Preaching sense to the unbeliever

Disney in particular and the marketing industry in general will not, on the face of it, be losing much sleep over the fulminations of Church of England primate-to-be Rowan Williams. His polemic against merchandising’s corrupting influence on childhood innocence may be thoughtful and carefully argued, but its impact is diminished by the archaic and weakening platform on which he officially stands.

It is not religion as such, but the brand of it that is the problem here. Ironically, and chillingly, Williams’ message – or a cruder version of it – would have had a much more electrifying effect had it issued from the mouth of a fundamentalist of the Osama bin Laden stripe. The less sectarian, compassionate, more institutionalised variant, of which Williams is an eminent representative, has been progressively eroded by the rising cult of consumerism. Indeed, so broad is the church of brands these days that, arguably, the values of Nike, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s et al are more well known than the content of the ten commandments.

Nevertheless, Williams will have touched a nerve. Smart marketers are painfully aware of their vulnerable dependence on public goodwill to preach the consumerist message. It’s not enough, like the Jesuits, to get them young. Extreme care must also be exercised in the conduct of the mission, in the light of changing mores and the laws that are eventually conditioned by them.

A good case in point is the emergence of the Victim Society. The victim represents the antithesis of the doctrine of Free Will: he or she is endowed with plenty of rights, but seemingly few responsibilities. Idle conjecture? Only if you dismiss the devastating impact the victim phenomenon has already wreaked upon the profits of tobacco companies, as a result of legal class-actions in the US. Nor is this likely to be an isolated instance: a case of demonising something that is all too easy to demonise. The contagion may well be spreading to the food industry. The spectacle of tubby Caesar Barber, an 18-stone New York maintenance worker, filing a class action on behalf of all America’s other obese citizens may have its comical aspects, but it will be no laughing matter in the boardrooms of McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and Wendy’s. Even if the case founders, it should persuade food manufacturers and retailers to exercise more caution in what they purvey and the manner in which they promote it. Health, and health claims, have become a nightmare for marketers.

Logically extended, there is almost no end to the victim’s case. Alcoholics, steered by sharp, unscrupulous lawyers, may in time accuse the drinks companies of ruining their lives. Car manufacturers could find themselves confronting road victims in the dock for failing to point out, in sufficiently compelling detail, the dangers inherent in the power and speed of the vehicles they have sold.

On second thoughts, maybe marketers should listen more carefully to the future archbishop’s message.

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