"We can try to brainwash but it's expensive and it doesn't work well"

“We can try to brainwash but it’s expensive and it doesn’t work well”

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Marianne: You explain that marketing is the poor relation of university research. We prefer to focus on the economy or, more generally, on consumption. Why this lack of interest in marketing?

Thibault LeTexier:In the hierarchy of disciplines, marketing is dominated mainly because it is an applied discipline. At university, it is the most abstract disciplines such as philosophy and mathematics that will be at the top of the hierarchy. The applied, concrete disciplines are less prestigious. Marketing is studied by practitioners, by those who want to pursue a career in sales or sales, but very little from a critical or historical point of view. It is also little considered by artists, photographers or directors.

“Marketing has become essential, especially for urban populations. When you live in the city, you produce nothing of what you consume. »

What is interesting in marketing is its loudest and most conspicuous side: advertising. It is also its most caricatural side. This is why it is the subject of critical discourse on brainwashing or on the generalized advertising invasion. But advertising is really just a subfield of marketing.

This disinterest is, in your opinion, paradoxical…

Marketing is neglected by academia even though it is the basis for the survival of modern societies. It has become indispensable, especially for urban populations. When you live in the city, you produce nothing of what you consume. We are therefore dependent on distribution channels for food, clothing, travel, entertainment, etc. Marketing is as vital as it is hidden.

Origins marketing is not like the marketing we know today. In what context does it emerge and what form does it take in its infancy?

18th century marketinge and XIXe century has almost the opposite meaning of modern marketing. It is an art of buying, not an art of selling. The first marketing manuals were written by women, for women. They are consumer self-defense manuals. At that time, markets were places where consumers and producers met directly. They had personalized relationships, which are often relationships of mistrust. It was difficult to know the freshness and quality of the products. Sometimes vendors tried to sell soon-to-be-stale fruits and vegetables while consumers tried to buy as fresh as possible.

“Marketing will become this game between consumer influence and producer influence”

There were a lot of scams, adulteration of products, food poisoning which sometimes led to deaths. Marketing was therefore a technique to help consumers not to be ripped off, to select products. For example, he gave advice on how to identify spoiled meat or rancid butter. This first marketing had something very tactile, almost animal. This dimension will be totally reversed by modern marketing. The latter is a kind of negative of domestic marketing: coating the product with packaging, labels, brands to put a distance between the consumer and the products. This will prevent him from smelling, feeling and looking at the products. It is now the marketer who selects the products and no longer the buyer or the seller.

“Modern marketing” is linked to the notion of “marketing rationality”. How does it develop and how is it characterized?

At the beginning of the XXe century, we observe a distancing of producers and consumers, a hiatus increasing between production and consumption due to the expansion of the railway, then of the car. There is a separation whereas before, on the open air markets, it was the producers themselves who came to sell their product. Intermediaries appear as distances grow. Marketing will become the art of organizing these hiatusto adjust consumption to production and production to consumption, in a dialectical movement.

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Marketing will become this game between consumer influence and producer influence. I call this a “rationality” because it is a coherent discourse, with well-identified concepts that operate in a network, and a discourse supported by a well-identified body of professionals: marketing specialists.

You devote a chapter of the book to the importance of brands, “probably the most important concept in the history of advertising” (Harry Henry). How does a “brand image” influence people’s consumption?

To understand brands, you have to place them in the ecosystem of products. In the context of domestic marketing, we bought generic products: flour, peas… We had to trust the producer or the seller. Modern marketing replaces the personal relationship between consumer and producer or seller with a personal relationship between customer and product. In supermarkets, we know the name of the products but not the first names of the sellers. What matters for marketing is to create a link between the consumer and a product.

“What can a marketer do if you don’t want to buy meat? Nothing. »

The “trademark” was initially a responsibility and a burden for the producer. In case of problems, the public authorities could go up to him. With the brand, in the modern sense, we will work much more on the symbolic aspect of the thing. We no longer identify a producer or a source, but the product itself. Today, the same producer can market the same product under different brands. The “trademark” is gradually becoming the “brand” itself, which no longer fulfills a role of making the producer responsible but of seducing and building consumer loyalty.

You present Philip Kotler as the “most influential figure in the history of marketing”. Who is he and how has he revolutionized marketing?

Unlike sociology with Durkheim or Comte, or management with Taylor, there is no founding father of marketing. The great reference figure of marketing – Philip Kotler – arrived quite late, in the 1960s. He did a thesis in Chicago, a postdoctorate at Harvard in applied mathematics. As he discusses with colleagues the application of mathematics to economics, it is suggested that he invest his energy in marketing, a fallow field where there is still much to do. It is a discipline where Kotler can quickly impose himself, while elsewhere the best places are already taken. This is how he became the reference in marketing. He brought great analytical rigor to the discipline.

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But he also made textbooks, which today are the most widely used in the world by marketing students. Once he was installed, he multiplied the books, in a more commercial than scientific logic. He nevertheless had a founding role and gave a certain respectability to marketing. Kotler also universalized marketing by showing that it could be applied to many areas: associations, religions, politics. After him, marketers started selling places, ideas and people.

However, you disagree with the idea that marketing seeks to manipulate people and radically change society…

There are many books that seek to demonize marketing. But that does not help to understand the phenomenon. I have my personal opinion on consumption, on the use of the car or the mobile phone. But I am wary of militant literature which lays down the verdict before instructing the trial. In my opinion, there is no brainwashing. We can try to brainwash but it is extremely expensive and it does not work very well. There’s no point in trying to sell meat to vegetarians, it’s better to sell meat to people who love to eat meat. It costs less and it is more effective.

One of the tenets of marketing is preaching to converts. Don’t try to convert en masse, but find the people who are likely to buy and target those segments of the population. Marketing is a servant power. It has very few means of coercion on consumers. What can a marketer do if you don’t want to buy meat? Nothing. It is a power that must take into account pre-existing desires and ways of consuming. As Bernays says: “People want to be taken where they want to go. »

You mention Edward Bernays, the author of Propaganda (1928). How has this character contributed to marketing’s bad reputation?

It’s fun to see that Propaganda, his only book translated into French, was published in a far-left collection. In this book, Bernays caricatures himself as a great shadow manipulator. His speech was taken at face value by his opponents because that is exactly what they wanted to hear. However, this book should be read as an advertising brochure to the glory of Bernays.

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He clashed with many colleagues who thought he was doing too much. Bernays claimed to have invented everything, transforming insignificant products into planetary successes. And yet, as his famous expression betrays – “the fabrication of consent” – Bernays recognized that consumers cannot be forced and that they are the ones who ultimately choose.

“Modern marketing seeks to turn citizens into consumers. » This is one of the most recurring criticisms of marketing. Do you agree with that or do you think that such an accusation should be put into perspective?

Marketing sees each individual as a consumer, it is interested in this aspect of his existence, without denying his dimension as a citizen. We can even use political levers to sell certain products, for example by playing on militant commitment to sell “green” or “eco-friendly” products. Marketing tries to consider the individual in all his complexity. But there is no general marketing plot to transform society, it is much more modest and deeper than that: marketing influences society by reinforcing certain existing tendencies, such as consuming rather than producing. oneself, or valuing comfort and immediate gratification.

“It is very difficult to make a politician (like Reagan), most often you have to do with the more or less charismatic figures who emerge from the lot. »

This is how he cements the consumer society. But it is also true that marketing techniques will be transferred to the political sphere in the 1970s, in particular the concepts of segmentation and targeting. The survey, for example, is originally derived from market research. Which does not mean that politicians are sold as soaps, they are precisely sold as politicians. Political consumption is very special! And it is very difficult to make a politician (like Reagan), most often you have to do with the more or less charismatic figures who emerge from the lot.

* Thibault Le Texier, The Main visible from the markets. A critical history of marketingDiscovery, €26, 656 p.

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