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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Subverting the marketers of evil things

Like many Americans I've been spending time with family and friends
these holidays, shopping the Thanksgiving sales, seeing a movie,
watching some interesting TV. And though I try not to think about work
stuff too much, I am always in the end a marketer, and I often process
what I see through the lens of "what can this teach me?"

At the same time, I also tend to reflect on what I see through the
lens of right and wrong, or at least my personal beliefs about that.
And though I don't believe in being preachy, when I see what to me are
"bad" products being marketed extrarodinarily well, I tend to think
about how I'd love to launch my own marketing campaign to put them out of business, or at least minimize them to a small corner of the market.

A big example is fast food and the sugary beverages that go with them.
Now, let me be the first one to say that I am no purist when it comes
to food. (Try to take away my french fries and you will definitely
emerge with some battle scars.) But the extent to which they have
invaded our lives is just scary. I can imagine that many lives would
be saved or improved, and that our national healthcare bill would
decrease significantly, if most of us avoided [insert your addictive
fast food of choice here] and chose to consume natural, healthy foods
and drinks instead.

The very sad thing is that bad products have some great marketing
minds behind them. I tweeted a couple of days ago about Coca-Cola and
their addictive signature soda, full of unhealthy sugar and caffeine,
which is marketed with some of the smartest methods imaginable. It's
not just Coke, of course, but every other big brand in its space; and
I could complain about McDonald's but there are lots of McD's wannabes
that are doing the same thing as it is. The genius is not just one
thing but a combination of advertisements, memorable images, catchy
jingles, product placements, and numerous other tactics that
collectively put the item firmly into the "memory bank" (as a
Coca-Cola company spokesman noted in a CNBC interview this week) of
the American people.

The marketing genius behind fast food is reinforced by the physical
addiction it creates. As former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, the
author of The End of Overeating, noted in a recent interview, when
marketing is used to push some combination of sugar + fat + salt
(which is what fast food pushers generally offer), the person reacts
much like a lab rat, with their brain chemicals going off and their
memory centers stimulated. Suddenly you have a pretty much helpless
person who, unless they are well prepared for the situation, is going
to consume the bad food, even if they are obese or simply know better.

The fact that fast food is physically addictive makes the comments of
Coca-Cola (purveyor of sugar + caffeine) on CNBC a bit disingenuous.
The spokesperson said that foods like Coke are OK because people can
simply "consume it in moderation." But anyone who has been around
little kids for even 5 minutes knows what a lie that is. If your
palate is spoiled by sugary foods, and you're used to your daily sugar
high, you don't want to consume these things in moderation. You want
to consume them endlessly. And if Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and all the
other fast food purveyors had their way, that is exactly what you
would do, with or without their token "guides to good nutrition." And
you do have a choice - you can choose sugary orange juice, or sugary
"energy drink," or any of many other kinds of sugar-loaded beverages
aside from the token few low-calorie versions.

Despite all of the above, I can't really blame Coca-Cola or any other
company for trying to make a profit. Profit is the engine of the
American economy. Without profit our standard of living drops to zero.
And I don't even blame them so much for the spin they put on the truth
("just consume it in moderation"). America is a free society, and
ideas as well as products compete in the marketplace. It is really up
to the consumer to find out the truth for themselves. The problem,
however, is that – speaking broadly – institutions that could
challenge the marketers are just not as good as marketing their
messages with tactics that are equally as good as Coca-Cola’s or
McDonald’s. There is no icon of the federal government or any
independent think-tank that matches the red Coca-Cola brand. And even
if there were, there is no well-designed website or savvy social media
campaign that informs me about findings like Kessler’s. Instead, I
stumbled upon Kessler’s book completely by accident. Of course I
already knew that water is better than soda, and that baked potatoes
were better than french fries. But nobody has made it cool to be
healthy.

I say, either the current fast food kings and queens are going to
start their own healthy eating brands (cannibalizing their current
customer bases by turning them off to bad foods), or someone is start
a company that makes healthy eating cool, or someone can start a
campaign like the anti-smoking commercials that makes fast food and
sugar drinks seem really disgusting.

Until that happens, until the memory banks on fast food are filled
with unappealing images and consumers’ minds are saturated with
objective information about what different kinds of foods do to their
physical and emotional functioning, salad and water fans will be in
the minority.

There is an ancient debate among marketers as to whether our job is to
fulfill demand or create it. To me it doesn’t really matter. If you
are selling a product that you know will hurt people over the short or
the long term, it is your job to either fix it so it’s harmless or
sell something else that will actually provide a benefit. In the long
term, you win anyway, by becoming a name that people not only know but
really can trust.

Posted via email from Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.