Coca-Cola taught the world to sing, and perhaps no brand is more American. This iconic brand taught us to love drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, to share a Coke and a smile. The indelible legacy of this brand is billions upon billions of empty plastic bottles that will remain in our environment for hundreds of years, perhaps bobbing in our plastic-infested oceans. Or perhaps the bigger legacy is an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Who pays to fix the damages that marketing has caused?
Writing about the world around me helps me process the conflict that lives in my head. Is marketing helpful or harmful to our daily lives? We learn new ways to solve increasingly complex problems because of marketing and production. Industrial and manufactured solutions have helped us to live happier and more productive lives.
For instance, the right medication might save my life one day, right? My car allows me to work outside my home. It keeps me safe while I drive to the mountains, so I can relax and exercise. Hundreds of workers built my car, in a factory that creates very little waste (thanks, Subaru). Clearly, the benefits of this product abound.
Yet I watch as the next generation learns to consume: How often should I replace that car? How many pairs of shoes do I need? Even in my own life, I have learned to justify consumer decisions.
You can afford it! You deserve it! What a bargain!
Marketing is nuanced. Why do we eat so many processed foods, and why do these foods taste so good? What does organic really mean? Why do we like free samples so much? Is paper really better than plastic?
Processed foods are engineered to appeal to everyone. We are taught to like them. Salt and added sugar ensure that we do. Marketing creates and shapes our world, so maybe we should learn more about how companies sell to us. Corporations and consumers both speak with money, but corporations usually put profit over people, and they have much deeper pockets than consumers. Revolutionary products have improved our world by solving important problems, but at what cost?
In a world where information is easily found online, immediate and free, consumers have to learn how to make informed choices. Businesses and consumers must learn how to balance priorities, to balance the need for perpetual growth with a need to preserve the only planet, and natural resources that we have. Companies have a commitment to a myriad of stakeholders. Investors want to maximize profit, to maximize return on investment. Consumers usually want the highest quality at the lowest price. We should all learn to read business plans and annual reports, because we are the caretakers of the world around us. As a marketing educator, I feel compelled to teach skills that promote sustainable solutions first.
We learn experientially. Marketing is ideally learned by looking around. What do you see when you go about your day? Chances are, you are bombarded by hundreds of messages; words, brand names, phrases, images, videos and even specific colors remind us that we live in a consumer-driven world. Each of us can learn to make more responsible consumer decisions by thinking about how we might promote innovation and industrial growth within a context that makes the most of human and natural resources.
Marketing isn't all bad, but we have to learn to ask better questions.