Imagine walking on the beach and seeing a tent offering free tattoos. As you walk closer you realise, however, that the only tattoos you can get are of the sponsor's corporate logo. To your dismay, young women are actually willing to get this bit of marketing tattooed on, of all places, their thighs.
This really is happening in the US, as reported by my friend Noelle in her AdAge blog. Young women strolling on the beach are stopping by corporate tents and getting logo tattoos applied. The idea of corporate tattoos (albeit temporary ones) is somehow repulsive, and so again, the idea of urban spam creeps up; people are advocating a stop to what they see as invasive and predatory marketing techniques.
As someone committed to free speech and free markets, however, I find myself fighting my own revulsion and standing up for marketing. Common sense would dictate that we shouldn't pollute culture. But common sense is not what's at work here.
Lost in this story and in our outrage is the fact that these women are voluntarily getting tattooed. And, to paraphrase an old political sawhorse, people get the marketing they deserve. Spam - in both urban and internet varieties - only exists because people engage with it. If people out there didn't buy secks toys from spam e-mail, then no one would bother sending spam e-mail. If young ladies on New York beaches didn't voluntary get corporate tattoos, no marketer would pay for tattoo booths.
It's a complicated issue that touches issues of ethics, branding, and free will. Do we as people in the marketing industries have a responsibility to protect people from themselves? Are our efforts in culture as important and scary as capitalism or porn or even rock 'n' roll or any of the other ideas floating around? My friend Kevin recommends a book, Jennifer Government, that imagines a world where family names are replaced by institutional ones. I don't think marketing really has enough importance yet to do just that, but maybe we're heading in that direction.
And what of branding? If we really have brought so much meaning to commercial enterprises that people identify with them, is that really much worse than using nationality, religion, or race to help people define themselves? Each of these has negatives - nationalism, radical fundamentalism, racism - whereas marketing rarely incites violence.
I'm not advocating that brands should be elevated to the same level as the others. I'm arguing that our concerns shouldn't rise to moral outrage. An Apple tattoo (see above) is lifestyle committment masquerading as political movement.
If we are to speak of real movements, I admire the Adbusters people for their committment to making people aware of the marketing around them; I would like to hope that they're not entirely committed to destroying all marketing, though shriller voices there sometimes go that far.
I think that if we have one sin to answer for as an industry it is the unseen manipulation of desire. We should teach marketing literacy; as marketers we should be happy for people to understand our craft. In the UK, advertising is appreciated a bit more and is half-way to being a respectable profession, I feel, because celebrity admen like the Saatchis made the workings of agencies more public.
The time is right for us to make those workings more public. One reason why consumer generated content is thriving is because ideas need to be free. They need to compete. Now that individuals have the same tools that we do, it's time to tell them what we're up to. Some of them already appreciate what we do (on marketing blogs and advertising fansites) and some of them are already making advertising on their own for brands they love.
We should be teaching them marketing strategy. We should be more transparent in how we construct our brands and our marketing programs. If they only knew why we do what we do, maybe they wouldn't feel the need to get tattoos. Maybe they would write songs about us instead. Maybe they would stop buying the product. Either way let's have the free market do the deciding. The problem is not in what we do but in the veil of manipulation that we have constructed around it.