Why Marketing Sucks: An Anthropological Critique of Advertising

Cultural Triggers


Sure, the title is abrasive, that was the intent. Unless I shock your sleeping consciousness while letting you know marketing sucks, you may not get the point as clearly as intended.

I’ve been a world-class digital marketing strategist for the past 15 years; working on global stalwart brands that include; Microsoft, Verizon, AT&T, Nike, Coke, Sony, The Home Depot, Ford, M&M/Mars, Viagra, JPMorgan/Chase, Brawny, Dixie, Angel Soft, Universal Music, Toyota and Chick-Fil-A.

During the same period, I’ve been employed by three of the largest global advertising networks, namely; Publicis (Moxie), Omnicom (BBDO) and WPP (UniWorld Group). Needless to say, I have seen it all in this industry.

Folks like Ralph Nader; the most well-known consumer advocate, Jackson Lears (Fables of Abundance) and Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) have been a great influence on my marketing thought process, as well as new age pitch men like Seth Godin (Meatball Sundae, Why Marketers Lie).

These guys all take the long anthropological view to marketing, which means that humanity is front and center and not the ethos of production. I hope to show you how your marketing, content or whatever you call it, can suck less.

Get ready to be offended and get defensive, I’m going to roll out the raw and uncut truth about the impact marketing has had on humanity over past hundred or so years. Anyways, there are literally thousands upon thousands of dull blogs on the Interweb on how to perform better marketing. Trust me, I’m not trying to stick my hands in your pockets, as a blog like this one will probably scare away some business.

Some basic marketing history; early peddlers were seen as exotic and tempting. Exchange with them was perilous, both because of the fear of being cheated and because the glamour of the marketplace detracted from supposedly proper values.

Advertising was highly personal, based on the individual peddler. As advertising began to reach broader markets, it could still use the appeal of the exotic because many products were being introduced into new markets. Advertising found it difficult to shake the stigma of the untrustworthiness of peddlers, mainly because patent medicines (snake oil) used advertising heavily.

The 20th century has spawned many new ideas and movements, the notion of consumerism being one of the most ubiquitous. Some anthropologists have argued that humans developed language to improve deception, the use of deception being viewed as a psycho-social advantage.

Some might reason that advertising is an extension of this hypothesis, seeking to maintain and extend consumerism by the use of marketing/advertising strategies that many people see as deceptive.

The capitalist mechanism of mass production couldn’t function unless markets became more dynamic, growing horizontally (nationally) and vertically (into social classes not previously among consumers) and ideologically.  The modern mass producer couldn’t only depend on an affluent market to absorb his production capacity.

By 1921, production machinery was so effective, that much greater markets were an absolute necessity than that of the public buying power. Demand had to be created to drive shareholder equity at the corporate level. The fat cats on the top of the pyramid had to be fed with profits, regardless of the impact on society.

Considering the quantitative possibilities of mass production, the question of national markets became one of qualitatively changing the nature of the American buying public. In response to the exigencies of the productive system of the 20th century, excessiveness replaced thrift as a social value. It became imperative to empower the worker with pseudo-financial power and a psychic desire to consume, no matter the cost.

During President Carter’s tenure, the climate in America had changed, Ralph Nader’s movement challenged some of the consumer-driven values being pushed by large corporations. This was quickly reversed during President Reagan’s tenure when American business was striving to regain its lost market share, and thus promoted the conspicuous consumption of the 1980s. The greatest consumer debt decade in American history.

This consumer culture was fed by the manipulation of humanity to embrace greed as good (TV shows like; Dynasty, Falcon’s Crest and Dallas embodied this ethos) manipulated by corporate advertising. The mythical leveraged-buyout baron, Gordon Gecko from the motion picture Wall Street, played by Michael Douglass became emblematic of the era.

I’d like to hope that Millennials and Gen Z’ers will see through the veil of advertising and empower their own humanity while being responsible with their resources. Though, that dream may be far-fetched due to the level of marketing targeted at kids, tweens, teens and young adults. Not to mention the wanton and willful hedonism in music, movies and video games.  Turn down for what!?!?