Thoughts on Marketing

Inspired by Ellen Goodman’s fascinating article on “Stealth Marketing,” here are two random thoughts on ads and such during this frenetic shopping season.

First, from the Economist, on the relevance of postmodern theory to modern business:

Modern retailers are only just getting to grips with two of the consequences of the breakdown of authority and hierarchy that [pomo theorists] hoped for half a century ago: the “fragmentation” of narratives and the individual’s ability to be “the artist of his own life”. Modern business uses a different language to discuss the same ideas. In “The Long Tail”, an analysis of the impact of the internet on the music industry, with wider ramifications, Chris Anderson describes the “shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards”. The post-modern “fragment” becomes a “niche” and the mass market is “turning into a mass of niches”.

This is a bit abstract, but I highly recommend reading Clotaire Rapaille’s The Culture Code to see how it works in action. Rapaille uses extremely simple narratives to get at the subconscious wellsprings of consumer behavior.


Here’s a summary of his method from Malcolm Gladwell:

Over the past decade, a number of major automakers in America have relied on the services of a French-born cultural anthropologist, G. Clotaire Rapaille, whose speciality is getting beyond the rational—what he calls “cortex”—impressions of consumers and tapping into their deeper, “reptilian” responses. And what Rapaille concluded from countless, intensive sessions with car buyers was that when S.U.V. buyers thought about safety they were thinking about something that reached into their deepest unconscious. “The No. 1 feeling is that everything surrounding you should be round and soft, and should give,” Rapaille told me. . . . “Then there’s this notion that you need to be up high. That’s a contradiction, because the people who buy these S.U.V.s know at the cortex level that if you are high there is more chance of a rollover. But at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I’m safer. You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and look down.”

Cupholders also play a key role: “And what was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That’s why cupholders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe.”

I suppose this all sounds a bit ridiculous–but it certainly strengthens Goodman’s view that advertising may need to be more explicitly thematized. I also find these words of wisdom from Dilbert creator Scott Adams quite interesting. In response to a query on why “the marketing department is always the enemy,” he responds:

Economics people can talk to engineering people because you’re always looking for the cheapest, easiest, simplest, most elegant solution. You’re looking at complexity and trying to simplify. Marketing people are trying to hide reality. They’re trying to take, for example, long distance telephone service, which is exactly the same no matter who you buy it from, and convince people that one is better. All of your instincts as an engineer are to be logical and simple and reliable — and in marketing, everything is to take what is clear and make it unclear. So when you put engineers and marketing people in the same room, it just doesn’t work.

Hmmm….those SUV cupholders look pretty well-engineered to me!

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