Is marketing evil? Now and then, someone forces us to ask
Marketing is inherently neither good nor bad, but as the general public often remind us, we should always question its purpose and how we use it.
A video on The Marketing Meetup’s TikTok went viral last week.
The few times we’ve gone viral, I’ve always found the experience pretty uncomfortable.
Initially, you get a burst of excitement as your content catches and more people see it. But, over time, there’s a long tail of folks who become less and less relevant to the point you were trying to make. And, as you know, things on the internet can get angry.
That’s what happened last week – first the good, then the bad.
Comments like “I hate marketers. Your profession, guided by rich asses, has nearly single-handedly ruined the American psyche” began to roll in. The esteemed scholar ‘Fartbox Johnston’ chimed in with: “Teach me more about how to exploit things out of people”.
And while all this is uncomfortable, it’s a solid reminder that outside our bubble, a decent proportion of people don’t like what we do. Some even think what we do is evil. So, is it?
Not long ago, I attended a conference where a speaker representing a tobacco company delivered an interesting marketing talk. However, I left feeling uneasy as he discussed “growth targets” just like any other company would.
On another occasion, I spoke with the amazing Nana Crawford about how she uses marketing strategies and techniques to spread the word about the Red Cross, educating people on everything from human trafficking to food crises.
So the answer to the question is clear: marketing is a tool. It’s neither evil nor good on its own – it’s how it’s applied that matters. It has the potential for both.
Much of the debate revolves around how we view ourselves. The CIM defines marketing as “the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably”. While this definition makes sense in a business context, it doesn’t fully capture the power of marketing as a tool. We can initiate movements and spread ideas unrelated to money, using everything we know as marketers.
Diagnosis – understand the problem. Strategy – identify your target audience, your message and your goals. Tactics – start communicating. This doesn’t have to be about profits, and even if it is, making money isn’t inherently bad.
Personally, I’ve always been motivated by this simple marketing equation: Customer need + our solution + communication = marketing. The output of that equation is an improved human life.
Though not everyone shares this motivation, it works for me and keeps me grounded in what I’m really trying to do.
That’s why we, as marketers, should question our purpose as part of our activities. If it’s not the goal, there are likely more effective ways of selling our wares. Most of our job involves solving requirements profitably, not changing the world. This is also why we shouldn’t claim “purpose isn’t for marketing”. If you’re doing purpose, do it intentionally and with purpose.
So, is marketing evil? No. But it’s not inherently good either. Like any powerful tool, it’s how we choose to use it that determines its impact. As marketers, we wield the power to influence opinions, shape narratives and drive change. The responsibility is ours to act with intention.
Joe Glover is founder of The Marketing Meetup.