Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Sunday, February 24, 2008

On marketing and democracy

At the IPA's 44 Club last week, we had a presentation from Professor John Quelch of Harvard Business School outlining the main arguments in his new book Greater Good.

It sparked the response below, which in the main came from the fact that there appeared to be a shallow understanding of what is actually meant by democracy. The fact that noted marketeers such as Rory Sutherland appear to be falling into the same trap suggests that there's some way to go before we as a profession should pronounce on those thorny issues surrounding the social contract.

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Professor Quelch’s presentation of the argument in his and Katherine Jocz’s new book, Greater Good, at the IPA in London last week, was certainly (as he claimed it might be) stomach churning.

Less so for the broad thrust of what he was arguing – that ‘marketing is more democratic than democracy’, which can only be viewed as a provocation – but more for the fact that the claim appeared to be made on a narrow assumption of what democracy actually is.

On this basis of the presentation, and not the book, there are five broad critiques of it that can be made:

1. There was no definition of democracy given, not even a narrow one. Instead there was an assumption that democracy was merely ‘voting’, with the act being analogous to making a purchasing decision. But most political scientists will tell you that democracy is far, far more than just the expression of a preference. At a minimum, and definition of democracy worth the name must also include:

· The rule of law
· An independent judiciary
· A free press
· An unfettered legislature
· A restrained executive.

If one starts to explore the relationship between marketing and democracy from this wider vantage point, however, one starts to see that the claim that the former is more democratic than the latter is mis-stated. What is being claimed is actually that ‘marketing makes firms that supply markets more accountable than democracy does for politicians supplying the political market’. Which is a different, and more defensible claim. But one that’s not as catchy or attention grabbing.

2. ‘Marketing’, for want of another term, has had some sort of relationship with modern politics (and therefore democracy) for the best part of the last 50 years, if not longer. From Bernays to Saatchi, to name to high-profile marketing practioners, the idea that marketers have not offered advice nor had it taken by politicians is wrong. If, as Quelch claims, democracy is in such a dire situation, marketing has a greater share of the blame than just an ‘unintended’ one. And saying more marketing will solve the problem is merely a circular argument.

3. Quelch claims that marketing, through its ability to help consumers sift information, express choice and so on, helps people to become better citizens too. If so, does this therefore mean that we were ‘less good’ citizens before this point? How is this provable? What is the metric?

What appears to be happening here is a conflation with the idea of being a consumer with that of citizenship, which in reality shrinks the possibility of what citizenship can be. It becomes merely the claiming of one’s rights while holding others accountable while expressing the claim to those rights.

But this is a shallow vision of what citizenship can be – what of patriotism? Community? The common weal (to use a term that has fallen out of favour amongst social theorists of all stripes)? – and makes the citizen’s relationship with the state not only to be the most important aspect of citizenship, but reduced to one being the provider of services, and the other recipient of them.

However, the state does – has to – do more than merely provide. Protect for one, as well as do what the market won’t. Which, it should be remembered, is a lot.

4. There are many models of democracy available to us too, not just the US and UK one that Professor Quelch appears to have based much of his analysis on. Are his claims re marketing and democracy testable against other democratic models – a system of proportional representation for example, or the German Länder system? It would be hard to claim that the latter system is one where there is not enough accountability, for example.

Not acknowledging the variety of democratic systems out there lets down Quelch’s argument.

5. Missing – most damningly, perhaps – from Quelch’s presentation was the recognition that the political world is acutely aware of the failures of accountability that compares marketing too. Most politicians are aware of emerging democratic deficits; hence one of the solutions is to ask the marketing world for its help.

And, bluntly, the political market is always imperfect, and known to be imperfect, as this quotation shows. It’s lengthy, and old but still is acute in summing up the limits to what democracy can achieve when thought of in a ‘market’ framework:

Free elections are created by free men, not vice versa. The machinery or election will not call up, establish, or guarantee political freedom. The belief that it will reveals our trust in ‘the market’, our belief that competition of itself makes excellence prevail. Our faith in the electoral process is based entirely on myths of the market. We think we can be ‘open’ to all political alternatives (we cannot). We think we welcome all competitors for power (we do not). We think this will give us the best rulers available (it does not). We think the freedoms we possess were wrought by this process (they were not). We think the process will work automatically for others (it will not). If our freedoms are impaired, we think… this comes from some failure in the voting process (it does not). And we hope to cure all such discontent by repairing, restoring, or improving the process (we cannot). We think that voting is freedom’s ‘invisible hand’.


Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes, p 455

The clear implication is that it is not, and that freedom’s source is not derived merely from the expression of preference in a voting booth.

While the general idea that marketing should go on the front foot to protect itself, and remind the world of the benefits that it brings is right, not defining the terms that are being used in the arguments that are being made ultimately weakens the arguments. If we want ‘democracy’ to take our concerns about the freedom to market and sell products freely seriously, we should do the political system the respect of understanding it fully and properly and not reducing it to the lowest common denominator. Or people will know us guilty of the sins they already think we are guilty of.

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