Skip to content

The 20/20/20° Vision of Marketing

Here's one of the most telling jokes I know about marketing:

A major food conglomerate developed a new brand of dog food, and in the course of preparing to release it they hired one of the most prestigious marketing firms in the country. The marketing team worked for months building a careful brand and image for the product, and a lavish, all-points campaign that would hit every market from every conceivable direction - TV, radio, print, billboards, POS, social media, and more.

Launch day came, and within days the company knew they had a major hit on their hands. Warehouses ran dry and more production lines had to be switched over and run on three shifts to keep up with demand. Champagne flowed all around, not least at the marketing company.

The next month's sales were flat. Emergency millions were pumped into the campaign.

The next month, sales had fallen by fifty percent. The next, they were barely ten percent of peak. The furious board of directors called the marketing team to the boardroom, demanding an explanation.

"We don't understand," the product manager wailed. "We've tripled the ad placement, sent out generous coupons, milked every guerrilla strategy and had a famous rock star write our new jingle. But sales just keep dropping!"

"Well," thundered the CEO, "what seems to be the problem?"

"We've tried everything," the manager explained. "But we just can't get dogs to eat the stuff!"

Makes me laugh every time.

What I don't find funny is the universal thread in books by supposed marketing gurus, who amid their egotistical preening, corporate name-dropping and arm-around-your-shoulders faux confidentiality manage to exhibit absolutely perfect vision: 20/20/20°. That's 20/20 sharpness... but with a twenty degree field of view. I'm being generous; some don't manage a scope that wide.

It's not surprising that anyone who's a big name in the field (or thinks they are, or wants to be) is unable to say anything negative about marketing. Just once, I'd like to read a paragraph in one of these tedious tomes about how they really — really — know what a crappy disservice most of their high-paid efforts are doing for us. About fifty percent of the books have a glance that direction: that they were once asked to do something underhanded, or that as a young sprog at BBDOY&R they helped perpetrate a marketing fraudlet, or that they once had an associate who did something naughty. But I can't recall a single one who admitted that their million-dollar fee to help guide crap off the shelves was a less than honorable thing.

But as I said, it's unsurprising. These are superstars writing to the adoring throngs (95% of them business executives reading an airport book on their next flight) and there's just no call to crap in the party room. I get it.

marionette-1What does dismay me — flat out turns my stomach, to be honest — is the universal and permanent blind spot towards all forms of inedible dog food. These blow-dried, pumped-up poseurs, writing in between boardroom meetings and keynote speeches, often give cases of marketing efforts that failed, with all due sober nodding and wise head-shaking. They tried. The manufacturer tried. Innovative strategies were implemented and millions were spent... but not enough. Maybe the manufacturer chickened out, or it was just that darned fickle public, or the brilliant flash of marketing insight that made the next contender a superstar product wasn't thought of in time to save this one. Even that's a bit rare, because it's never — never — marketing's fault. (Unless it was that formerly famous fool they once worked for, who didn't recognize our hero author's brilliance and thus got what was coming to him.)

And the one thing it never is, the one consideration never made, the option never on the table and the question never asked... is the fundamental quality of the product. It can be something so useless, unnecessary, tasteless, taste-free and idiotic that it had no chance of succeeding in any market anywhere on Earth... but that's never the cause of a product or marketing failure.

Marketing sees itself as an enabler; its function is to enable sales, and with vanishingly rare exceptions it doesn't care what sales or to whom or of what. Forget snowballs to Inuit or coals to Newcastle or hams to Hollywood: they can and will sell any damned thing they're asked to to any market they're pointed at, and there are no limits on what they will do, say, invent, fabricate, fictionalize, anthropomorphize or animate in pursuit of selling that thing to those buyers. Quality, usefulness, need... utterly irrelevant except as keywords with no connection to reality. It doesn't matter that the product is crap; it's their job to sell it anyway, and sell it they do. Without a backward glance or a moment's afterthought. It's not their job.

These pinnacle predators see their field as win or blame the fickle buying public; they uphold the stained ideal of the field that all products must be good salable products, and the only failure is a failure of the public to buy them, for any reason. None of this will be much surprise to a seasoned renegade; we already know that the marketing-industrial complex, the hustlers, exist only to foster sales — yet more consumption — at any cost. Which doesn't make it any less depressing to read one more book of BS about how they masterminded efforts to ram crap down a market's throat... when the market had never heard of, wanted or needed the crap a month earlier, and didn't get a fraction of the supposed benefit once purchased.

Nor does it make it any less amusing to envision making these predatory puffballs eat some of that disgusting dog food... or having to live on it because no one will pay for their nonsensical expertise any longer.

Bon appétit, bozos.

1 thought on “The 20/20/20° Vision of Marketing

  1. Peter Scott

    What I find particularly pernicious is the Stockholm Syndrome brand of marketer who lauds a successful attempt at manipulating himself or herself. Their spoor takes this form: "I was walking down the street when this kid asked me if I knew the time. When I looked at my watch he told me he knew a better way of wearing a timepiece and showed me his invention of a strap to fasten a watch to your nose. I was so taken with his spunk that I bought three of them."

    It's explicitly legitimizing the art of the con. Usually it is a seasoned marketing expert who encounters a young and upcoming consumer hypnotist. This doublethink leaves the reader believing that the pinnacle of human achievement is the successful con, and that it should be rewarded *even if you realize you've been conned.* For a similar example, see the scene in “Atlas Shrugged” where the self-exiled moguls gloat to each other how they will exploit their own monopoly positions to gouge *each other*.

Leave a Reply