The marketing system as we - in Europe and other developed economies outside North America — are experiencing it, has been accused of adding to several 'evils' in our society at large. Advertising has been a special target. It has been blamed for creating false wants, nurturing greedy aspirations and inculcating too much materialism in our society.
• False Wants and Too Much Materialism
Critics have charged that, in advanced nations such as the USA, the marketing system urges too much interest in material possessions. People arc judged by what they own rather than by what they ore. To be considered successful, people must own a smart-looking house or apartment in a prime residential site, expensive cars and the latest designer label clothes and consumer electronics.
Consider, for example, the training-shoe market. These days, training shoes have gone the same way as cameras, watches and mobile phones: functionality is useless without 'tec lino-supremacy' and high style. Take Nike's Air Max Tailwind which features: 'flexi-laces' which stretch to give foot comfort; 'interactive eyestay' for one-movement tightening and adjusting; 'mesh upper' made of lightweight synthetic leather for cooler feet; 'plastic air pockets' filled with sulphur hexailuoride for added cushioning; 'flexible grooves' in the arch of the shoe to allow natural foot movements and give support and 'waffle soles' with grooved treads for traction and support! So sophisticated has it become that it is no longer even enough to say that you have a pair of Nikcs. Its famous tick logo is now more globally visible than the crucifix, so your Nikes had better be a very rare variety and/or very expensive if you expect to seriously impress, Alternatively, you could go for a limited edition Adidas or something slightly underground like DC skate shoes,6
Is there a similar enchantment with money in Europe? Asia? The rest of the world? It is neither feasible nor appropriate for this chapter to indulge readers in an extensive debate on cross-cultural similarities and dissimilarities in materialistic tendencies and behaviour, and whether marketing is the root cause of these desires. Rather, we acknowledge the phenomenon of the 'yuppie generation' that emerged in the 1980s, symbolizing a new materialistic culture that looked certain to stay. In the 1990s, although many social scientists noted a reaction against the opulence and waste of the 1980s and a return to more basic values and social commitment, our infatuation with material things continues. For example, when asked in a recent poll what they value most in their lives, subjects listed enjoyable work (86 per cent), happy children (84 per cent), a good marriage (69 per cent) and contributions to society (66 per cent). However, when asked what most symbolizes success, 85 per cent said money and the things it will buy.7
Critics view this interest in material things not as a natural state of mind, but rather as a matter of false wants created by marketing. Businesses stimulate people's desires for goods through the force of advertising, and advertisers use the mass media to create materialistic models of the good life. People work harder to earn the necessary money. Their purchases increase the output of the nation's industry, and industry, in turn, uses the advertising media to stimulate more desire for its industrial output. Thus marketing is seen as creating false wants that benefit industry more than they benefit consumers.
However, these criticisms overstate the power of business to create needs. People have strong defences against advertising and other marketing tools. Marketers are most effective when they appeal to existing wants rather than when they attempt to create new ones. Furthermore, people seek information when making important purchases and often do not rely on single sources. Consumers ultimately display rational buying behaviour: even minor purchases that may be affected by advertising messages lead to repeat purchases only if the product performs as promised. Finally, the high failure rate of new products shows that companies are not always able to control demand.
On a deeper level, our wants and values are influenced not only by marketers, but also by family, peer groups, religion, ethnic background and education. If societies are highly materialistic, these values arose out of basic socialization processes that go much deeper than business and mass media could produce alone. The importance of wealth and material possessions to the overseas Chinese, for example, is explained more by cultural and socialization factors than by sustained exposure to western advertising influences.
• Too Few Social Goods
Business has been accused of overselling private goods at the expense of public goods. As private goods increase, they require more public services that are usually not forthcoming. For example, an increase in car ownership (private good) requires more roads, traffic control, parking spaces and police services (public goods). The overselling of private goods results in 'social costs'. For cars, the social costs include excessive traffic congestion, air pollution, and deaths and injuries from car accidents.
A way must be found to restore a balance between private arid public goods. One option is to make producers bear the full social costs of their operations. For example, the government could require car manufacturers to build cars with additional safety features and better pollution-control systems. Car makers would then raise their prices to cover extra costs. If buyers found the price of some cars too high, however, the producers of these cars would disappear, and demand would move to those producers that could support both the private and social costs.
• Cultural Pollution
Critics charge the marketing system with creating cultural pollution. Our senses are being assaulted constantly by advertising. Commercials interrupt serious programmes; pages of ads obscure printed matter; billboards mar beautiful scenery. These interruptions continuously pollute people's minds with messages of materialism, sex, power or status. Although most people do not find advertising overly annoying (some even think it is the best part of television programming), some critics call for sweeping changes.
Marketers answer die charges of 'commercial noise' with the following arguments. First, they hope that their ads reach primarily the target audience. But because of mass-communication channels, some ads are bound to reach people who have no interest in the product and are therefore bored or annoyed. People who buy magazines slanted towards their interests - such as Vogue or Fortune -rarely complain about the ads because the magazines advertise products of interest. Second, ads make much of television and radio free, and keep down the costs of magazines and newspapers. Most people think commercials are a small price to pay t'or these benefits.
• Too Much Political Power
Another criticism is that business wields too much political power. 'Oil', 'tobacco', •pharmaeeudeals', 'financial services' and 'alcohol' have the support of important politicians and civil servants, who look after an industry's interests against the public interest. Advertisers are accused of holding too much power over the mass media, limiting their freedom to report independently and objectively.
The setting up of citizens' charters and greater concern for consumer rights and protection in the 1990s will see improvements, not regression, in business accountability. Fortunately, many powerful business interests once thought to be untouchable have been tamed in the public interest. For example, in the United States, Ralph Nader, consumerism campaigner, caused legislation that forced the car industry to build more safety into its cars, and the Surgeon General's Report resulted in cigarette companies putting health warnings on their packages. Moreover, because the media receive advertising revenues from many different advertisers, it is easier to resist the influence of one or a few of them. Too much business power tends to result in eounterforces that check and offset these powerful interests.
Let us now take a look at the criticisms that business critics have levelled at companies' marketing practices.
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