Where marketing is headed

What people will want to read is things like tools and kits. Zoom out and talk about how even jobs are things that are marketed. Lifestyles are marketed. How we spend our time. We live in this massive sort of panopticon and the watchers are us. Reality is a sort of black mirror episode.

When researching a blogpost I wrote a while back “is marketing evil”, I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that consumers are hopelessly outgunned by marketers.

Not every consumer is equal, and not every marketer is equal either, but the system of incentives is structured in a manner that rewards the best marketers for the ability to manipulate the masses or some subset of consumers.

Marketers come up with all sorts of defensive arguments- explored in great detail by Tom Albrighton- but centrally, marketing works. It manipulates consumers. Manufactures consent, purchase. If it didn’t work, nobody would do it. Why would anybody spend money on marketing if it didn’t ultimately yield results? (It gets complex- some marketers make a living through deception, claiming to make a difference but not really).

But the point is- there are people, there is an industry that’s spearheaded by people who are highly competent at manipulating others, and they’re rewarded for it. This doesn’t look good for the consumer. A cynical view might be that we’re all living in a complex human farm, and we are each other’s captors, we manufacture the products that we want each other to buy, and we work hard at exploiting one another so we can afford to be exploited ourselves.

A rather depressing view. On the flip side, it’s also quite clear that consumers have more power than we’ve ever had before. This is mostly a consequence of access to information. A lot of exploitative marketing and sales and capitalism comes is rooted in information asymmetry- the media shows you a nice picture, the Marlboro man, actors smoking, doctors recommend it. Our forefathers had much less access to alternate sources of information.

Today we know that cigarettes are bad for us, that excessive sugar is bad for us, fast food, processed snacks… designed to exploit human weaknesses- the parts of our brains that light up when we eat a bag of chips. If you take a really macro view, a lot of large organizations are built around keeping humans locked in those predictable patterns of consumption, in chasing those stimuli-driven hits. In that sense, fast food and soda and chips don’t look very different from cigarettes, and opium before it. (Opium and tea, supplied by the East India company.) I can’t help but see some slight parallels between that and linkbait headlines. Create demand, who cares if it’s vacuous.

What really helps, what really matters, creates real value? Lasting contributions? The Internet. The ipod, iPhone, hardware. Laptops. Mobile. Asana. Trello. Google calendar.

Consumers have never had access to information the way they do now.

In the past it was homogeneous signals coming from those who controlled the means of distribution- the media. (Before that it was those who controlled the means of production). Both production and distribution have never been easier then today. Authority is earned rather than bought. But money is still powerful. Money can buy you the best talent- or can it? What are the motivations of the best talent? Who is the best marketer in the world, and what does she want? I turn to people like Paul Graham, Seth Godin, Mark Andreesen, Gary Vaynerchuk… (apparently Mark Cuban did b2b work before doing what he’s doing now?). Paul said that the best engineers get to work wherever they like so they pick whatever is most interesting. Whatever feels most meaningful. Google, Apple. Seth seems to be spending his time influencing other marketers- so he’s doing meta-marketing, trying to inspire others to inspire others.

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