Are marketers amoral?

That's a question Brandweek recently asked Rob Walker, "Consumed" columnist for the New York Times Magazine. I told you I've been reading Rob's book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. Here's his answer:

"...I don't think there's anything productive about demonizing marketers. My point of view is that consumers can't blame anyone but themselves for their purchase decisions, and the consequences of those decisions, both on a personal level and a societal level. Marketers didn't dictate massive demand for four-wheel-drive SUVs for driving around city streets. Consumers demanded that. Of course marketers did their best to exploit that demand to the fullest, but there's just nothing productive, in my view, about scapegoating anybody."
(Read the entire interview here.)

OK, so Rob says we're all guilty. But where do you stand on this? Using his example, go with your gut reaction and rate who you think is to blame for SUVs on city streets. I cast my opinion to get us started. If you'd like to vote and tell us your reasoning, simply Comment on this post.

Note: Voting is anonymous and will not take you to another website.

Survey Results -


karla August 14, 2008 at 11:14 PM  

I have a different example: direct-to-consumer prescription drug marketing. Yes, I most assuredly DO believe they created the "demand" for certain drug products and levels of usage. I'm a pharmacist, and I practiced before the onslaught of ads for prescription drugs, and of course now during that onslaught. There's a definite difference in usage patterns, perhaps for the better but at what (obscene?) societal cost? Different topic, long story. But it used to be you saw ads for foods, cleaners, etc. Now nothing but cars, cell phones, and prescription drugs. Marketers, if they don't create demand,definitely massage and manipulate it.

Sam Van Eman August 15, 2008 at 9:46 AM  

Thanks for the example, Karla. You have a unique behind-the-scenes perspective on a product's movement.

I imagine you have a lot of face to face interaction with customers. Do you think their genuine desire for health and relief from XYZ pain affects marketers' ability to "massage and manipulate"?

karla August 15, 2008 at 7:21 PM  

Sam wrote: Do you think their genuine desire for health and relief from XYZ pain affects marketers' ability to "massage and manipulate"?

Oh, definitely! The whole GI market has been turned upside down (and for the emphatic better!) by new discoveries (Zantac, etc., followed by the even more powerful Prilosec, Nexium, etc.) HUGE improvement in quality of life for folks who previously chewed Tums all day long, and at lesser relief. A demand was met. The cost though? I look at the acquisition cost (that is, before the markup to pay me [grin]) for generic Prilosec by PRESCRIPTION vs. the price of BRAND Prilosec OTC, and it is obscene and immoral, as far as I'm concerned.

I look at the great addition to the market of non-sedating antihistamines. Great improvement in side effects. Another instance, take it OTC and suddenly it doesn't cost a manufacturer as much to produce? Hmm.

(I'm introducing a different spin on your topic...hopefully not detracting from it.) There are instances in treatment of other chronic conditions where new branded (read: highly marketed) products lead prescribers away from tried and true lower cost alternatives. It totally sways where the scientific research is done, that's to be sure. What an utter surprise to learn that someone had done some research on a lowly, long-term diuretic and brought it into national evidence-based medicine guidelines! That's almost unheard of in the current economic sway. Makes you wonder how many other oldie-but-goodie meds get swept under the research carpet as "new" drugs make it to market and our living room TV sets to be subsequently demanded by a public that feels entitled to the best, and making the assumption that the best naturally must be the most costly. [tongue-in-cheek]

Back to your original question about SUV's. There I definitely believe that consumers' greed comes into play in self-selecting larger vehicles than are often needed and a bigger-than-necessary carbon footprint, and they must share the blame with manu's and marketers for the rise in popularity. Sorry for the long post! (Forgive me in advance!!!)

Sam Van Eman August 15, 2008 at 7:49 PM  

No apology necessary, Karla. It's great to learn about what goes on behind the counter (pharmacy or other) from someone who works behind the counter! August 17, 2008 at 6:28 PM  

I think it is a "what came first chicken or the egg" question. No one knows. What we do know is that business in America is about making money. That's the bottom line, really the only line. I mean, a business can take a moral stance, but that's considered way above and beyond the call of duty.

At it core, their job is to find out what we want and get it to us. Now if they can influence that basic desire with advertising, they will. And if they find out they can create a desire, they will do that if they can. But it's not about corrupting us. It's about money. We are the ones who are responsible for falling for their ads. If we are so easily influenced, I think it is our responsibility.

my 2 cents

Real Live Preacher August 17, 2008 at 6:29 PM  

the previous comment was from me.

M.joshua August 18, 2008 at 4:41 PM  

I've grown up with and around many people who are mentally retarded. As such, I've realized that they're the real definition of our love. If what we do is of benefit to them, then it could be seen as universally good. For example: If somebody who is MR does something foolish, you would automatically have grace for them due to their limitations, right? So it's wisdom to treat all with similar grace. Right?

Okay. Then you have marketing. People with MR are more susceptible to ads above all else because they don't have the intellectual stabilizers that say "No, you don't really need that because of _____." So unless they have somebody really looking out for them, they can become really paralyzed by an addiction to consumption.

Now, is that their fault because they're retarded?

Only in an evil tyrannical godless world are the intellectually superior people able to use their superiority for domination. In a world where Christ is truly King, the lowest common denominators are given priority.

If we're in a position of intelligence or cunning of any form, our responsibility is to be faithful stewards of that gift for the benefit of those who do not have as much wisdom and knowledge.

preacherman August 19, 2008 at 2:26 AM  

Thank you so much for dealing with this issue. You did a fantastic job. I love it when I think and meditate on questions such as these. You do a fantastic job with your blog. Keep up the great work! I added your blog to my favs and am looking forward to reading regularly.
I hope you have a great week! :-)

Sam Van Eman August 20, 2008 at 5:44 PM  

Preacherman -
Welcome to NBoA and thanks for the flattery!

Real Live Preacher -
You said, "And if they find out they can create a desire, they will do that if they can." I hope to address this topic of desire-creation in an upcoming post. Stop back if you can.

M.Joshua -
I love the idea of having a benchmark for care set at the level of those who need our care the most. I bet it would foster a lot more compassion- and love-driven advertising.
I wonder, now that you've got me thinking about it, if this fostering would happen just because people with noticeable handicaps automatically elicit compassion? That is, we see their need and don't take advantage of them.
If this is true, then we need to see the needs of every citizen, because all of us certainly have needs even though few of us show outward signs.
Do we end up taking advantage of people (i.e. showing less compassion) because we assume they're healthy, able, discerning consumers?

jenn August 21, 2008 at 12:05 AM  

Nice post. Thanks to Karla, who stumbled across my blog, I found yours.
... we assume they're healthy, able, discerning consumers
I have a similar perspective to Karla's: I am also a pharmacist, albeit from Canada, and work in an out-patient clinic where I follow my clients' care quite closely. Canadian direct-to-consumer medication advertising rules are slightly different: the ad can mention the drug or the condition, but not both at the same time. A researcher was quoted a few years ago, "The ads look like any other ad for a car, for a cosmetic. And it makes it look like taking a prescription drug is just the same as going out and buying a candy bar. It really trivializes the medical treatment."
I think it's often very difficult for individuals to make optimal medical decisions on their own. That's why we rely on experts: physicians, specialists, pharmacists and other health care providers. It's important to identify who we trust more (whether health related or not): the marketer/company or the expert we choose to meet with.
All this combined, I too have clients requesting the "latest and best" option. Over time, I have built up a great deal of trust and respect with them. When we meet, it's a collaboration of finding the best option to meet their needs. I think it's our relationship that makes that conversation possible.

M.joshua August 21, 2008 at 10:49 AM  

Sam, thats a good question:

"Do we end up taking advantage of people (i.e. showing less compassion) because we assume they're healthy, able, discerning consumers?"

I am confident that we're always in error if we cannot be in-touch with our audiences. Shane Hipps wrote a book about the power of electronic culture with a concluding thesis that wraps around the importance of presence. When we're physically close to somebody, we're deeply affected by them. The more we're in a distant cubicle on a computer screen...

The solution is certainly a far more relational approach to business. I know the postmodern culture shift is unpacking that. But it certainly is not going to come overnight. An isolated mechanic modernistic Pinocchio doesn't just become a boy overnight.

I talked to an entrepreneur friend of mine who is a very loving mother like figure about this kind of subject. She said, "You guys just wait until my generation dies off. Then you can do whatever you want." While that approach is a little hopeless, it also shows me the responsibility that we really have. A close "consumer"-"prosumer" relationship approach to business is certainly burgeoning. But I'm confident it will include it's own set of problems (like a lack of the discipline and skills that defined modernism).

Sam Van Eman August 21, 2008 at 4:56 PM  

Glad to have your input, and glad you're walking with patients care-fully. By the way, what's the rationale behind "the ad can mention the drug or the condition, but not both at the same time"?

A colleague told me about Shane Hipps just the other day. I'm going to have to check him out. Thanks for the heads up.

karla August 21, 2008 at 5:36 PM  

Hi Sam! Karla here again. I can't speak to Canadian practice of pharmacy, as I'm in the U.S. but it sounds similar to how U.S. marketing laws were when I first started practicing. You still see it occasionally in professional journals, of all places! (which is TRULY strange, if my sense of the rationale for it is correct. -?-) My guess at the rationale is that it would send patients to their health care professionals with wondering questions about such and such ad they saw on TV for X drug, or wondering questions about what's the newest treatment for Y condition that I have and saw this vague ad on TV for. i.e. it sends patients to their health care professionals with a questioning, open attitude, not demanding that "I need to have treatment X right now! To heck with treatment J that's on my formulary!" (that the health professional's discernment would state is equally efficacious.) Make sense?

I'll wait and see if Jenn pops in on the Canadian perspective, or if anyone else thinks there's a different rationale for this former U.S. marketing rule's perspective. But yes, it used to be in the U.S. that prescription drug ads could only say drug name or use, too. Maybe the reason they do that in some ads targeted to practicing pharmacists is to pique our curiosity about the next "latest greatest thing" to come down the pike. Marketers can't really market something until it is approved, but maybe this is there next best thing? I dunno.

Jenn August 22, 2008 at 10:53 PM  

I can't fully comment on the reasoning behind the either name or condition. It probably does have to do with withholding some information to cause the consumer to seek additional information from their health care provider.
I know that over the past few years there has been a fairly strong push from various groups, especially pharmaceutical companies, to allow DTCA in Canada. There are also many who oppose it.

Apart from the US ads that commonly cross the border (e.g. TV and magazines), marketers in Canada often get around the rules by running parallel ads.
For example, a certain company ran two ads a few years ago. They both had a man whistling as he walked down the street. One mentioned the drug name, the other said 'talk to your doctor about erectile dysfunction.' Not hard to figure that one out. Other companies have run similar ads.

Then, as Karla mentioned, there is also professional-targeted advertising. Some of this is present in professional journals. Much comes through pharmaceutical reps ... making office visits, supporting conferences financially, providing perks (anything from pens to trips). It certainly depends on the practitioner how much objectivity they can maintain. I know I go to meetings that are supported by company X and I can almost guarantee that I will be hearing about their latest product Y.

The potential for the real problem comes with the combination of DTCA and professional-targeted marketing; you're pressured from many different angles. I think sometimes it can be easy for a professional to "give in" simply because it's easier. As a professional, it takes a lot of work (e.g. analytical review of the original studies) to try to remain objective and equally open to both new and tried-and-true treatment options.

Sam Van Eman August 23, 2008 at 8:25 AM  

Thanks, Jenn. I don't envy you and Karla, but I certainly admire your thoughtfulness in the midst of a barrage of challenges.

Here's to staying compassionate and shrewd (as in "marked by clever discerning awareness and hardheaded acumen").

Greg Stielstra December 4, 2008 at 4:48 PM  

I am a 20-year marketing veteran and currently work at an ad agency. The first thing we do as an agency when planning strategy for any client is research into consumer behavior. We want to understand where consumer thoughts and behaviors are headed so we can "swim with the current."

Trying to swim against that current or to create a current where none exists is an expensive and fruitless proposition.

The best marketing simply recognizes latent or emerging consumer needs and connects them to the appropriate product or service. This makes it appear as if marketing is creating demand, when in reality it is merely responding to demands not yet visible to most.

In my opinion consumers create more demand than marketing but, perhaps, not in the way you might think. It's a form of peer pressure. When your neighbor buys an SUV, you become more likely to get one yourself. When several of your friends get one, your fate is all but determined. This "social proof" is irresistible and the driving force behind the trends people often blame on/credit to marketing.

Greg Stielstra

Sam Van Eman December 5, 2008 at 11:36 AM  

Thanks for the market insights. Your comment made me think of diffusion research and Merchants of Cool, and I think I'll post something about these.

I subscribed to your blog and I'm interested in seeing your forthcoming book, Faith-Based Marketing. Perhaps you'd be willing to do a pre-interview about it? You can check out other interviews I've done in the sidebar.

Press on for the Kingdom.

Greg Stielstra December 8, 2008 at 10:21 AM  


I'd be honored to give you a preinterview for Faith-Based Marketing. Perhaps we could include my co-author Bob Hutchins as well.

Could we schedule it for February? An edited manuscript should be available by then and that will give you something solid to work from.

Please let me know if that works for you or if you prefer something different. GS

Sam Van Eman December 8, 2008 at 12:25 PM  

Sounds good, Greg. I'll send an e-mail to you in a bit.

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