How to solve marketing’s moral dilemma

I’m having a moral crisis right now about my chosen profession.

Reports are everywhere about how our current global economic crisis has impacted the way consumers spend/save money. Given the scares we’ve had with a volatile stock market, the collapse of the housing market and troubles overseas, consumers are now consuming less, saving more and paying off their debts.

That should be awesome, right? Well….

Like it or not, our economy’s health runs on consumerism: on spending and borrowing. When people start acting the way they should – meaning saving and living within their means – this causes a glitch in the Matrix.

The WSJ cites: “During the Great Depression, economist John Maynard Keynes warned of a so-called paradox of thrift: When everyone turns frugal, everyone suffers.” Why? Because there is less money changing hands, less demand for products and services and more people – and companies – hoarding cash. This leads to things like retailers not selling inventory, which means they lay off workers, and in turn stop ordering more from their suppliers, which leads to more of those companies going out of business and more layoffs, which leads to now-unemployed people defaulting on mortgages or not buying homes at all, which leads to the construction industry screeching to a halt and people not being able to sell their own homes fast enough…..etc, etc, ad nauseum. Note: I am not an economist but this is how I interpret things. I’m not even going to touch how this impacts financial markets, stock sales, Treasury bills, and the like.

So what is my moral dilemma?

I have chosen a profession – marketing – that, by it’s definition, is all about bringing products and services to market and convincing people and businesses to buy them.

For someone who gets so fed up with our culture of consumerisn, for how much we place on material possessions; for someone who hates the idea of people spending frivolously on things they can’t afford when that money could be used for so much good in the world for people, animals or the environment, you would think I would be thrilled that more people are saving and being smart with money.

And I am. Truly. I think we all needed a wake-up call. When mortgage brokers tried to convince me and my husband to get a house with no money down back in 2007, we briefly considered it and then thought those people were smoking crack. We decided we’d rather get a traditional loan with less risk and no surprises. And while our house is worth less than what we paid for it, thankfully our mortgage is not completely underwater.

So what is a marketer to do, when she’s happy people are saving money,paying down debt and spending more wisely? How can I continue to be a part of the machine that makes people spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need?

Then I thought about it some more. My branding philosophy is all about meeting needs and adding value. It’s not about lying to people, or targeting those who can’t afford a high-end product to go into debt to afford it. My advice is about meeting real needs that people have, not creating ones they don’t.  It’s about making their lives better or their jobs easier or their customers happy. It’s about being crystal clear on who your target audience is and if they can afford  – and benefit from – your products or services: if they can’t, you should not be talking to them or marketing to them. And if you can’t benefit anyone, you should not have a business.

I realized my philosophy is about puting more “honest” marketing out into the world. We can’t deny we live in an economy based around consumption. I can’t change that or make us go back to an agrarian society. But I can help clients be authentic, transparent and honest about the value they offer and to whom they offer it. I can try to convince that coach who wants to bill out at $400 an hour that maybe they shouldn’t spend their marketing dollars at events attracting people who only make $30,000 per year. If you want to sell $400,000 cars, then that is your right – as long as you market them to the people who can afford them and not low-income families. And if you meet a need for a fair, reasonable price to attract the budget-conscious, then fabulous: the point is to meet the needs of the right people with the right message.

Maybe, just maybe, if businesses were more responsible with who they target with their messages, we’d not only have less noise in the chaotic media landscape, but more people could get their needs met within their means and continue saving and paying down their debts where appropriate. And maybe, just maybe, the economic sky won’t have to fall just because people are finally acting responsibly with their money.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

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What is your view of the economy? How do you think the culture of consumption has helped or hindered us? Are marketers to blame or not? I’d love your thoughts on this controversial topic below – share a comment and get some link love back to your site. And keep it respectful, folks! Thanks.

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