Marketing: Creating a desire or responding to one?

Those of us who make our living, partly or wholly, in marketing are often subject to a very specific criticism. We’re told that we’re creating – presumably out of whole cloth – a desire in consumers, specifically in order to fulfill it. This is often done by creating a sense of lack in the consumer, a sense that s/he is missing out in some way, and presenting the product or service as the antidote.

(The whole thing sounds very Lacanian, eh? Desire stems from a lack – and as we are desiring creatures, we are tormented by constant lack, which we attempt to fulfill, partly, by consumer behaviour. But I digress.)

There are wrong ways to do this, of course. For instance, Skinnywater used the tagline “Skinny Always Gets The Attention” in a campaign ripped apart by the feminist website Jezebel, and a salon in Edmonton went for the classy approach bysuggesting that domestic violence is OK, as long as you look good afterward. I call this approach “negging”, after the term made trendy in the past year or so by the “pick-up artists” who have popped up all over pop culture. It’s essentially a cheap trick: insult consumers so that they feel bad about themselves, and offer your product as a solution. This approach is also risky from a business perspective: it can be effective, but can also result in backlash and in the (justifiable) tarnishing of your brand’s image.

I think it’s important to make a further distinction, though, between creating desire and responding to desire. Yes, as marketers, it’s our job to match up consumers with products and services – and sometimes to convince skeptical consumers that our products and services actually have some benefit to them. But I see good marketing as responding to a desire, whether latent or active, that already exists. James Gilbert’s article on marketing in IT distinguishes the two: “While I am not suggesting that you simply make people “afraid” to the point of dependency, it can be useful to educate your customers in some of the ways in which things can go wrong with their I.T. After all, they can’t ask you for a brand new backup system if they don’t know they need one.”

Let’s take Crest teeth whitening products, for example. White teeth are a desired trait in modern industrialized societies, and Crest knows this; it’s got a product to make your teeth whiter, and therefore will make you more beautiful or handsome. And that’s how it markets the product: not as something that will make your teeth less yellow or will make you less ugly, but as something that will make you look better. They mean the same thing, but at the same time, they don’t, in the same way “Your hair colour looks gorgeous!” doesn’t mean the same thing as “Your roots were so awful, I’m really glad you got them fixed!”

This begs, however, the question of where desire comes from in the first place. Why do we want to have white teeth? Is it because we’re told by marketers – by people like me – that we should want them, or does the desire come from society at large? What is society at large anyhow, and how does marketing fit into it?