Marketing is hindered by its individualistic, neoliberal worldview

Young marketers lack the historical perspective needed to understand culture, being indoctrinated in the Thatcherite concept of the consumer society.

Source: Shutterstock/David Fowler

As the great Carl Sagan once said, “you have to know the past to understand the present”.

A couple of months ago, I was giving a talk to a group of marketers and people working in advertising. Drawing from the work Ian Murray and I have published over the past six years, it focused on the culture of marketing and how this has resulted in a profound disconnect between marketers and people out there in the real world.

As I’ve outlined in my previous columns, our research has highlighted that people working in marketing literally see, think, experience and interpret the world differently from the majority of the population. Using a number of frameworks borrowed from cross-cultural psychology and the social sciences, we’ve been able to show that marketers have a highly individualistic worldview. This is in stark contrast to the general population, whose worldview places greater emphasis on community and collectivism.

After talking through examples, I felt it was important to take a step back, add cultural context to the findings and explain why marketers are the way they are. For me and Ian, this means taking a broad sociological and historical perspective, exploring and understanding the wider cultural cycles (often spanning many decades) that have shaped the contemporary marketing worldview. This means talking about neoliberalism.

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Thatcherite consensus

Academics argue endlessly about the definition of neoliberalism. But Margaret Thatcher summed it up when she (in)famously claimed “there is no such thing as society”. It is a hyper-individualistic doctrine that asserts the primacy of the market in all facets of human experience. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot explained, it defines citizens as consumers and asserts that democratic choices are best exercised via buying and selling. Does this sound like any industry you know?

As I got to this part of the talk, I suddenly realised that the majority of the audience was in their mid-20s. Of course, they were completely representative of the youth-obsessed industry they were drawn from.

The marketing world is dominated by people under the age of 40. According to Marketing Week’s 2023 Career and Salary Survey, 47% of the workforce is aged 26 to 35. It’s much worse in the advertising industry, where around seven in 10 are under 40. As Ian is fond of saying, if anyone in marketing was old enough, they’d be struck by how our industry resembles the plot of the 1970s science fiction film Logan’s Run, where a utopian society is only sustained by killing everyone over the age of 30.

Someone raised their hand and asked me to explain neoliberalism, and I had a suspicion that some in the room had no idea who Margaret Thatcher was. It left me wondering if this was representative of young marketers.

Marketers and advertisers are positioning themselves as a driver of political and social change, yet lack the basic understanding of our political system and the neoliberal paradigm that underpins our culture and society.

Luckily I had the answer. A few years ago, Ian and I ran a political knowledge quiz as part of a broader piece of research with a large, nationally representative sample of the UK population, and a sample of people working in marketing and advertising. We didn’t publish the findings at the time, but always knew that one day it would be of use.

It turns out that 25% of marketers under the age of 34 didn’t know that Margaret Thatcher was a Conservative Party Prime Minister. It’s a minority, but a significant one. And what’s more, 42% incorrectly think that proportional representation is used in the UK general election. On average in the quiz, marketers got six out of 12 questions right versus seven out of 12 for the UK population as a whole. Younger marketers scored five out 12.

Does this matter? At Burst Your Bubble, we think it does. Even if many young marketers don’t realise it, the vast majority of marketing and advertising professionals are Margaret Thatcher’s children and, dare I say it, grandchildren. Most have never known anything other than the neoliberal consensus that has dominated UK politics, business and cultural elites since she came to power in 1979. Marketers and advertisers are positioning themselves as a driver of political and social change, yet lack the basic understanding of our political system and the neoliberal paradigm that underpins our culture and society.

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Limited worldview

But building knowledge is only part of the solution. There is a bigger problem in the way that the marketing industry seeks to understand culture. Our view of it is far too narrow and limited by what Ian and I call straight-line thinking. The industry narrative on culture is always focused on what’s next, what’s changing and trying to predict the future.

Yet culture is a cycle and develops over a significant period of time – a huge part of understanding culture is knowing what has come before. Looking back and forward with a critical perspective is vital to our much-vaunted quest for human understanding. Are we really qualified to talk about culture when our knowledge is incomplete and our worldviews so narrow?

What would marketing look like if we developed the ability to take a broader perspective on the culture cycle? Marketing is stuck in a neoliberal world of personalisation and the expression of individual identity, where even the most mundane products are sold as routes to self-actualisation and potential drivers of social-ecological transformation. Perhaps the alternatives marketers are seeking lie in engaging with the past, rather than fetishising the future.

Andrew Tenzer is co-founder of Burst Your Bubble.