When marketing is at its worst

I read David Kilburn’s column, “Never mind TV ads: paint a cow” (MW October 12), with great interest, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is just the sort of thing that gives the marketing industry a bad name.

The gist of the piece was that rural India represents a huge marketing opportunity for large companies such as Unilever and Nestlé. Because this potential audience of 760 million souls lives in “almost complete media darkness”, and because illiteracy is rife and so many different languages are spoken, novel and ingenious ways are needed to get marketing messages across. These include “folk dances, wall paintings, putting up shoe racks in temples, tiling village wells, painting the horns of cows and putting up scarecrows”.

A potential virgin audience of 760 million people is bound to be seen as a “huge marketing opportunity” by large corporations. But have they ever stopped to consider this “opportunity” as individuals with families to feed? Many live in poverty more extreme than any of us could imagine. I cannot see that spending what little money they have on, frankly, unnecessary Western commodities is going improve anyone’s quality of life.

What’s more, this is not a media-savvy audience. As David Kilburn tells us, many people in rural India live in media darkness or are illiterate. The awful thing, it seems to me, is that it is this very absence of healthy Western cynicism about marketing messages that makes this potential market such an attractive prospect to the corporations concerned.

These companies would probably argue that they are putting something back into the community by tiling wells or putting up the odd shoe rack. But the truth is that they would not be carrying out these projects if they did not stand to gain in the long run. I cannot help feeling that any company that ingratiates itself with rural communities in this way is acting in a highly cynical and exploitative manner.

Elaine McDonald

Bath

(via e-mail)

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