Pragmatic Protest – Battling The Marketing Medusa Without Turning To Stone

In the first installment of Pragmatic Protest we talked about ‘turning our backs’ on retailers and corporations that operate antithetically from what’s good for the American consumer. Unfortunately, that covers an awful lot of ground: the country’s economy, our personal finances, our health, the environment and ultimately, the future of our children. There are so many thriving businesses in the U.S. that succeed by endangering us in one or more ways, that it is nearly impossible to fathom how they’re allowed to exist, let alone prosper.

The answer, in almost every case, can be traced back to marketing. Advertising, Public Relations, Image Consulting, whatever alias it uses, it amounts to the same thing: coercion. In every facet of American life, marketing is inescapable. Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, no matter where you are in this country, the streets, your home, in our offices and schools, you are literally surrounded by advertising or at least branding.

Look around you right now, wherever you happen to be. Count how many logos you see. Just for this one day, actually take an accounting of how much advertising you see and hear. Do you watch football? An average NFL game lasts just over three hours, but actual play only accounts for about eleven minutes. The rest is an almost non-stop barrage of commercials and promotions. Other professional and college sports aren’t much better. They may not have as many commercial interruptions, but they’ve found ways to sell advertising viewable during the action. Naming rights for the stadium itself, revolving signs, green screened backstops… Some arenas have even sold ad space on the steps leading into the seating area.

College athletes playing a game of CarQuestball..Reesesball…basketball.

While it’s a given that you’re going to be subjected to commercial breaks while watching network television shows, now we’re subjected to promotions and ads that cover a third of the screen, during the show we’re watching. It wasn’t long ago that something like that was unheard of. Those of us old enough to remember when the practice began, were outraged by the vulgarity of  it. But now it’s commonplace, and we just accept it.

That’s the nature of the marketing beast, there is no bottom; no end point. Our society is in what amounts to an abusive relationship with advertising. In the beginning we understood its need for attention, but now we’re trapped by the constant demands, the lies, the neediness. Marketing is invasive, it reads our e-mail, spies on our FaceBook page and uses our browser history to mimic our likes and dislikes. It calls during dinner pretending to conduct surveys, feigning interest in our opinions and flattering us to get at what’s in our wallets.

Advertising today isn’t Don Draper* in a sharp suit, drinking scotch and trying to understand how housewives think, it is psy-ops. It’s not struggling artists working day-jobs and exercising their creativity, it’s trained psychologists who abandoned their medical ethics spending $12 billion, manipulating children’s minds.

One of the worst of marketing’s many sins, is its constant need to dial up hyperbole without regard for what’s actually being sold. There are no filters, no limits to the superlatives heaped on any product, from dish soap to ‘sports utility vehicles.’ In fact, the more mundane, or cheap, or useless a product is, the higher the praise for it. Marketing polishes the worst turds to a high sheen, and throws them in with everything else, making it hard for the public to discern the difference.

It’s how the ‘Media Medusa’ operates: A thousand writhing twisting snakes hissing at you, and when you inevitably turn your head to see what the commotion is about, you can’t turn away. You’re hypnotized, turned to stone. Or at least, they hope, too slow and lazy to look out for your interests.

So what can we do to make intelligent decisions, in the face of all that? You can’t ignore marketing in our society. It’s too pervasive. In fact it’s so pervasive, in many instances we don’t notice it. But marketing knows this, when it’s not screaming in our faces, it’s whispering in our ear, or catching our peripheral vision. So when we make the decision to purchase anything, we have to do the things that most marketing wants us to avoid doing:

  • Take your time. Marketing implores you to act quickly: Limited Time Offer! This Weekend Only! See Your (like you’re supposed to think they’re yours) Chevy Dealer Now!.. Instilling the idea that you may miss out on a product or a deal, is just a way of making you act without thought. We don’t live in a place where shortages are commonplace. They’ll make as much as they can sell.
  • Research what you’re buying. This internet thing is an awesome tool. Use it. Other people have bought the product you’re looking at. Did they like it? Does it even do what you want it to? Look at product reviews. Also wherever you are, your tax dollars pay for consumer protection. Can you find it cheaper online? Can you get it used?
  • Decide what YOU want. Marketers love to tell you what you’re looking for in a product. And damned if the product they’re selling doesn’t have those very things! Think about how, and under what conditions, you’ll be using your purchase, and what your expectations are.
  • Read the label. One of the biggest mistakes we make is ignoring the fine print. Find out what you’re putting on your table and in your body. If you see an ingredient in your food you can’t pronounce or identify, don’t buy it. Prepared foods are obligated by law, to tell you what they contain. Don’t play Fear Factor with your health; if I offered you something you didn’t recognize, would you put it in your mouth?
  • Where’s your money going? Who made what you’re buying? Where did they make it? Will the profit go to someone you know, or will it go to China or the Caymans? A sustainable economy has to have a currency circulate; too much of what we purchase is part of a linear economy. One way, the other way.

It’s all just common sense, we all have it, we just don’t always remember to use it. Especially with all the flashing, exploding, big-breasted, catchy-tuned excitement implicitly promised in every ad that swirls around us. Use what you know, and ignore the bells and whistles long enough to find out the stuff you don’t know.

* People idolize Don Draper, the dark brooding ad exec on Mad Men, but he was created by Matthew Weiner, who found fame introducing us to Tony Soprano, another dark brooding who made his money without worrying about who got hurt. They’re actually pretty similar characters.

Join me on FaceBook and Twitter