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We Must Kill Marketing Before it Kills Us

Stephen Colegrave, former marketing director of Saatchi and Saatchi, explains why the Mad Men world of marketing must die.

Before it Kills Us

Stephen Colegrave, former marketing director of Saatchi and Saatchi, explains why the Mad Men world of marketing must die.

Marketing has ruled the world for nearly 100 years although, of course it, was around before then.

In 1927, Procter & Gamble underwrote the costs of NBC’s Radio Beauty School to advertise Camay perfumed soap, leading to the birth of the ‘soap opera’ and probably to the death of American quality radio drama.

Marketing took off big time in 1955 in the UK with the birth of television advertising. This stimulated the growth of the marketing industry with glamorous advertising agencies and brand managers, that aped the Mad Men world of New York’s Madison Avenue, bringing it to the scruffy streets of Soho.

After the deprivations of the Second World War and rationing, customers enthusiastically became consumers and happily let marketing persuade them to buy items they didn’t even know they wanted. This has led to an explosion of consumption that is unsustainable in the future.

The Need for Radical Change

If we are going to survive as a planet, we need to quickly wean ourselves off marketing and over-consumption. It is not going to be enough to change the way we consume to prevent climate change: the whole way we approach consumption and materialism needs to be radically different.

We have been programmed to see progress as a material concept only. GDP is the measure of progress for governments around the world. We have been conditioned to believe that technical advances can just switch consumption to something sustainable: from meat to vegan and from petrol cars to electric – but will this be enough?

Electric cars alone are definitely not the answer. A 2017 report from the IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute shows that the carbon cost of manufacturing batteries even before they leave the factory is equivalent to the carbon emitted from driving the average petrol car for eight years. It seems that Tesla owners might not be doing as much for the environment as they think.

“During the production and further processing of a battery of this capacity (95kWH as in Teslas and other long-range electric cars) approximately the same amount of carbon dioxide is released as when using a Mazda 3 diesel hatchback during its entire service life,” Christian Schultze, Mazda European director of brand research, told Automative News.

The only way to really lower consumption is to improve public transport and make train travel as cool as planes.

Addicted to Stuff

Ever-increasing consumption is at the centre of our culture and marketing has ingrained itself into our lives.

Fashion has been hijacked by marketing to fuel mega consumption of clothes. Until the late 1970s, most children only had two changes of clothes – school uniform for best and, for boys, only one pair of cords or jeans, wellington boots and perhaps basic converse shoes. Girls had pretty much the same plus a party dress. Now, children will have five to ten times as much. Other than for the rich, fashion brands didn’t really start mass marketing until the 1980s. Now they are all-pervasive.

Similarly, marketing has definitely hijacked Christmas. Over-consumption at Christmas has become unsustainable and is growing each year. It is estimated that more than 100,000 tonnes of plastic packaging are binned on Christmas Day, with YouGov finding that 60 million presents are unwanted and wasted.

The most insidious part of our marketing culture is the default position of buying something new instead of repairing and restoring what we already have.

Here, research and development and manufacturing departments have been captured and controlled by marketing. Everybody knows that obsolescence is built into mobile phones, computers, cars, clothes and most everyday items. Increasingly, the ability to repair is designed out of items. This has fed on the breakdown of the passing down of skills between generations.

Weaning ourselves off this marketing culture is going to be as difficult as quitting smoking, but many of us gave up cigarettes when we realised it threatened our lives. Marketing and over-consumption is a real threat to the planet and our lives and needs just as much invasive action.

The Makers Movement

There are glimmers of hope. We do not have to be Luddites or have a less fulfilling life to make a difference.

Marketing has managed to hijack our lives because we have become distanced from making and repairing the products we need and want, reducing us to unskilled consumers. But, the Makers Movement is one example of a subculture that is bubbling towards the mainstream – which isn’t backward as it embraces the latest technology whilst putting us back in control as makers instead of consumers.

The Makers Movement brings people together to share and learn skills from 3D printing, robotics and computing to artisan skills such as metal, woodwork and crafts. It is truly open-source as it wants to democratise skills and learning and completely differs from the B&Q DIY culture that led us to low-quality fittings and ready-made decorations for our homes, rather than creating such items themselves.

The Government is trying to ride this wave in its strategy for the future of libraries. But, apart from the austerity cuts inflicted on them, the problem with this initiative is that it has been carried away by the technology side of it and is not interested in the artisan skills. In the Manchester Library Makerspace, for instance, there are lots of computers, 3D scanners and printers, but just one solitary sewing machine as the one piece of non-computer equipment.

The Government could learn a lot from the Men’s Shed movement that started in Australia. The Westhill Men’s Shed in Aberdeenshire provides a well-equipped wood and metal-works workshop where those attending can do everything they would do in their own sheds, but in the company of others. It encourages people to pass on knowledge, work on projects together, salvage and restore tools, lawnmowers and other machinery for the community and, most importantly, to talk to each other.

Small is Beautiful

Community maker spaces are increasingly popping up around the UK. More and more, people are finding satisfaction in making their own crockery, clothes, furniture and repairing cars, bicycles and radios. Hopefully, it will lead us to want fewer, better things – many of which we will make or repair ourselves. 

This will be the saving of us, not just the planet.

In his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher set out how he believed that small, appropriate technologies empowered people more than the endless pursuit of bigger and better. If only we had listened to him 50 years ago instead of waiting until now.

Smaller, more appropriate technologies are likely to lead to a more equal society and stop the rising inequality gap. It is generally agreed that industrialised technology advances tend to benefit the people who run businesses, not the people who work for them because they increase margins for the owners and take jobs and money away from the workers that are displaced.

“My reading of the data is that technology is the main driver of the recent increases in inequality,” the economist Erik Brynjolfsson affirmed in the MIT Tech Review. “It’s the biggest factor.”

GDP Isn’t Progress

The endless pursuit of paying for things that we don’t need is also affecting our mental health.

The charity StepChange estimates that seven million people can’t sleep because of debt.

“Millions of people are being kept awake due to money worries,” explains Mike O’Connor, StepChange’s chief executive. “They can impact on every aspect of a person’s life, from mental health problems to relationship difficulties and to be able to do a good job at work.”

To stop marketing ending us, we need to expunge it and mindless consumption from our culture. We should start to celebrate the reduction of manufacturing and consumption, not its growth. Let’s be pleased that car sales have declined in the US and UK, but sad that it has only fallen by 1%. Instead of all the drama around the Chancellor’s budget, we should have a budget that looks at carbon reduction and the growth of quality of life rather than just GDP.

Marketing will be the death of us all, if we don’t kill it.

Forget carbon neutrality by 2030, or even 2040 – unless we can stop being consumers and become makers and cut technology down to size. The faster we close all advertising agencies, re-skill brand managers and set R&D departments free to design out obsolescence and make products easy to repair, the quicker we will stop the slide into the extinction of our planet and personal despair.

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