Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ On Marketing

On Marketing

After my recent flurry of published posts, I received a letter from one of my few readers, about the example I used in my Unearned Life entry. (Skala's Law strikes again, I guess.) The question was simple: was I reluctant to improve my marketing skills just because I am not naturally inclined to sell things, or because I saw something inherently icky about marketing? The answer, as usual with me, is complicated. This entry is my attempt to untangle some of those complicated feelings and beliefs.

Those who defend advertising do so on the basis that it spreads information. By learning about products and services on the market, we might find something that fulfills a need, and leaves us better off than we would be otherwise. I feel this way about MP3 players; owning an MP3 player has solved a concrete problem that I have struggled with for years (namely: keeping myself distracted so I can get boring housework done effectively). Owning an MP3 player has caused other problems, of course, but overall I would argue that owning an MP3 player has solved more problems than it has caused. I do not think I responded to a specific advertisement when purchasing my first MP3 player, but the media had been saturated with advertisements for iPods a few years earlier. So advertising definitely played a role in connecting me to a solution for my need.

Those who criticise advertising note that in addition to spreading information about products and services, advertising can also create desire for things that do not benefit us. I do not need delicious cheesecakes in my life, but every time I see an advertisement for a delicious cheesecake (or even a picture of a delicious cheesecake) then I crave one. Although eating delicious cheesecakes gives me momentary pleasure, overall delicious cheesecakes cause more problems in my life than they solve. The purveyors of delicious cheesecake advertisements can argue that they are targeting those who do not know about the existence of delicious cheesecakes, and are intending to market their products only to those whose lives would genuinely benefit from delicious cheesecake consumption. Even if this was true, then I would be collateral damage, and thus the advertising is causing some harm. However, purveyors of delicious cheesecakes are happy to take my money for their products even if I do not benefit from their product. In this case, the marketers benefit from manipulating my cravings for delicious cheesecake, and it becomes my responsibility to exercise self-control, resisting those temptations if I feel that consuming delicious cheesecake is not in my best interests. Since self-control appears to be a limited, exhaustable resource, it is clear that marketing can do public harm. Furthermore, I assert that an awful lot of the consumption that keeps the wheels of capitalism turning is more like delicious cheesecake and less like MP3 players: it is more profitable to induce cravings within us that will only be temporarily satiated through consumption than it is to generate products that fulfill our needs and do not leave us craving more.

This tension between information and manipulation never goes away, and I struggle with it a lot. I do not think this is a continuum, with pure information on one side and pure manipulation on the other. The relationshop is more complicated, and I do not know how to characterise it properly. What I do know is that it is omnipresent in the marketing/publicity I attempt: I am constantly asking myself whether the things I am trying to publicize are primarily for my own benefit (which suggests manipulation) or for the benefit of the people consuming my event (which suggests information).

For the most part, I publicize events and activities that I am organizing. When I commit to making an event happen, I tend to put a lot of work into organization and logistics and not enough work into publicity. Putting months of time and effort into a big event like Software Freedom Day feels like a big waste when few people show up for the event, which is exactly what happened this year. If I am going to put so much effort into putting an event together, then I want results, which means that I want people to attend, which means that some publicity is necessary. I want everybody to know about my event, and I want everybody who might be interested in the event to attend. But that fails to happen, again and again and again. None of the activities I organize -- not KWLUG, not our community garden, not our reading circle, not Software Freedom Day, not our all-candidate meetings for the election -- have good turnouts. That might mean a number of different things:

(EDIT: It has been suggested that a fourth explanation is that people care about the activities but do not have time to participate in them. I view this as a special case of the first explanation.)

That third explanation probably requires some elaboration, even though the concept is easy. Consider free software. Free software is readily accessible, gives people opportunities to build their reputations and technical skills, powers all kind of important infrastructure (like, say, the Internet), and helps democratize the digital divide. Free software is also terribly named, and even those who have heard of the term usually misrepresent what it means. Even those who hear the terms "free software" or "Free Software Day" might not understand the ways free software can benefit their lives. Thus, some explanation is necessary if those people are going to attend Software Freedom Day activities. Is this manipulation? I would argue that it is -- it is creating a need in people that they did not know they had. In whose interests is that manipulation? It is partially in the interests of those learning about free software and getting involved with the community, but it is also in my interests, both because I spent a lot of time and effort organizing Software Freedom Day and because (rightly or wrongly) I have been indoctrinated into the free software cult and want to recruit new members into the cult. My motives are not pure. So is publicizing this event evil?

For a moment, assume that my motives were pure, and in advertising an event I only have the best interests of my audience at heart. Marketing still has a downside, which is cacaphony. We are bombarded with appeals to our attention, and in order to stand out from the crowd individual marketing campaigns have to be louder, more novel, and/or more creative. This creates an arms race, and soon advertising permeates every facet of our lives. Since the job of advertising is to induce need in our lives, it has the side effect of making us feel dissatisfied, which means we are being bombarded with messages that end up making us feel worse -- even if every single one of those individual messages is in our best interests. I feel this frequently when it comes to public lectures. I like being notified of public lectures that are going on. But every time there is a public lecture that I cannot attend, or a public lecture I would like to attend conflicts with a second (or a third, or a fourth) lecture that I would like to attend, I feel stressed and sad, because the lecture announcement induced some craving in me and then I have to miss out on the experience. I would have been happier if I had not known about these conflicting events in the first place.

I am particularly susceptible to public lecture announcements, but this applies to all kinds of advertising. One of the things I fear most in this brave new world of ubiquitous surveillance is that the advertisers will get better at their jobs, and match me with advertisements for the products and services that I desire most. Then I am hosed; I will be unhappy almost all of the time. Maybe I will give all of my money to these goods and services, which will leave me poor and unhappy. Maybe I will spend all my self-control resources in resisting these advertisements, which will leave me unhappy. Maybe I will just feel the deep cravings these advertisements induce, which will also leave me unhappy.

Given all of these bad effects, why do I advertise events at all? Why would I even consider improving my marketing skills, especially since I do not have natural inclinations towards selling things? My answer is: I am part of the problem. Whether it is justifiable or not, when I pour energy and time into organizing things I do so in the hope of getting good results, and that usually means good turnouts of people engaged in the activity, attendees who come out the other side feeling they invested their time wisely by going to my event. Some part of me wants to learn how to reach out to people in ways that get good turnouts. But I do not know how to do this effectively, and I certainly do not know how to do it without exacerbating the social ills that advertising already causes. Is the correct answer to stop organizing events? It probably is, but that does not feel like the right answer either, because the events I organize tend to be things I think will benefit others. Maybe that really is manipulation: I want to manipulate others into caring about the same things I think are important.