; they're not going to just take whatever comes down the pike.

Oh, and I'm still waiting for that special offer of guaranteed personality.

By Blogger Joseph Thvedt, at 5:09 PM  

what ever happened to parents saying no? is that considered neglect now?

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:04 PM  

1. It would be more evil to convince parents to directly harm their children. Marketing still relies on indirect harm.

2. Tard Patch knows full well the power of the whine. Although ultimately parents are responsible for their children, much of modern life makes that more difficult. I like watching Sponge Bob with Big Sister Hammer, but if I see one more Bratz commercial, I'm ... well, I'm going to take it like fresh fish in Shawshank. But, golly, I'd like to do something about it.

By Blogger Hammer, at 9:05 PM  

of course I know the power of the whine, I employ it myself. you dont see jennie caving in easily tho haha.

p.s. instead of curbing ads for shrek cookies, legislation should be fixing the way people are elected to office. through tv.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:13 PM  

Try falling on the floor of the store, crying and yelling as loud as you can. It might work.

By Blogger Hammer, at 9:16 PM  

Yeah, someone always suggests the Nancy Reagan response. Usually someone without kids. I always find it a little naive, if not insulting, when someone implies that parents are just copping out when they complain about this sort of thing--as if having a multi-billion dollar industry trying to get kids to do the wrong thing is a mere triffle. There are thousands of people spending 40 hours a week trying to get my kids to eat crappy food and tho I usually win the battles over food I often wonder why I should have to fight them in the first place. My wife and I have worked pretty hard to avoid having the Jamboettes develop a taste for junk food and thankfully have been pretty successful. But it pisses me off to see how quickly 5 years of work can be undone by the right cartoon character on a box in the super market.

As for what stores should sell, they of course should sell the items that people want to buy. Absent marketing campaigns that would be the things that truly meet consumers' needs, not the ones being pushed with the cleverest ad. And of course a lot of this gets down to market power. You know the end cap displays in the supermarket where you see a big pile of Froot Loops or whatever at the end of the aisle? Producers pay big money for those and generally increase their sales by a factor of 11 for the week that they have them up. Needless to say Fred's Organic Pasta Sauce can't afford one of those but Ragu can. Even if Fred has a better product the big producers are going to kick his ass every time and he'll be lucky to stay in business. Adam Smith would call that a market failure.

There may be worse ways for stores to decide which items to stock than to depend on who does the most advertising but I can't think of what they would be.

And by the way, you'll note that I'm not calling for any kind of government regulation of this sort of thing. For the moment I'm just pointing out that it sucks.

By Blogger Jambo, at 9:27 PM  

if I see one more Bratz commercial

Boy, ain't that the truth. A crappy product for children actually named after bad behavior. Makes me want to outflank Jambo on the left and call for thumbscrews, or something.

And as for "straight forward informational advertising," I suspect that's been outlawed. I can't think of another explanation for tortured ad copy like "nothing has been proven to be more effective than Advil."

By Blogger Joseph Thvedt, at 9:48 PM  

Evil?? What about pharmaceutical advertisments? Most do not even say what they are indicated for but all say "Ask your Dr if it's right for you." So I should make a list apparently to get Rx for Viagra, Cialis, Restasis, Procrit and maybe a couple drugs to help my "social anxiety" also!

By Blogger BETH, at 10:41 PM  

Oh, that guaranteed personality offer has expired. Can I interest you in a giant hit discotegue album?

By Blogger Jambo, at 12:12 AM  

I hadn't even thought about the Rx commercials. That's a whole 'nother kind of screwed up. Yeah, just what the country needs, a whole bunch dolts telling their MDs what sort of meds they should be getting. And the sad thing is that it works! I saw a stat the other day that showed how much more likely a doctor was to prescribe a given drug if the patient mentioned it by name. It wsn't a huge percentage but it was scary to know that there were any doctors out there that wrote a scrip for something that left to their own judgment they would not have otherwise prescribed.

By Blogger Jambo, at 12:53 AM  

What's really scary is that I am attracted to the woman in those Levitra ads.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:36 AM  

Nah, that women in the Levita ad is perfectly marketed. She's pretty, open & expressive about her sexuality, and has an inadequate boyfriend. You're supposed to be attracted to her.

By Blogger Hammer, at 7:49 AM  

Yep, Bratz are evil, plain and simple. I guess a 5 year old wants anything she sees on TV.

I think we need more commercials about brushing your teeth.

By Blogger Hammer, at 7:52 AM  

By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising...kill yourself. Thank you. Just planting seeds, planting seeds is all I'm doing. No joke here, really. Seriously, kill yourself, you have no rationalisation for what you do, you are Satan's little helpers. Kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself now. Now, back to the show. Seriously, I know the marketing people: 'There's gonna be a joke comin' up.' There's no fuckin' joke. Suck a tail pipe, hang yourself...borrow a pistol from an NRA buddy, do something...rid the world of your evil fuckin' presence.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:39 AM  

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