The Morality Of Marketing

Niraj DawarMarch 7, 20193 min

Does Marketing serve existing consumer needs, or does it create them?

Sooner or later, a version of this question inevitably pops up when you’re trying to explain marketing to the general public.

One response to the question is to dismiss it with another: why does it matter? As long as marketing influences consumer behavior, should it matter whether it serves pre-existing needs or creates them?

Another version of the answer is: isn’t it merely a matter of degree – some needs are overt (the consumer is aware of them), others are latent, and can be heightened through marketing, and yet others may be entirely new – it is the marketer’s job to determine what consumers want, even if they themselves don’t know.

Steve Jobs famously scoffed at the idea of market research, and Henry Ford is quoted as saying that if he’d asked consumers what they wanted, they “would have asked for a faster horse.”

Ultimately, the test of whether consumers really want a product is whether they’re willing to pay for it. And as long as they’re willing to pay for it, it doesn’t matter whether or not they were aware of their need for it before they were exposed to the marketer’s magic. The only way we can know they need it is if they’re willing to exchange their hard-earned money to pay for it.

So we’ve dismissed the question of need creation versus need discovery.

But dig deeper, and there is another way to interpret the question. The question is a moral one: should marketers create needs, rather than just serve pre-existing ones.

Marketing is a set of techniques to influence consumer behavior. The morality of this influence depends not on the morality of whether or not the marketer has the right to influence consumers, but rather on your position on the morality of the end goal.

For example, it is hard not to have an opinion about whether marketers should influence children to buy cigarettes, obese people to eat at MacDonald’s, alcoholics to buy alcohol, or influence gambling addicts to place bets.

But for every such example, there are clear instances when the same people who oppose marketing’s influence in those instances want marketing to create needs: the awareness and need for safe sex, the need to quit smoking, the need to eat healthy, the need to protect the environment, the need for infants to be re-hydrated during dysentery, and to be vaccinated, and so on. And in each of these instances, marketing has had at least some positive influence in the past few decades.

Did the recipients of marketing’s messages about safe sex have a need for safe sex before they were exposed to marketing messages about it? Did marketing create the need for safe sex? Should it have?

The morality of marketing resides not so much in the tactics of influence, as in the goals of those tactics.

Society makes judgments about appropriate and inappropriate goals for marketing. These judgments are reflected in the laws of many countries that forbid the advertising of tobacco and alcohol on television, restrict advertising to children, and place constraints on the marketing of pharmaceuticals, gambling, or medical services.

And it is not just laws that that provide or withdraw marketing permission to act. It is also the mores and norms of behavior of society. And these change over time. The ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes above is unthinkable today.

What should be heartening to marketers in these restrictions is that they are a back-handed compliment – they acknowledge the power of marketing. If marketing weren’t so powerful, society wouldn’t feel the need to regulate or sanction it.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Niraj Dawar, Author of TILT: Shifting Your Strategy From Products To Customers

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