Is Marketing Evil?

We are surrounded by marketing messages almost every second of the day. Some estimates claim that we are exposed to about 2,000 marketing messages every day.1 From reading the name of a brand on a cereal box or somebody’s t-shirt to advertising in magazines and on television and everything in between—branded messages are ubiquitous. Marketing has an enormous influence on contemporary culture which has spawned a lot of criticism, such as expressed in this video.

But is marketing inherently evil?

Marketing is your god

Douglas Rushkoff who coined the term “Gruen Transfer”, is a well-known marketing critic. Rushkoff accuses designers of shopping malls for creating an atmosphere where people “drop their jaw and glaze over their eyes” and start buying impulsively.2 I think Rushkoff hugely exaggerates his point. Shopping mall designers aim to create a pleasant environment in which people are in a good mood because that is when they like to buy stuff. What is wrong with putting people in a good mood? Nobody forces anyone to spend money!

Marketing is a bit like performing a magic trick, creating an illusion of a perfect world. And claiming that your world can be made perfect by purchasing their product or service. Many people feel deceived by that proposition—just like a magic trick is only an illusion of what would be considered real magic—and think that marketers are therefore unethical.

Some of the criticism is justified. Just like any other human endeavour, marketing is not ethically neutral. Marketing textbooks often simplify ethical issues by saying that what is bad for consumers is bad for business. Marketing ethics is often reduced to a checklist for practitioners of dos and donts.

The relationship between marketers and consumers is more complex than both critics and proponents of marketing believe. There is, for example, evidence that depictions of unnaturally thin women in fashion magazines cause women to lower their body image.3 Several attempts to correct this by the fashion industry itself have failed just because consumer pressure to see these images is too strong to ignore for the publishers of magazines.

However, critics of marketing often belittle consumers by portraying them as mindless creatures that can be manipulated like rats in a maze. As human beings, we are indeed influenced by our instincts, but we are not controlled by them. Neuroscientific research shows that although we might not have a free will, we do have a free ‘won’t’.4 We have the power to say “no” and not be influenced by marketing spin.

The blame for the consequences of marketing can not be solely placed on the marketer. Marketing is an inherent part of human interaction that cannot be separated from our culture. Both marketers and consumers have a responsibility regarding the consequences of their activities.

  1. Solomon, M. R., Russell-Bennett, R., & Previte, J. (2010). Consumer Behaviour: Buying, Having, Selling. Frenchs Forest, N.S.W.: Pearson. 

  2. Rushkoff, D. (2000). Coercion?: Why we listen to what “they” say. New York: Riverhead. 

  3. Turner, S., Hamilton, H., Jacobs, M., Angood, L. M., & Dwyer, D. H. (1997). The influence of fashion magazines on the body image satisfaction of college women: An exploratory analysis. Adolescence, 32(127), 603-614. 

  4. Libet, B. (1999). Do we have free will? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, 8(9), 47–57. 

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