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Mindless: Marketing an Unsustainable Future

3p is proud to parter with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here. By Lindsey Wedewer

In sixth-grade, my class did a unit on marketing, in which my group created a TV commercial for a new product we’d thought up. Of all things, our product’s purpose was to remove the grease from exceedingly greasy pizza. The product itself was a sham -- a quaintly and ineffectively disguised hairspray can -- and the commercial was even worse. After a quick spritz from the can, viewers witnessed the magical disappearance of pooling pizza grease, thanks to some sneaky film editing.

I have since realized that our strange eleven-year-old interpretation of this project was actually telling. Although our young minds knew not what we were implying, it's clear now that we perceived marketing as fundamentally manipulative. We assumed a persuasive commercial could take the place of a well-designed product, and I would argue that our assumption was, in fact, dead on. In that the broad end-goal of marketing is to control and influence behavior, it is indeed designed to manipulate. Although practices have become relatively more ethical than they used to be, food companies still have us eating out of bigger and bigger containers, we repeatedly fall for limited-time-only offers and we base our supermarket choices on unfounded claims, such as “all natural.” Marketers rarely offer an honest and factual representation of a product or service -- instead, they delve, sometimes deviously, into our subconscious emotions in order to create an artificial or irrational need.

Marketing not only penetrates the minds of individuals, it also encroaches on the collective consciousness. This can lead to serious systemic problems. Though the oft-used examples are the work of the tobacco and fast food industries, perhaps most relevant to our common future is the fact that almost all marketing actively supports and encourages excessive consumption -- an overtly unsustainable behavior. Although a certain amount of consumption is necessary for the survival of ourselves and our economy, today’s consumerism has become an addiction -- an end in itself as opposed to a means to an end. Though this dangerous model assumes that resources are endless, this is far from the truth.

With our chronic purchasing, we are driving the production of goods. The manufacture of these materials requires extraction and use of irreplaceable natural resources, such as fossil fuels, wood and water, while leaving behind a trail of pollutants. William Rees, an urban planner at the University of British Columbia, suggested that in order to maintain the consumption level of an average U.S. citizen, it would require 4-6 hectares of land. Even two decades ago, there were only 1.7 hectares of ecologically productive land available per person globally. In short, someone, somewhere, is paying for our high levels of consumption.

Along with population growth, excessive consumption is our society’s greatest threat, and the constant stream of manipulative messages permeating our consciousness is only making matters worse. The public is not ignorant of this phenomenon. Recent research published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies has suggested that consumers perceive marketing to be the main cause of excessive consumption.

Encouraging consumerism is unsustainable and socially irresponsible. It is time that we re-think the role of consumption in our society and the values underlying the current marketing model. In the end, marketing can either help or hinder our progress toward a more sustainable world. It’s my hope that it can find a way to use its powerful influence for the greater good.

Lindsey Wedewer is an MBA candidate in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Contact her at lindsey.wedewer@presidioedu.org.

Want to learn more about Presidio and this project? Click here.

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