Written by Roger Jackson,
September 19th, 2019 | Views

If we marketers helped get the world into this mess, can we help fix it?

I used to feel that at worst, being a professional marketer meant helping my employer or client succeed and thus provide jobs, and products people enjoyed. At best, I was ensuring the onward progress of our society for the good of all (more wealth = better lives across the planet). 

In fact, data globally shows just how far humanity’s lot has improved. Driven primarily (many would argue) by the forces unleashed in the competitive capitalist system of which marketing is close to the heart. 

I was brought up to believe the modern enlightened business was fundamentally a force for improvement, even for good. And, I said to myself, capitalism is the only system that “works”.

As for many, I suspect, the Climate Change Emergency is giving me pause for serious thought.

I now feel a high level of personal responsibility.

Capitalism is the drive to hack into individuals’ powerful human desires (some might say selfish desires) for life improvement and/or enjoyment (and perhaps even more powerfully improvement for their kids). And by doing so to secure a profit for firms best able to meet those desires. The profit that then fuels the upward cycle. 

Unleashed marketing is at the forefront of identifying latent needs, bringing them to the fore and figuring out how to deliver solutions that get the consumer to open their wallets. It’s been an incredible force for change at a scale that maybe no one would have predicted.

“Buy our product and be happier, safer, healthier, more attractive, more successful” etc. etc. It’s a powerful formula.

But there was a flaw. The price we charged the consumer totally ignored the true environmental cost of the tsunami of “stuff” and the massive stream of energy consumed in this new world of pursuing happiness and better lives. The explosion of consumption meant an explosion of pollution and degradation. We went from being at the mercy of the planet to controlling the planet to now nearly destroying the planet. In a timescale that is barely a single career. Mine.

So, now as my kids ask me the modern equivalent “what did you do in the war, Dad”, I wonder if, in fact, I have been part of the pointy edge of capitalism, and as such more than a bit player in the near overwhelming problems we now face. I suppose I am asking that question of my profession. Are we a big part of the cause? Were our efforts to get consumers to buy our stuff, not the benign win-win outcome, after all? 

One source of hope though, is perhaps that the same skills deployed so successfully for decades generating demand for “stuff”, could now be switched to encouraging people to go the opposite way. Marketing theory and know-how built around it could soon be refocused on what messaging, and ideas would drive consumers to consume less, and factor in the environmental harm they cause. Maybe even to persuade people to pay more or invest in environmental improvement. And to motivate politicians to act. 

As a society, however, there are few dollar rewards for this. Remove any short term profit benefit from such initiatives and who pays for the marketing? And can marketing work as well on different motivations other than the selfish?

There are some signs of things changing. Consumption of stuff is flattening (see below and link) but of course we are still consuming more resources than the earth can replenish.



There isn’t nearly enough change. We need to change the measure of “success” for individuals, for companies, for marketers for the benefit of the planet. 

Can that happen in the current system?

How do you feel about this? Are we the cause of the global meltdown, or are we the people most able to come to the rescue?

Maybe it’s not our fault – perhaps we are just passive bystanders or is our work fueling the problem? What do you tell your children? Can our profession make a positive difference?