Is marketing evil?

It’s not an accident that people who have been hustled, pressured, tricked and abused by marketers aren’t fans of the profession.

If you spend time and money (with skill) you can tell a story that spreads, that influences people, that changes actions. Marketing can cause people to buy something that they wouldn’t have bought without marketing, vote for someone they might not have considered, and support an organization that would have been invisible otherwise.

If marketing doesn’t work, then a lot of us are wasting a great deal of effort (and cash). But it does.

So, does that make marketing evil?

In a story about my blog published in Time magazine years ago, the author wrote, tongue in cheek, “Entry you’ll never see: Is marketing evil? Based on a long career in the business, I’d have to answer ‘yes.’”

Actually, I need to amend what this pundit said.

I’ll add this entry: Are marketers evil? Based on a long career in the business, I’d have to answer, “some of them.”

I think it’s evil to persuade kids to start smoking, to cynically manipulate the electoral or political process, to lie to people in ways that cause disastrous side effects. I think it’s evil to sell a patent medicine when an effective one is available. I think it’s evil to come up with new ways to make obesity acceptable so you can make a few more bucks.

Marketing is beautiful when it persuades people to get a polio vaccine or to wash their hands before performing surgery. Marketing is powerful when it sells a product to someone who discovers more joy or more productivity because he bought it. Marketing is magic when it elects someone who changes the community for the better. Ever since Josiah Wedgwood invented marketing a few centuries ago, it has been used to increase productivity and wealth.

I’ve got a lot of nerve telling you that what you do might be immoral. It’s immoral to rob someone’s house and burn it to the ground, but is it immoral to market them into foreclosure? Well, if marketing works, if it’s worth the time and money we spend on it, then I don’t think it matters a bit if you’re “just doing your job.” It’s still wrong.

Just like every powerful tool, the impact comes from the craftsman, not the tool. Marketing has more reach, with more speed, than it has ever had before. With less money, you can have more impact than anyone could have imagined just ten years ago. The question, one I hope you’ll ask yourself, is What are you going to do with that impact?

For me, marketing works for society when the marketer and consumer are both aware of what’s happening and are both satisfied with the ultimate outcome. I don’t think it’s evil to make someone happy by selling them cosmetics, because beauty isn’t the goal — it’s the process that brings joy. On the other hand, swindling someone out of their house in order to make a sales commission . . .

Just because you can market something doesn’t mean you should. You’ve got the power, so you’re responsible, regardless of what your boss tells you to do.

The good news is that I’m not in charge of what’s evil and what’s not. You, your customers, and their neighbors are. The even better news is that ethical, public marketing will eventually defeat the kind that depends on the shadows.

If we work hard enough.

This is an excerpt from my new book, THIS IS MARKETING. Click to read some reviews and see a video presentation and more.