‘Why are we getting more and more cynical about marketing, especially advertising?’
Q: We’re a group of college students who are marketing majors. We had a summer elective course on marketing issues and just completed a debate on: “Why should we get or not get cynical about marketing and especially advertising?” Our team got assigned to the “Should-Not” position. After the debate, our own team got convinced about the “Should” position. Actually, we wanted that side of the debate at the very start.
May we please ask Marketing Rx for its stand on this issue?
A: We like what you’re doing and congratulate your professor for encouraging this kind of debate. We believe most of our readers are also concerned. Here’s our “stand” on this issue.
We start with those who say we have good reasons for getting more and more cynical.
You may not believe it but those who really started in a big way to be most critical of marketing and specially advertising were professional marketers and advertising practitioners themselves. In 2000, for example, Sergio Zyman came out with his best-selling book, “The End of Marketing as We Know It.” Zyman was the chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola during its peak years. After retiring, he wrote this book to say that the “old” but true marketing has died. What has taken its place is the new marketing, with no “ability to move the masses” and too preoccupied with brand images and not with sales. So it’s not surprising that Zyman recommends refocusing on sales.
Four years later, Zyman in 2003 turned his attention on advertising and wrote another best-seller, “The End of Advertising as We Know It.” Here, Zyman, tracing the start of his career in an ad agency and then working his way up in Coca-Cola to become its chief marketing officer, argued that advertising is also dying or is dead. Why? Because like marketing, advertising drifted away from its true function, which is to sell the product instead of going after awards. So he recommends marketers to start getting tough on their ad agencies and redirect their work toward selling the product. Almost in the same time, actually in 2004, Al Ries and his daughter, Laura Ries, published their own “attack” on advertising in their own best-selling book, “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR.” In this book, Ries and Ries present cases (like Starbucks, The Body Shop, Wal-Mart and Zara) representing “today’s major brands” that succeeded not because of advertising but because of publicity and that build their brands with almost no advertising. But these were anecdotal evidences and not survey research-based. The Ries’ “strongest” argument against advertising is its “lack of credibility,” which only PR can provide. Both arguments are debatable and have been challenged.
A more serious and more “scientific” critique of marketing and advertising came in about the same year as Zyman’s attack, year 2000. This time the criticism came from a senior fellow at London Business School, Tim Ambler, in his own best-selling book, “Marketing and the Bottom Line.” Professor Ambler said that in his original research on 3M, British Airways and McDonald’s, he was able to measure what impact marketing had on a company’s financial health. And so he offered a set of marketing metrics to enable marketing to be more accountable for its budget expenses, as well as its revenue generation.
Marketing and advertising critics occupy the full range of mild to severe assessment. One of the harshest came from John Hollowitz, a professor of psychology and rhetoric at Fordham University. This happened in 2004, when Fordham thought of getting help from professional marketers and its marketing professors in the “positioning and branding” of the school. Here’s what Professor Hollowitz said: “Students are not customers; neither are their parents. We do not have customers… Do not accept that ‘customer’ as a term of art. This is an assumption inherent in ‘branding’ and it defiles our mission.”
What about those who say marketing and advertising are changing for the better?
Actually, the change has started way back in the late ’70s and went on to all of the ’80s. That start was with The Body Shop and its social marketing experiment. That led to the “Doing-Well-&-Doing Good” movement. Today, that movement has morphed into the “Strategy as Advocacy” crusade.
Here are three currently more well-known examples. First is the much-written Southwest Airlines, whose advertising tagline and corporate value-branding says: “Democratizing the Skies.” Then there’s ING Direct, with its “Leading Americans Back to Savings” ad mantra. And then there’s Southwest’s ad agency, GSD&M, whose corporate value branding is: “We’re in the Business of Purpose-Based Branding.” The GSD&M chair, Roy Spence, wrote a best-selling book, “It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand for: Why Every Extraordinary Business Is Driven by Purpose,” to say that “every business should strive for more than just profit; it should aim to become an organization of great purpose-pledged to make money, make a difference and make history.”
We have parallel cases in the country but our space prevents us to get into those at this point. But we hope to have given you enough “history” to let you understand that the reality is that there are surely good reasons to be cynical about marketing and advertising. At the same time though, marketing and advertising are both learning to be more responsible, accountable and act as good corporate citizens.