Is marketing evil?

Don Draper sits with his arms crossed across his chest, thinking of ways to sell tobacco. He’s just been notified of new research that shows that tobacco is unhealthy, but he doesn’t want to lose this account. He has bills to pay, and he needs to find a way to sell tobacco regardless of its dangers.

Don Draper is exactly who we DON’T want selling our products to us. He is cunning, smart, and ruthless. His goal is to sell, not to necessarily to help.

Yet Don Draper is exactly the type of copywriter all businesses want in their marketing department. Businesses want long-term clients and customers. They want their customers’ hard-earned money. And Don Draper knows how to get money into their clients’ hands.

Is marketing manipulative? Is it evil?

Honestly, maybe. The answer depends entirely on the business and product being marketed. Let’s look at two real-life examples of “evil” marketing being used to sell a dangerous product: tobacco and alcohol.

It’s no secret that tobacco is bad for you. And you can debate whether red wine is good for the heart (or whatever that claim is), but alcohol can certainly be dangerous. In fact, our government mandates that the Surgeon General’s Warning is clearly displayed on the package or bottle to discourage its sale and use.

In 1971, cigarette advertisements were banned from TV and radio. In 1998 a lawsuit resulted in new bans on tobacco advertising on billboards, cartoons, and advertising designed to appeal to kids younger than 18 years old.

In 2006, it was determined that Big Tobacco had violated racketeering laws by marketing “low tar” and “light” cigarettes. They claimed that these low tar and light cigarettes were actually less harmful than normal cigarettes. They knowingly misrepresented these products, and Big Tobacco paid the price.

In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act granted the FDA power to regulate marketing of tobacco. This allowed the FDA to restrict sale of tobacco in retail where customers could buy it face-to-face. It also banned the sale of tobacco through vending machines. 

A few ways Big Tobacco use sneaky and mega effective marketing tactics to sell harmful products:

A. They target vulnerable populations to sell more tobacco. It is well known in marketing that you need to target your audience to sell your product. For example, selling clothes to the geriatric population is very different from selling clothes to teenagers. Teenagers are more likely to care about style, what their friends are wearing, and the latest trends. In contrast, older populations are more likely to care about being comfortable, having easy clothes to put on, and feeling their best. Different populations warrant different marketing, and Big Tobacco knows that. Tobacco was marketed to specific audiences to sell better. 

B. They use experiential marketing. Experiential marketing is a tactic used by marketers to get their audience to associate the promoted product with a certain activity. Ideally, that activity is something the audience LOVES. 

For example, Big Tobacco used the below packaging to get people to associate hip hop with tobacco.

C. They use familiar-looking products in e-cigarettes’ package designs. The names and images below elicits nostalgia for products like Vanilla Wafers, Sour Patch Kids, and Whipped Cream.

Wait, aren’t there rules against using marketing like that? How are they able to do this? 

Well, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act actually does not apply to the e-cigarettes. Big Tobacco is well within their legal rights to market these products—even though we have scientific literature on the dangers of e-cigarettes AND they blatantly exploit people’s fondness of childhood treats (to sell e-cigs). 

Another potentially harmful and addictive substance is alcohol. 

College students, open minded and ready to make friends, are major targets for Big Alcohol. Marketers use prototypes (or avatars) of their ideal customer to sell their products. They say, “who would want to buy this product?” and “what can I promise them that will sell the product?”

College students have a wide range of interests, many of which can be exploited by companies who want to sell them stuff— like alcohol. According to research published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, alcohol companies know this and use it to sell alcohol to college kids. They know that not all college students are the same. Some prefer to be seen as more free-spirited. Others want to be known as great athletes. For example, Coors is targeted at the chill, easy-going ones. Budweiser is targeted at the athletic ones. 

Think about the famous slew of Budweiser SuperBowl ads. Maybe without you even knowing, an association was formed: Budweiser + Football = Good time. BOOM. 

Consider the Coors “Made to Chill” campaign. It targets millennials who are staying at home, chilling— with a beer (in the shower, apparently). Coors wants to attract those go-with-the-flow types to buy Coors.

These target advertisement campaigns work. Coors and Budweiser are popular with college kids, and I think that’s due to a concerted effort of the companies.

Sounds slimy, right? Marketing can definitely be manipulative, but it can also be immensely helpful. Now that you know the dark side of marketing, see my article here on nudging to see why and how it can be helpful.

So, is marketing evil? It absolutely can be. Business psychology in advertising is incredibly powerful. That’s why, as writers, we need to be careful who we work for. If you’re a freelancer, you need to be extra vigilant. Don’t work for businesses whose products don’t TRULY benefit the consumer. ONLY work for those businesses that you can proudly support with your well-crafted words. 

Thanks for reading! Do you love it? Hate it? Let me know below!