Marketing As Philosophy
“The idea of advertising is to lie without getting caught. Most companies, when they run an advertising campaign, simply take the most unfortunate truth about their company, turn it upside down (“lie”), and drill that lie home.”
—Joel Spolsky, from his otherwise fantastic 2000 essay, Strategy Letter II: Chicken and Egg Problems (24 May, 2000)
Many people will dismiss or trivialize marketing and advertising as dressed up forms of lying and interruption respectively, painting pictures of “attention merchants” hiding secrets about a product and exaggerating claims in order to “trick” people into doing something they otherwise wouldn’t normally do. And while folks with these aims do exist, like any other profession there is Good marketing and there is Bad marketing, and for me Good marketing is not about lying & interruption but vantage point & explanation.
Recently I’ve read a few things trying to disparage marketing as a discipline, but rather than catalogue and counterpoint these claims here I’d rather share the alternative view I hold which sees marketing not as a tactic or necessary evil but as an operating system for life, and a way of pursuing a life well-lived. Marketing as Philosophy.
The crux of Marketing as Philosophy is very simple, and blooms from a single fact: to think about something differently is to see something differently.
You do not see with your eyes you see with your brain. This is a literal explanation of how vision works. You also hear with your brain, and feel softness and hardness with your brain, and smell and taste too. All sensory information is merely that—information. Signals that your brain then tries to decipher and interpret and that you experience subjectively.
And, so, to attend to something—to give it your attention—can start from your eyes, or your fingers, or your ears, or your nose, or tongue, but in the end it’s all a form of attention. It’s all seeing, in a (very true and accurate) sense. (Consider this: when astronomers create composite visual representations of distant objects hundreds of light years away they’re using data as received from highly-sensitive instruments, but still describe these findings as “photographs” and “glimpses” of things we can now “see.” Sight-as-information is a pretty standard, pedestrian concept for cosmologists to grok.)
With that being true, then: Marketing is the art of shaping what people think about what it is they’re looking at.
Sentiment. Affinity. Preference. These are all industry terms that describe subjective feelings having to do with what people have decided they think about what it is they’re looking at. A thing is not one way or another, it is how it is perceived and how people’s brains make sense of it.
Marketing is an industry of “…look at it this way:” and “…think of it like this:” These framings can subsequently lead to consideration, interest, and eventually, hopefully, maybe, purchase.
Or not. But that doesn’t matter right now.
Because what I’m describing could be described as Manipulation or Coercion but it could also be described as Appreciation.
When you learn to see something in a new way you often come to a newfound appreciation for the thing. This is why I see marketing as more about vantage point (perspective)* and explanation (learning), because these things reveal facets of reality not otherwise seen or thought about.
When you brain starts to engage with these two activities (seeing from a new perspective and learning a new concept), you then quite literally start apprehending the reality of what that thing is in a different way than you did before. The thing hasn’t changed, but your judgment of it has.
Nothing in life is inherently good or bad or nice or ugly. It is actually your judgment that enchants otherwise neutral patterns of atoms, energy, and information as having a quality. You deploy that judgment. You have that power, which means you are very much in control of what it is you experience. It also means other people can affect your perception of what you experience as well. If you let them.
This idea that things are not inherently good or bad / beautiful or ugly / helpful or harmful, but that these judgments depend entirely on the human observer, is the foundational principle of many schools of philosophy but embraced most comprehensively by the Stoics and Epicureans. It is also the nucleus of Existentialism, which, like marketing, is often the recipient of criticism for being too dark and cynical. It is if you think it is, I suppose. I actually think Existentialism is hugely self-empowering, since it puts the locus of control on you and your reaction to events as the determining factor of how things actually are and what you actually get out of them. It’s a philosophy of meaning-creation, which puts you at the center of a single player sandbox game that’s really fun to play.
But to bring this back to marketing: the appeal of a thing lies most strongly in knowing more about it. Marketers would do well to bring people deeper into their product or service, to give prospects a new vantage point for considering it and give them new pieces of information to be fascinated about. If it doesn’t end in a sale it doesn’t matter, because it will have ended in a person who has learned something interesting by seeing something new. Over a long enough timespan, on average, this will probably lead to net-positive sentiment and therefore purchases, but it’s an endeavor worthy of pursuit regardless because it leads to more appreciating humans in the world.
If you want to sell something, elaborate on it. To make something interesting, go into detail. To get attention, teach something new. To get, give.
Give me what you think is the most boring subject on earth and I will find a way to make it fascinating.
Give me something you think is ugly, I can describe it as beautiful.
Give me something you think is negative, I can see it as positive.
Give me something you think is useless, I can see it as useful.
Is this cynical manipulation and profit-driven rose-colored glasses? Or: is it the art of living—learning to decide how you will react to circumstances and what you choose to see in something?
It’s your call.
* There was actually moral/empathic insight that became more apparent in the Renaissance following the discovery of the aesthetic concept of perspective: that your interpretation of the world depends on where you are situated within it.