Mon 13 Sep 2010
Given the history of marketing, it is nearly impossible to blame the discipline for current displays of consumer abundance. Marketing takes roots from the development of mercantilism and, even earlier (though not posited until fairly recently), from the theory of specialization of labour. If we are to extend these theories to a sociological level, then consumer abundance is merely a hallmark development in human society. As “marketing” developed as a science that studies the decision making of both producers and consumers, it as well studied the relationships between these two parties. To say that marketing is “evil” as a result is, therefore, an erroneous claim.
Market economies have dated back to biblical times; agricultural-based markets seemed to become an evolutionarily-necessary staple for producers to match oversupply with consumers who required such goods essential for survival. The Greek and Persian bazaars served as storefronts for these producers to price out their wares and for consumers to purchase. Ultimately, these wares included more than just food supplies, but other household objects as well.
Over time, it seemed to make sense that the market-makers would serve as intermediaries between these parties. The responsibility of production of market activities became an internal business venture, particularly through retailing channels. As a result, the bazaar could truly be described as one of the first displays of consumer abundance. The idea of producing goods—aligned with theories of competitive advantage—meant that businesses (as they eventually became) could dispose of surplus in conjunction with matching consumer household deficits. Initially, these transactions took place using bartering (and haggling) techniques, but monetary systems ultimately fell into place, enabling more efficient pricing mechanisms and allowing business to outsource marketing operations.
The theory of competitive advantage fully started to take root around the mid-1600s, when Jean-Baptiste Colbert laid the foundation for mercantilism. Mercantilist theory played to national strengths in a particular market for goods and selling those goods to other countries where those goods were in demand. This was an early form of globalization, setting up global trade routes to enable such market-making. In the contemporary marketplace, China has found a way to apply surplus production from a command economy to global exports, while simultaneously loosening the restrictions of this command economy to widen domestic consumer abundance.
Thus, history has shown that marketing in its various incantations has been a precursor for consumer abundance in almost every era, irrespective of any implications on modern consumer society. The arguments made by O’Shaughnessy and O’Shaughnessy (2002) initially seem to demonstrate the pitfalls of consumer abundance. In retrospect however, their presentation of the various facets of hedonism in terms of enjoyment versus pleasure seems to exemplify the arguments for consumer abundance. It is as though consumer abundance allows for existence in a truly material world, giving some dimension to an otherwise ontological quandary.
There is a misconstrual that Western civilization is the only civilization that can adequately grasp consumer abundance. Buddhism emphasizes the provision and the enjoyment of material goods, albeit at the expense of their material attachments. As Tyler Durden said in the film Fight Club, “the things you own end up owning you.” The hedonic component of consumer abundance does not contribute to happiness, but serves as rewards for the Sisyphean struggles of our lives.
Does marketing contribute to market-making? Yes. Does it contribute to fulfilling latent desires? Yes. And in doing so, it may even create perceptions of consumer abundance that upend the outcomes of traditional need-hierarchy concepts. But insofar as marketing cannot manufacture those latent desires, it cannot be considered “evil.” Desire (affect-driven choice) is the result of emotion and rationalizations, based on various other social constructs, including components of social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner 1979). Values espoused by these social constructs (religion, ethnicity, etc.) are therefore the double-edged arbiters of consumer abundance, not marketing.