Dan Popp
Potshots at capitalism -- a response to Don Cobb
By Dan Popp
February 22, 2010

Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse, pulling a sturdy wagon. — Winston Churchill

In his Renew America article entitled Killing the elephants in the living room — the downside of capitalism, Don Cobb writes about several things, including personal integrity, national renewal and the media — but I don't read a word about capitalism. With all the confusion nowadays about what capitalism is, and all the potshots the word has taken over the last year or so, it's unfortunate that he chose to include the word in his title.

My colleague's beef seems to be not with capitalism, but with "marketing." He writes:

    There seem to be pros and cons to just about everything in this life, even Capitalism. Self-absorbed is a term which accurately describes many of us, and after decades of media propaganda and effective marketing which is designed to make us focus on ourselves, we are more self-absorbed than ever, collectively speaking. Effective marketing works best when it (1) isolates us one from another, (2) convinces us we are weak or exploits our weaknesses by instilling fear in us, then (3) offers us a product or service which will overcome that about which we have been made afraid.

Now marketing is a feature of capitalism, but it is also a feature of communism and fascism and other economic systems. Marketing is not capitalism, nor vice versa. Speaking as someone who has been in and around the advertising world all of his working life, it seems to me that Don repeats some popular misconceptions.

He writes that marketing "is designed to make us focus on ourselves." And I don't think it can be disputed that this is often true. But there are advertisements aimed at getting us to think of others as well. Seen a life insurance commercial lately? There are other kinds of ads and public service announcements that ask us to shift our focus outwards, though again, I have to agree with Don that these are more the exceptions than the rule.

I would say that advertising's biggest moral danger is that it often tempts us to take the path of instant gratification rather than of discipline and wisdom: "You deserve a break today." Then there are those greedy banks telling us to put aside something for a rainy day.

Effective marketing isolates us from one another.

I think Mr. Cobb is forgetting all the ads for communication devices and services. Verizon was the #1 advertiser last year. Many commercials stress relationships — from beer ads to footage of families in minivans. Every advertising professional knows that the best advertising is word-of-mouth, so "effective marketing" gets one person talking to another about the product/service. This is not isolation.

Effective marketing...convinces us we are weak or exploits our weaknesses by instilling fear in us.

There are lots human emotions, needs and wishes; and advertisers use them all. Fear is only one. The need to be loved and accepted, the need for physical nourishment, the desire for entertainment — these are all motivators used by marketers. Alarm system services certainly don't mind using fear to sell their products. But the more usual complaint is that advertisers "use sex to sell their products" — and in that case the fear of an STD might be the antidote rather than the appeal.

Mr. Cobb writes:

    There is nothing about propaganda marketing (not to be confused with marketing a real and valuable product or service) that is edifying, encouraging or principled. It's about business, for goodness sake. By its very nature it is driven by greed and is considered successful only when it has effectively and successfully exploited our weaknesses, created fear and convinced us to invest in a product or service in order to alleviate our perceived fear. It's not a bad thing. It's just the truth about marketing. It is intended to manipulate we, the people. That is marketing's job.

Misconceptions abound here. Yes, I will admit that there is some deceptive advertising out there. But liars don't last long in the world of marketing. An ad agency once created a very successful series of commercials for a certain car model. People loved the commercials and came in to dealerships to see and drive the car — and hated it. The advertising was better than the product, and the company's over-promising led to the car's immediate demise.

Advertisers always put their best foot forward when describing their product, no doubt about it. They may spin, they may wordsmith. But if they lie, the product is doomed and the advertising money is wasted.

This is exactly what happened to the product known as "Barack Obama," by the way. The marketers made some broad statements that allowed people to believe the product could walk on water. When the product was found to be not even flawed, necessarily, but merely human, public opinion soured, and is still souring.

Don's idea that business is "driven by greed" is not a pretty picture of human nature, what with businesses being run by humans as they are. But he tells us "Most people are not selfish, manipulative, hateful or arrogant....."

The Bible paints a very different picture of man. "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?" — Jeremiah 17:9 NASB

Since man is greedy and dishonest and selfish, we need an economic system that channels that greed to good purposes. If you want to increase your material wealth, you'll have to create something of value for someone else — that's capitalism. We can't count on good men, as all other economic models do, because there are none.

C.S. Lewis wrote:

    The New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like. Perhaps it gives us more than we can take. It tells us that there are to be no passengers or parasites: if a man does not work, he ought not to eat. Every one is to work with his own hands, and what is more, everyone's work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them. — Mere Christianity

Lewis seems to mirror Cobb's views about advertising, but notice that his remedy is not socialism — it is capitalism: hard work and the rewards thereof, not anti-capitalism, which produces "parasites."

View and listen to advertising with suspicion. "Be careful how you hear," as Jesus said. But, as I've told students, it's a myth that advertisements "make" people buy things. The greedy, manipulative so-and-sos can't even make you listen to the end of the commercial.

© Dan Popp


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)


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