Seth Godin writes:

We're responsible for what we sell and how we sell it. We're responsible for the effects (and the side effects) of our actions.

It is our decision. Whatever the decision is, you need to own it. If you can't look that decision in the mirror, market something else.

I was surprised he wrote this because I gather Seth’s readership is primarily marketers, and he generally tells them, or I should say us, things we like to hear, e.g. from the same post: Marketing (the use of time and money to create a story and spread it) works. I guess that candy coating was added to sweeten a medicine that no one, in marketing or otherwise, really wants to swallow: you’re responsible for your own actions.

I was somewhat worried about this responsiblity when I accepted my current job at an advertising agency, but in the past year I haven’t really been asked to help sell anything I feel bad about. Helping sell beef is the closest I’ve come to an ethical compromise, as I’m vegetarian. But I’m the kind of vegetarian who finds this amusing:

MEAT IS MURDER. Tasty, tasty murder.

Photo source unknown

It seems I’m lucky to be working at an agency with pretty good clients, and most people who work in this industry are making a lot of ethical compromises they would rather not think about in terms of personal responsibility. So I don’t expect Seth’s post on this topic is going to sell many books. But I was pleasantly surprised to read it.

 

Dave Rogers continues his effort at debunking the vacuous, though emotionally appealing, assertions as he puts it. And he even provides a better rebuttal to himself than I think anyone else could have:

Now, some sage will come along and point out something like, "all men are created equal," and suggest that it is also an emotionally appealing formulation that has no basis in reality. And despite its presence in the Declaration of Independence, we know the signers didn't, in fact, regard all men as being created "equal," and pretty much ignored women entirely. But, the virtue would supposedly be that it helped to create "a new world," where men were more equal than in the old one. A "flatter" one, if you will. But again, there were more processes at work in that period in history than are captured in that one document, and there was, and remains, plenty of suffering to come in the effort to live up to the notion that "all men are created equal." It doesn't come about because someone put it down on paper, nor is it necessary, but it helps certain other processes gain supporters and adherents. Marketing, in other words.

The first thought that came to my mind was Phil Ochs' song, also the title of his posthumous greatest hits album, The War is Over. I wasn’t alive when the song was written during the American invasion of Vietnam, but I know the war was not actually over, and I always wondered what kind of effect that had on the people, stating aspiration as fact. Surely the phrase "all men are created equal" has changed how we think about equality in America, and I think probably for the better.

So while the opportunity that anybody has to enjoy the same, or more. That’s what’s great about blogging doesn’t appear to be helping anyone much, I don’t think all aspirations stated as fact are harmful. I’m not sure where the distinction is, but here’s a rough guess at what it might be:

The signatories to the Declaration of Independence had something at stake (land claims) in bringing reality closer to their stated aspirations. The cheerleaders of weblogging, on the other hand, have something at stake (attention claims) in preventing reality from matching their stated aspirations. Today, there’s still no scarcity of land in America, but there is a scarcity of attention on the web.

That’s my theory today anyway.

 

I have trouble mustering the anger at marketing pundits that Dave Rogers so often can. Not only would it be incredibly awkward, as I work at an advertising agency, but I just don't think marketing is the problem. I'm not sure what exactly the problem is, but I think marketing is just a symptom. And punditry about marketing is further a symptom of a symptom. Marketing pundits are no more marketers than political pundits are politicians.

That said, when I read Seth Godin saying Marketing, at its core, is about teaching somebody something that they didn't know, I can't help but get a bit upset. He's either blatantly lying or he has no idea what he's talking about. Let's just call it malcomptence.

Marketing, at its core, is about selling something. That it occasionally teaches in the process is a nice unintended consequence, but how anyone could really believe education is the core of marketing long enough to type the sentence is beyond me. Back when he was actually a marketer, Seth Godin wrote Marketing is a contest for people's attention. That at least has some relation to reality. Education also involves getting people's attention. But so does electroshock therapy. No one makes a living saying nonsense like "Marketing, at it's core, is electroshock therapy."

 

We're using electronic media to spread this benchmarking message far and wide. Because there's always a company offering a better or cheaper or faster product, or a person who's more clever than Oprah or cuter than Tyra, it's easy to shop around, to demand more, to be constantly dissatisfied.

Seth Godin

Dissatisfaction is the natural result when everything you don't have is very important. I'm not convinced "relationships" is the solution, though. Seems a bit trite.

 

Stop The Funny#8482; writes My personal view is that branding and marketing are, strategically, value free. What counts are the questions and answers you feed into the machine. I think this wrongly assumes the machine will accept any questions and answers. In reality, you can only market for something's increasing importance. There's no way to market the unimportance of something.

So we have marketing for the importance of Coke and marketing for the importance of Pepsi, but there's no marketing for the (true) idea that neither are important. There's no one advertising against anything. In many cases, it's even illegal to do so. I couldn't possibly run marketing saying "Coke is crap. It's just a bunch of chemicals that are rotting your body and some drugs that make you want to keep drinking it. And Pepsi is the same thing in a different package. Neither are important to your happiness or well-being, so stop buying them."

 

Dave Rogers has been writing about marketing within the frame of "Social Hygiene" here and here. At the end of the latter he wrote:

If we're going to have any hope of preserving some space for purely social interactions, where someone isn't manipulating us for the purpose of seeking a competitive advantage, we're probably going to have to make one. But I wonder if it isn't already too late?

One of the ways I reduce comment spam is to band certain words from being posted in comments. I was at first hesitant to do this, because someone might have a legitimate reason to mention propecia, for example. But then I realized that I don't want to hear other people's thoughts on propecia even if they aren't spam. So you can't comment on propecia here, depsite my ability to use the word three times in a single paragraph.

After reading Dave's post, I wondered if this technique couldn't be expanded to ban commerce from a social space. Here's how I would do it if I didn't already have far too many projects started:

Run all conversation through a filter. Submit each word in the text to the USPTO trademark search with a URL like this one for propecia. If any results are found, replace the word with [commercial product], and maybe give each user an anti-karma value like "pawn of the man" with a point for each time they use a trademarked word. So because I've used the word propecia five times now, my name would say: Scott Reynen [Pawn of the man level 5] or something like that. And then you could kick me out if my POTM level got too high over a given period of time.

I'm sure this plan could use improvement, but I think it's entire feasible to ban all trademarked terms from a social space, and I think it would be an interesting experiment, if nothing else.

 

Yesterday I found myself drawn into a discussion I may have been wiser to avoid over on gapingvoid. I work as a web developer at an advertising agency, so I have a particular interest in how technology changes the advertising game, and until this discussion, I was watching what Hugh McLeod is doing from a distance and finding it interesting. But then he pointed to someone criticizing the whole thing, and the criticisms made some sense.

But I wouldn't likely have spent much time thinking about it if Hugh hadn't launched into the now cliché diatribe about how large organization X is just attacking the little guy because it knows technology is empowering the little guy and larger organization X is doomed. In this case, large organization X seemed obviously irrelevant to the conversation.

So I pointed this out, as did others, but Hugh didn't make any movement away from the ridiculousness, saying I'm being paid to piss Big Money off. I think this is just a few steps away from saying "if you don't like my business plan, the terrorists have already won." It's just dragging out a boogeyman to drum up support. So I lost some respect for Hugh there.

Tom Coates was involved in this conversation too, and writes:

I'm totally fed up of people standing up and waving a flag for the death of institutions based on sketchy information and a vague belief in the rightness of their cause - and I'm also slightly sick of more moderate voices being drowned out under the revolutionary fervour of people fresh with their first wave of excitement about user-generated content on the web.

Me too. But I'm not sure what to do about it, nor even how to avoid participating in the cycle myself. A few weeks ago I got involved in one of these discussions and found myself on both sides in different contexts. A friend of mine who is not particularly interested in technology started an email discussion about how she doesn't think new technology like Tivo is really improving anything. I don't use Tivo, but I pointed out how I think Tivo is part of a larger trend of empowering the audience to participate more and passively consume less, which I think leads to more niche marketing.

She was pointing out everything wrong with technology, so I started pointing out everything great about technology. The same day, Kathy Sierra wrote a post about how marketing is being improved by technology and I found myself taking the exact opposite position, pointing out that marketing remains a dangerous game even online. So in the same day I took opposing positions on the same issue, neither of which really represented my opinion.

If someone had asked me what I think about technology and marketing, I would have given an answer somewhere in between. I think technology is slightly altering the marketing game in ways which could be exploited to make large positive changes, but like any other tool, the responsibility lies with the users to make something positive happen.

But even something so neutral as this gets read as complete disagreement by both sides. Disagreement pushes opinions away from each other and we end up with extremes. I think I'm as tired as Tom of the drowning of moderate voices, but I don't see much floating in this sea of all-or-nothing discussions.

 

Kathy Sierra wrote an interesting post entitled You can out-spend or out-teach, which I think does a nice job of capturing the current Cluetrain-inspired thinking on how Everything is Different Online#8482;. I'm skeptically optimistic about the changing marketplace of ideas. I think Kathy does a fine job of articulating my optimism, so I want to focus on my skepticism here.

The title is a good place to start. Kathy explains the virtues of teaching over spending, but I think anyone who has spent a day in a classroom will tell you that if it were possible to buy learning, they would. Teaching is hard. Spending is easy.

And selling is also easier than learning. Kathy likes to talk about helping your users kick ass, but most users don't want to kick ass. Most people, most of the time, want to know what they're doing — not learn how to do something new. That's why we spend so much time watching TV rather than reading books. We want something easy. Buy this pill and everything will be okay. If I believed it, I'd buy the pill. And the temptation allows a lot of people to convince themselves, to deceive themselves, that it's true.

It's easy to blame the advertising agencies (though maybe not so easy for me now that I work at one) for selling us crap. It's easy to blame the Walmarts for stocking crap. It's easy to blame the ACMEs for manufacturing crap. But what about the customers? We buy the crap. We know it's crap, but we buy it anyway because crap is cheap. How do you teach someone who doesn't want to learn?

I hope this is changing. I hope people are gradually taking a more active role in their own lives, and shifting towards decisions and products that help them kick ass. But I don't see it changing fast enough to warrant calls for everyone to shift from out-spending to out-teaching. There's not a big enough market of students to handle all the would-be teachers.

Hugh McLeod was in traditional advertising and decided to try something new by doing word-of-mouth advertising through blogs, "blogvertising," he calls it. And it appears to be working for him. But he's selling fine wine and business suits. This is a very small niche market. Kathy is selling technology books. Another small niche market. I hope some day the world will be full of niche markets as we all explore the full diversity of the human experience. But Hugh is proclaiming (traditional) advertising is dead today. It's not. Traditional buy this because it's/I'm pretty advertising will not die until we all become more mindful shoppers.

So how do we get from now to then? I have no idea, but I strongly suspect we do so much more slowly than I see Hugh or Kathy suggesting. I see them both teaching the teachers of this new education-based economy, but who is teaching the students? That's the harder part because students are good at distracting. Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter, they say. Before you know it, you've condensed your out-teaching plan down to a pill form, available at their local Walmart in a variety of shiny colors.

But really, I'm optimistic.