Burning Down the House

As I took an extra long shower the morning after the recent election, hoping to scrub off the residual slime of our latest electoral circus, I found myself pondering the role of marketers in creating this biannual spectacle. In my memory, never has so much been said, so frequently, so loudly and at such expense, that communicated so little. If a candidate is a product to be sold, what did I learn about any of these products through the swirling cloud of tv spots, snail mail flyers and email blasts?

The typical message seemed to be that “all the other candidates are liars and scoundrels, beholden to special interests, and dedicated to ruining your life. Oh, and don’t believe anything they say about me.” If the other candidate was a Democrat, then he or she apparently hoped to turn the US into a sort of Bacchanalian orgy, inviting ISIS to dinner, handing out money (stolen from the wealthy) on street corners, supporting marriage with farm animals and seizing all guns in preparation for martial law, all while spreading Ebola to keep us from paying much attention. If the other candidate was Republican, his or her alleged goals were to create a feudal caste system, replacing all science text books with bibles, putting 9mm handguns in cereal boxes, outlawing gays, Hispanics, loudmouth women, Muslims, scary black people and helping the poor die off as quickly as possible so there will be more stuff for the rest of us.

In other words, I learned nothing of actual substance. Thoughtful ideas for creating jobs, addressing American poverty, reforming healthcare, immigration, campaign finance didn’t seem to merit inclusion in the shouting…er, dialog. Nothing but fear and insinuation, threatening the collapse of civilization. On the theoretical plus side, of course, the folks that create all of this nonsense, as well as the firms that print, broadcast or otherwise distribute it all made out like bandits.

The question for me then, is whether we as marketers bear some responsibility for the toll all this vitriol takes on the collective American psyche. I find that such ethical questions are usually met with a shrug…an “I’m just the messenger, don’t kill me” kind of shrug. I’ve seen that shrug before. When I was in school, the question on all of our fresh young minds was whether we would work on a cigarette account. For those who would (whether they supported smoking or not), the mitigating factor was the feeling that the “truth” was so publicly visible at this point that one could only choose to smoke from a relatively knowledgeable place. Kids aside, I can see that rationale. We were past the “smoking is good for you” propaganda phase. You could not avoid the simple truth that smoking is, without a doubt, bad for you. In politics, the truth is complex, nuanced and more than a little elusive. Americans now have access to lots of propaganda, but little truth with which to filter it. As marketers, can we really ignore our role in this? Leni Riefenstahl played the “I’m just the messenger” card too, but I’m quite sure I don’t ever want to be compared to her.

And what about the “but it works!” defense? This one makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. In other words, “the means justify the end.” Hmmmm. If you have a termite problem and I offer to burn your house down to get rid of them, would that seem like a good idea? Despite my quite valid claim that “it works”, you might still have reservations.

As marketers, we are hired by clients to help achieve a goal…sell more widgets, win an election…whatever. But we are deluding ourselves when we choose to ignore the full consequences of what we do. We may get “our guy” elected, but at what cost to our collective well-being? Until we individually own the collateral damage of our strategies and tactics, whether pitching pesticides or politicians, we are complicit in the very things we rail against at the dinner table.