Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dirty Marketing?

Recently, Ochuk had a lengthy discussion about the power of marketing to influence young people. One commenter introduce an article from Fast Company, entitled Dirty Marketing, which takes companies to task for unfair creating needs and desires on the part of the consumer.

This is a common bludgeon against marketers of all stripes. Advertisers, we are told, are marketing unnecessary product to unwitting consumers, who would otherwise invest their money in bonds or orphan rescue missions. As such, we in the industry are purveyors of eeeeeeeevil... Allow me, then, to dispense with this canard once and for all.

As a case study, the article highlights Wisk's once-famous "ring around the collar" ads. In one such ad, a female cruise director rebuffs a young man for having this particular affliction. This is untoward, according to the articles authors, Dan and Chip Heath. By stigmatizing an unimportant detail, they argue, Wisk created a need that only be sated by Wisk.

Some observations are in order. First, everybody needs laundry detergent, and any reasonable women will observe whether or not a man's shirt is dirty or foul smelling, and make an assessment in accordance with this observation. The idea, clearly, was to develop brand loyalty amongst a demographic (young men) who made detergent-purchasing decisions on price alone.

Far from creating a stigma, then, the detergent simply uses Ring Around the Collar as a symptom of a larger problem with bad laundry detergents. Would the Heaths have preferred stained underwear as the offending subject? As the good people of Charmin lurch ever closer to stating outright that their toilet paper efficiently and comfortably extricates fecal residue from the human anus, I find myself pining for innocent times, when a nasty case of ring around the collar symbolized man's unkempt folly.

Is Wisk that much better at removing sweat rings then, say, Tide? Probably not, but we can hardly expect Wisk's marketing team to advertise "buy us or buy our competitor, but buy something, you smelly bastard!"

The Heath brothers (are they brothers?) then direct their ire at Visa. Specifically, they are irate about the campaign where everyone is dancing and generally having a good time at a purveyor of consumer goods, until some effeminate gentleman has the temerity to pay with cash. First of all, these ads aren't particularly good. They are overproduced and take far too long to introduce the product. Second, they are not nearly so nefarious as they seem.

The Heath's contend that the goal of the ad is to make one feel guilty for paying with cash. For starters, this goal is not attainable. If I have cash, I'll gladly bandy it about, with or without Visa's approval. More so, and the authors obliquely acknowledge this, the ad is trying to eradicate the notion that paying by credit card is time consuming. Gone are the days of the manual card reader and it's cacophonous ca-chunks.

And is it really "dirty" to make an observation that is empirically true? In most instances, the transfer of cash really IS more time consuming than paying by credit card. The alternative, of course, is for companies to tout the fact that having a credit card allows you buy crap you can't afford. To their, um, credit, most card companies have avoided this tactic.

Surely, there are examples of dirty, or disingenuous marketing. KFC famously pulled an ad touting it's chicken as a health food (by focusing on the poultry itself rather than the cooking method). Budweiser is running an egregious ad claiming other beers hide their imperfections with darker colors, as though Sierra Nevada and Guinness are teeming with dust mites or something.

But even those ads convey a (chicken?) nugget of truth. The vinyl-siding class drinks Budweiser BECAUSE it has no flavor. To them, an ale might as well be impure insofar as it tastes bad. Pound for pound, the most unhealthy thing at KFC is the biscuit (with 11g of fat!).

The marketing world has long since dispensed with the idea of creating needs. New metrics focus on the ability of advertising to deliver on pre-existing needs and desires. Someone who has a need for a top to bottom home remodeling solution will shop at Lowe's if prompted. Someone looking for a symbol of their adventurous spirit will gravitate toward Harley's award winning advertising.

Marketing helps consumers discover what they need. If that all sounds a bit altruistic, remember that companies spend money with the expectation of a return on that investment. That's the nuts and bolts of it. If it is possible persuade someone to spend money on a product they do not want or need, it is certainly expensive.

There are valid criticisms of a culture so immersed in advertising that it is literally inescapable. But Dan and Chip Heath are, at minimum, pursuing the wrong targets. They are resorting to the lazy sort of thinking that reinforces readers assumptions and sells, well, ad space. Seems a bit dirty to me.

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