Breaking the Cycle of Manipualtive Marketing

Recently, while I watched the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, a quote from Kat Stratford, the movie’s main character, resonated with me. Kat described a party as something to distract people from “their meaningless, consumer-driven lives.” These words rattled in my brain as I pondered, How much does consumerism and marketing really influence our lives? Is the purpose of my life simply to buy into advertisements that capitalize on my vulnerabilities?
To begin to find the answers to my questions, I learned about the philosophy of Edward Bernays, who is essentially the father of public relations, or the management of public perception towards a business, government agency, or organization. Bernays was heavily influenced by the use of propaganda during World War I as he noticed how effective it was in molding the minds of the public. Thus, Bernays rebranded propaganda as “public relations.” With influence from Sigmund Freud, who was his uncle, Bernays created a type of marketing that was unconventional for the 20th century. Rather than appealing to the consumer’s logic, Bernays focused on unconsciously persuading people to buy things by enabling companies to “control and regiment the masses according to [their] will without their knowing about it.”
The culmination of Bernays’ marketing ideas was in his public relations stunt for the American Tobacco Company. There was one problem for the tobacco industry: the social stigma surrounding women smoking cigarettes. In the 1920s, while it was normal and even praised for men to smoke, it was socially unacceptable and seen as immoral for women to smoke in public. Bernays recognized this as a cultural issue, so his mission was to change the cultural perception of women smoking and appeal to the emotions of the consumer. In order to accomplish this goal, Bernays hired a group of women to demonstrate at the 1929 Easter parade in New York City. The women all lit up their cigarettes at the same time while being photographed by major newspaper photographers. Using the attention from this display, Bernays marketed cigarettes as “torches of freedom” to enable women to assert their independence from men. Also, Bernays promoted cigarettes as throat-soothing and waist-slimming, allowing the tobacco industry to capitalize on women’s insecurities. While Bernays’ marketing tactics were definitely successful in a capitalist society that aims to make the most amount of money possible, it is undeniable that he manipulated the emotions of the consumers and appealed to their insecurities.
Although the age of Bernays’ marketing techniques was about 100 years ago, advertisements today still reflect a similar sentiment. If you were to walk down the razor aisle in your local Walmart, the effects of gendered marketing are obvious. Men’s razors are produced in “manly” colors, such as blue, black, or silver; however, women’s razors are always pink, purple, or pastel colors. Even though it might seem ridiculous, this marketing technique works. It appeals to the societal expectations for women to be soft and feminine and for men to be strong and masculine. Also, Old Spice ads imply that if a man buys a certain product, then he will be desirable and manly. Makeup ads make it seem that someone who does not buy their cosmetics is unattractive. Ultimately, companies make the consumer feel like they need to buy their product in order to be attractive, popular, and worthy in society. In turn, industries profit from our insecurities and deepest vulnerabilities.
However, marketing does not always have to appeal to customers’ deeply rooted insecurities; brands like Aerie and Dove have launched ad campaigns that actually empower their customers through body positivity. In 2014, Aerie launched a body-positive and inclusive campaign featuring a diverse group of models. Aerie inspires customers to love their own bodies, and this has been successful. According to Forbes, “sales for Aerie were up 20% and the brand has delivered 21 straight quarters of double-digit growth.”
Despite the marketing industry’s tendency to capitalize on consumers’ insecurities, it does not have to remain this way. As demonstrated by Aerie, it is possible to have the customer’s best interest in mind while still making lots of money. It is essential for businesses to apply morals to their advertisements because, without ethical campaigns, their consumers will be manipulated and exploited. Money should not be more desirable than the customer’s needs; however, most industries seem to have forgotten this. Ultimately, I agree with Kat Stratford in her assertion that we lead “consumer-driven lives,” but our lives do not have to be “meaningless.” Once we become aware of the techniques used to make us buy more products than we really need, we can avoid the “meaningless” cycle of consumerism.