The “Marketing is Evil” Problem.

I hate marketing.
Marketing is evil.
Marketing doesn’t work.
Marketing doesn’t work on me.
I’ll never buy from a company that markets to me.

My best argument against those kinds of reflexive, anti-marketing takes is this: people create wonderful things to help one another, to entertain, to make art, and yes, to make money, too. But just because something is wonderful doesn’t mean anyone will find it. To earn customers you need awareness. To earn awareness, you need marketing.

Marketing isn’t inherently good or evil, effective or ineffective. It is, like so many things in this world, what we make of it. Bad marketing, either the evil, manipulative kind or the well-intentioned, but poor-performing kind, tends to leave a more memorable impression than the good, effective varieties.

Great marketing rarely feels like marketing at all. It feels like someone has a compelling solution to your problem and is kindly telling you about it. Bored? Watch this TV show that’s right up your alley. Want something light, with a bit of heat for dinner? Try this spicy pork and soba recipe. Looking for a great microphone to complete your work-from-home video call setup? We tested 11 mics and recommend this one most.

Even when we find marketing annoyingly interruptive, (“ugh, stop showing me these ridiculous Instagram ads for products I’m never gonna… wait… a Kickstarter for a Native sci-fi RPG? Why yes, I will back that, thank you Instagram advertising”) the right ad at the right time will spur us to action.

At the core of marketing is a process:

Marketers help creators determine the problem their product is solving, and where they fit vs. alternatives. Is that video game for casual, mobile gamers who have 5-minutes between errands? Or is it for dedicated gamers at their high-end desktops? Is that microphone right for quiet offices? Or for chaotic, noisy environments where a voice needs to stand out from the background?

Then, they determine the right audiences. Interests, demographics, behaviors, values, and attributes are all valuable here. But what a marketer really wants to get at is the combination of those factors that indicates a right fit for A) the problem being solved B) the solution the product provides and C) the campaign’s requirements (e.g. reach, budget, margin, etc).

Now, we need to learn about that right audience. Specifically, what messages are going to help them recall your solution when they have the problem you solve? And where do they pay attention? Once those two questions are answered (usually a long process involving a lot of experimentation, especially on the first), marketers do what everyone *thinks* marketing is: amplify those messages to that audience in the places and ways they pay attention.

Tactically, marketers do a whole bunch of other work, but nearly all of it is in service to or within a framework around those five things. Naming a product? That’s #3. Optimizing PPC ads? That’s #4 and #5. Positioning? That’s #1. Social media posts? That’s #3 and #5. Using SparkToro? That’s #2 and #4.

Now, you can argue that some of that work is evil or worthy of hate when it…

  • Pushes products or services you don’t want
  • Appears in mediums or sources where it’s unwelcome
    (e.g. those awful windshield flyers people stick on cars, even when it’s about to rain and the writing gets ruined so you never even find out what the flyer was for, but you know a soggy pile of gunk will clog up the bottom of your windshield for days)
  • Promotes something in a misleading or dishonest way
  • Takes advantage of people who can’t reasonably afford or resist a product
  • Does everything right, but for an abusive product or cause

Interestingly, almost no one argues that marketing by and for companies, products, people, causes they love (or whatever work they’re doing) is evil. Then it becomes, “how do we tell more people about this great thing we’re doing?”

Why Does Marketing Earn Such Hatred?

Look, marketing (often conflated with advertising in most public surveys on the topic) has a statistically measurable, awful reputation. The problem starts with ethics.

Via Gallup’s 2020 Honest/Ethics in Professions Poll of Americans

People outside the profession believe marketers have low standards of honesty. In their eyes, we’re willing to bend rules, manipulate, tell lies, mislead, and use their psychological weaknesses against them to get what we want.

Marketing Has a Memory Problem

Every day, we ignore thousands of messages attempting to garner our attention. I’d guess 99.9% of those are relatively harmless and entirely forgotten. 0.09% are effective enough to incite an action—a purchase, a click-through, a login.

But, 0.01% really are evil. They’re trying to mislead us. Or sell us something deeply problematic. Or convince us of something that could harm us or others. Unfortunately, human beings have this thing called negativity bias. We won’t remember the 9,990 messages that passed innocuously by, nor the 9 messages that nudged us to do something we liked. But we’ll absolutely, without fail, recall that 1 awful bit of marketing with gnashed teeth, bubbling anger, unwavering resentment.

Remember, good marketing usually doesn’t feel like marketing at all!

Sure, we wish that people exposed to great marketing recalled the perfectly timed, targeted, placed, and crafted message we spread. But, let’s get real. When marketing works, it’s forgotten.

In many ways, this is actually what we want!

I don’t want people to hear me speak at a conference and think, “wow, that guy’s marketing is quite effective.” If they do, I’ve probably failed. I’m hoping for, “wow, that guy’s talk was incredibly valuable, I should check out his company.

Good marketing isn’t memorable. Bad marketing is. Negativity bias means people will remember the bad and never even recognized the good. No wonder our trade sits at the bottom of the “most respected jobs” surveys.

What’s the Solution?

This might be the strangest advice I’ve ever given publicly, but… ignore it. Don’t try to solve this one. Just, be OK with the popular perception that marketing sucks.

I say this for two reasons.

First, marketing is more in demand, higher-paying, and more crucial than it’s ever been. Neither profession nor practice are experiencing a downturn. Quite the opposite. Interestingly enough, marketing’s also not such a specialized or training-required endeavor as to need vast growth in educational enrollment. Many of the best marketers have no formal education in the subject whatsoever, and still do fantastic work. On top of that, most of the best marketing education is offered outside of formal multi-year degree programs, so even if you need to train up staff, it won’t take a 4-year degree and 2-year residency.

Second, the people who need marketing aren’t shying away from it because of these perceptions. Even creators, entrepreneurs, business owners, and leaders at organizations who espouse negative attitudes about the practice in the abstract engage in it, recruit for it, and pay for it.

On the list of the marketing industry’s problems, public perception is pretty far down. It’s definitely above the one pro-active thing we can do: stop $#!^^y marketing. We don’t need to elevate the perception of marketing by doing more marketing. We just need to do better work, for better products and companies.

If you’re marketing vape pens to teenagers, trying to convince consumers climate change is their problem, promoting vaccine misinformation, or designing dark patterns to mislead web users, stop. Your $#!^^y marketing is the problem. Your $#!^^y marketing is why people think all marketing is evil.

The best part: thousands of other companies need your help. There’s no shortage of demand for great marketing.