Years ago, when I mentioned to a friend of mine that I had moved into a marketing role, he quipped, “Well, you still seem to have a soul.” (This was echoed by some other friends who said, “We won’t tell anybody.”)

He followed that up by saying (he worked for a large, family-oriented entertainment brand at the time), “The most classic thing I ever heard a marketer say was, ‘Visitors think our parks are too crowded. We need to change that perception.'”

What my friend (who has long worked in the UX field) disliked about that statement was the impression that, rather than solving real problems that customers have, marketers just want to manipulate their minds.

Are Marketing Tactics Morally Neutral?

I was reminded of this conversation today when I read Jay Baer’s post, “11 Things Donald Trump Stole from Gary Vaynerchuk’s Playbook.”

Aside from the fact that, based on simple chronology, the influence has probably run the other way, it struck me that this post actually says more about the amorality of marketing than it does about either Trump or Gary.

If you read Jay’s piece, you will notice that, for the most part, he is not really interested in what Gary or Trump are selling. He’s focused, instead, on tactical similarities between the two: they use simple language and profanity; they are good at Twitter; they pay attention to critics, etc.

As someone who provides guidance to companies on issues of strategy and tactics, it makes sense for Jay to speak like this. On some level, it doesn’t matter what his clients might be selling; you can use marketing tactics to literally sell anything.

But, if we focus on the tactics, are we missing something critical about how they are being used and what exactly is being sold? Shouldn’t that matter?

Invoking Godwin’s Law

For those unfamiliar with it, Godwin’s Law states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1.”

For good or ill, Jay’s post got me thinking in this direction, particularly with regard to two things he claims link Gary and Trump.

First, Jay writes that both “hate sacred cows.” In the case of Gary, Jay says, we find someone who challenges preconceptions about marketing.

In the case of Trump, we find, according to Jay, someone who is “unafraid to speak out about policies or protocols that have become status quo,” and that he has – “for good or ill, depending upon your perspective” – built a movement by “taking on former sacred cows.”

Secondly, Jay writes that both “use symbols to activate their tribes.” Here Jay points to Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” hats and Gary’s Wine Library TV wristbands.

The Godwin’s Law moment came when I thought, “Couldn’t we say the same thing about Hitler? Didn’t he attack sacred cows? Didn’t he activate his tribe with symbols?”

Can Tactics Be Isolated from Their Use? Should They?

Now, if you wrote a post called, “The Branding Secrets of the Third Reich” or “10 Social Media Tricks of ISIS,” you would be called on the carpet. Why? Because we like to believe that what people are selling or promoting actually matters more than the tactics they use.

In that vein, when Jay tweeted out a link to his post, I read it and tweeted back that I thought he was decontextualizing Trump’s worst attributes.

What I meant was this: When you say Trump hates sacred cows, for example, without being explicit about which cows he seems to hate – the idea that we shouldn’t have religious tests for entry to the US?  that ethnicity shouldn’t be a basis for impugning the partiality of federal judges? that violence against political opponents shouldn’t be encouraged or condoned? – you make his actions seem almost noble.

Now, as someone who literally just wrote a clickbait-ish post on Brexit and content marketing, I appreciate that Jay is tapping into the Zeitgeist and writing something that he believes will attract attention. Indeed, he seems to have been successful in that regard (as of this writing, the post has been shared over 400 times).

Nevertheless, the post unsettled me. And I can’t help but think that my response was influenced by having read “Donald Trump is Not a Troll” by Whitney Phillips right before seeing Jay’s post.

In her post, Whitney first shows that journalists and pundits have often described (and dismissed) Trump as a troll, then goes on to explain what’s problematic about such a characterization. Specifically, she says that “the notion that someone is just trolling establishes political, rhetorical, and affective distance between an individual and the things they do and say.”

I believe the same thing is happening here. By comparing Trump to Vaynerchuk, one can overlook the actual things Trump has said (and, as Whitney also points out, overlook the broad support that some of these statements have received in certain quarters), while tacitly endorsing them as “effective marketing tactics” that one might do well to emulate.

The Dialectic of Formalism

In their highly influential book, The Dialectic of the Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrestled with the question of how an advanced society like Germany, marked by a long tradition of scientific and philosophical rationality, could have ended up perpetrating the barbaric savagery of the Nazi era.

Their argument focuses, in part, on the fact that the scientific method, strictly speaking, has no inherent morality. There is nothing built into the scientific method, for example, that would prohibit vivisection, human experimentation, or the development of “advanced interrogation techniques.”

Similarly, if we consider the economic system of capitalism, there is nothing inherent to its concept that prohibits child labor, hunting animals to extinction, or even slavery. Going down a level, there is nothing inherent to marketing methodologies that would prevent someone from using advertising (or content marketing) to rent botnets, sell heroin, or promote a political party that advocates slavery.

In other words, if we treat marketing simply as a set of tools, there is really no difference between talking about, say, how ISIS or Neo-Nazis uses social media versus talking about how Doctors Without Borders uses it.

Search Your Feelings

That doesn’t feel right to me (and, as I mentioned above, a post about the former would probably bother more people than a post about the latter). We need to listen to those feelings and think about the ways that a focus on best practices and most effective tactics actually allows us to ignore the specific contexts in which these tactics are used and practices followed.

By contrast, if we focused on the specific ways that marketing tricks and tools were used, we would not only learn a lot more about the way marketing actually happens (i.e., always in specific contexts and never in the abstract), we might actually give it (back?) a soul.

What do you think?

Image Source (Creative Commons): Nithi Anand.

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