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research note
Marketing ideology and criticism:
Legitimacy and legitimization

Abstract. The analysis of the dialectical relationships between marketing ideology
and criticism is supported by the distinction between legitimacy and legitimization.
Marketing ideology is defined as a relatively stable set of arguments that provide
legitimacy to marketers and the market economy. However it does not preclude
contradictions and the dissenting voice of criticism. Marketing doctrine also produces
legitimization to lessen the tensions between the marketer’s claim to legitimacy
and other people’s belief in this legitimacy. As marketing doctrine develops through
incorporation of criticism, it follows that the critical process is a never-ending one.
Key Words
criticism legitimacy legitimization marketing ideology
The construction and development of markets is an accomplishment that dependson the mobilization of different bodies of expertise, including marketing, and themobilization of numerous actors, including marketers. Marketing ideology is therelatively stable set of arguments accounting for the marketer’s commitment tomarketing (management). Its primary function is to help marketers to maintaintheir ability to meet the demands of their occupation, while the function of criticism is to underline the tensions to which people in the marketers’ role aresubjected. But as criticism is either ignored, or heard and coopted, it has constantly to be renewed. Therefore, there is a dialectical relationship betweenmarketing ideology and criticism. This article defines each of these concepts, thenanalyses their functions, contents and relationships.
What is ideology?
In the absence of a firmly established definition, we have first to elaborate on thisterm. Definitions appear to be torn between two conceptions: one that empha- marketing theory 6(2)
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sizes its distortion dimensions and another which views it in a broader and morepositive light.
Marxist tradition has nurtured strongly the first perspective: ideology means a set of illusory beliefs and a ‘false consciousness’ by which the ruling class main-tains its dominance over the working class. Because the former controls the main means by which ideology is propagated throughout society (i.e. educational,political, legal systems and the mass media), it can then make the latter see its sub-ordination as ‘natural’ and therefore right. For instance, following the FrankfurtSchool, Ewen (1988) strives to show how marketing has manipulated consumerculture, using advertising to sell people products and change their lifestyles.
The problem with this conception is the following: who are those who know the truth about the social reality and can contrast ideology with true or scientificknowledge? People only know reality through their representations. If we acceptthat individual and group behaviours are not only determined by the objectivecharacteristics of a situation but also by interpretation and representation of thatsituation, and if we accept, too, that collective representations are oriented by theposition of individuals in the social space, it becomes difficult to classify the pro-duction of ideas about life in society into two categories that depend on criteriasuch as truth and error. The only way is to stop claiming a point of view hoveringabove a mass of blind people.
The second conception, developed by anthropologist Dumont (1977), is a positive and non-polemical version of the notion. It is based on the concept ofcollective representation and encompasses a much wider array of social phe-nomena: values, norms, beliefs, meanings, symbols and customs. It emphasizesthe necessity of a common framework: in a given social space at a given momentin time, people are sharing the same intellectual heritage, a set of shared beliefsintegrated into the institutions, committed to action and thus rooted in reality.
This cultural conception of ideology delineates the range of expected and acceptedbehaviour in a particular context, the constraints on the range of human actionand expectations of the present players, the rules of the game and how the gameis played.
For Marxists, the culturalist definition is inside their definition. Therefore all other conceptions are seen as nothing more than a distortion of reality. On thecontrary, ‘ideology as a distortion’ can be seen as one of the pathologies of a widerconception of ‘ideology as a factor of integration’, if we accept the distinctionbetween legitimacy and legitimization1 (Chiapello, 2003). Legitimacy emphasizesthose representations that, by ensuring a shared description of the world andenabling each person’s action, help to reinforce the stability of social order.
Ideology as a function of integration produces legitimacy for an order constitutedby conventions generally accepted in a society. Legitimacy is that which those whoare being governed grant, more or less tacitly, to those who are governing them.
However, ideology also produces legitimization to those who are in a dominantposition because there is always a de facto variance between the models that areassumed and concrete achievements. When this variance is neither detected norcriticized, those who are in a position of dominance enjoy excessive power.
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Consequently, their legitimacy claim is greater than the belief in their legitimacyand this production of legitimization introduces distortion. If ideology gives unityto a set of collective representations in return it neither precludes distortion orcontradiction.
What is marketing ideology?
Few authors within the marketing literature use the term ideology (Alderson,1965: 336, is an exception). While, for Marxist tradition, ideology is pure distor-tion of reality, for marketing doctrine, ideology does not exist.
Cochoy (1998) chronicles how marketing knowledge evolved from its early days.
The formalization and dissemination of marketing principles and tools led to the construction of marketing professions, reinforcing the need and presence ofmarketers in the economy. Wilkie and Moore (2003) give some clues of the impactof this process on US society. The general implementation of the same collectiveframework, techniques and devices reinforces the efficiency of the management of markets and contributes to the generalization of market economy. Halfwaybetween economics (science) and management (practice), marketing is a practiceequipped by science. It is not a science, like physics or astronomy, because manyfacets of the marketing processes will not submit to scientific tidiness. Marketing isa ‘performative science’,2 conceptualizing and enacting market economy at thesame time. It is the discipline codifying market economy that simultaneouslydescribes and constructs its subject matter.
Marketing can thus be construed as having three layers: 1 it is a practice: all actions and deeds conducted by marketing practitioners or professionals close to them (segmenting a market, targeting prospects, posi-tioning products); 2 it is a branch of knowledge: the codified principles and tools (segmentation, marketing mix, product life cycle . . .) used by marketers; and 3 it is an ideology: the enduring beliefs and collective representations (perspec- tives, frame of reference, viewpoints) shared by marketers. Regarding layer 2, we use the definition provided by classical marketing (AMA,2005). This choice is not random. Such a doctrine, developed from the 1950sonwards, is acknowledged as the marketing. Of course the practice of marketing(layer 1) began well before marketing’s codification (layer 2) and the spread of thediscipline results from the interactions between those layers.
As justifications of marketing action become more accepted and taken-for- granted, marketing practices become more institutionalized. Marketing ideology(layer 3) works as the collective action frame of marketers and the extreme gener-alization of marketing vocabulary shows the pervasiveness of marketing ideology.
Its imprints are found in the constant use by all sorts of actors in every kind of situation of its metaphors. This is so because marketing doctrine strives to have its marketing theory 6(2)
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frame of reference shared by a lot of people and specifically, consumers (Marion,2004).
Halfway between science and practice, marketing is constantly transforming itself. We can see traces of these transformations, for instance, in the successive 11editions of Kotler’s textbook, Marketing Management, (Kotler, 2003) which, since1967, has strived to adapt to current trends. Marketing consultants and academicsdevelop ever-changing middle-range theories, borrowed from various social sciences and applied to market data. That is why there are two levels within theconfiguration of ideas of marketing ideology: those which account for marketingand distribution as a long-run social and economic process, and those which resonate at a given period of time and within a given region of the world.
Marketing ideology functions and content
Marketing ideology is useful for people playing the marketer’s role to alleviate thetensions to which they are subject. Following Sutton et al. (1956), three types oftension can be identified: (1) tensions stemming from criticism of the dominantposition of successful and worldwide brands that can undermine the marketer’sbelief that brand and market economy values are consistent with the general values of society; (2) tensions originating from the contradictory demands put tothe marketer by different stakeholders (customers, stockholders, employees, government, etc.); and (3) tensions deriving from the conflicting demands ofother social roles that marketers (and especially women) must play outside thefirm in family, community and various informal groups. Marketers adhere totheir particular kind of creed3 to resolve emotional conflicts, overcome the doubts,and alleviate the anxieties engendered by the actions that their roles compel themto take. The first function of marketing ideology is to help marketers to maintaintheir ability to meet the demands of their occupation. It provides arguments thatjustify their commitment to marketing and renders this commitment attractiveand stimulating (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005).
To demonstrate that marketing actually deserves its position, marketing ideol- ogy provides a doctrine organized through two ‘safety belts’. The first one is theoldest and results from the influential heritage from traditional economics; it produces legitimacy. The second has been tightened since the enthusiastic (re)discovering of the so-called ‘marketing concept’ by businessmen; it produceslegitimization.
Marketing ideology produces legitimacy
Marketing ideology, as a factor of integration, organizes a set of shared repre-sentations that facilitate cooperation and coordination among market actors. Itproduces legitimacy for marketing activities because it provides reasons to allmarket actors for accepting the way in which market economy is organized. The Marketing ideology and criticism
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legitimacy of marketers stems from what those they interact with grant them byacknowledging their right to act: shoppers, customers and consumers, as well aspeople in other departments of their company. Marketing ideology produceslegitimacy insofar as those who are involved in consumer society believe in thislegitimacy. It is providing answers to such questions as: what is consumption?What is a customer/consumer? What is a market? What is competition? What arethe consequences for the common good? It refers frequently to the Wealth of Nations (Smith, 1776) in order to: (1) under- line the propensity in human nature ‘to truck, barter and exchange’ (Book 1,Chapter II); (2) assert the logical priority of consumption over production andstress the necessary influence of consumers over producers ‘Consumption is thesole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to beattended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer’(4, VIII); (3) use the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor (4, II); (4) define the role of ‘self-interest’ and/or ‘self-love’ (1, II); and (5) define the rules of competition and therole of ‘market price’ (1, VII). It refers, more rarely, to The Theory of the MoralSentiments (Smith, 1759) in order to suggest that sympathy (1, 1) is a foundation ofcustomer orientation which asks marketers and salesman to place themselves, byimagination, in the consumer situation.
The consumer is defined as the one who chooses from among the offerings on the market in a more or less calculating way. Because ‘no client means no busi-ness’, competition will force firms to either learn the best way to serve the marketor go out of business. The market is first an area (actual, potential, virtual) with-in which there is a demand for a certain product (the marketplace), it is also aprice-making mechanism. Competition, even if not pure and perfect, is the surestmeans for the customer to benefit from the best product at the best cost.
Marketing doctrine reminds us that, in a market economy, everything that is beneficial for the individual is also beneficial for society, and that the one criteriafor common good is the general growth of wealth, whatever or whoever is the beneficiary. Moreover, a free market and prospering consumption economy foster freedom and democracy. However, marketing is seen as a low-profile function concerned mostly with distribution.
Material progress, efficiency and effectiveness in satisfying needs, and the exercising of economic and political freedom constitute the first safety belt ofmarketing ideology that produces strong legitimacy. It is a set of justifications that emphasizes individual concerns and interests, as well as social and collectiveinterests. The latter are the more powerful because, rather than focusing on individual interest, justifications supported with economic and political freedomproduce moral legitimacy – the socially accepted norms and mores, the ‘rightthing to do’. Marketing legitimacy is the generalized assumption that marketingactions are desirable and appropriate within the market economy. This legitimacyreflects the congruence between the behaviour of marketers and the shared beliefsof customers/consumers within the system of norms, values and definitions provided by the market economy.
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Marketing ideology produces legitimization
Advocates of marketing add a second safety belt to the marketing doctrine. Thecontinuous reiteration of the marketing concept’s promises provides an interpre-tative schemata legitimizing marketing practices. Selectively framing the relation-ships between the firm and the market, it seeks prescriptions providing answers to ‘how to’ questions: how to satisfy and delight the consumer? How to keep customers loyal? How to manage successful companies and organizations? First, ittransforms marketing into a strategic tool for senior management and, second, it transforms marketing doctrine into an institutionally legitimated ‘science’ supported by academic research, education and doctoral programmes. Threearguments account for the existence of the marketing discipline: (1) consumer’ssovereignty and alignment of firm and customer’s interests; (2) economic evolu-tion; and (3) marketing’s universality.
Consumer’s sovereignty, customer orientation and firm’s interest With the marketing concept not only does the customer come first but also theinterests of firm and consumer align. A customer orientation is the logical basis –a commonsense philosophy – for ‘good’ profit in a consumer-sovereign economy.
Identification and satisfaction of customer’s needs are the keys to prosperity. The‘king’ (customer) requires that her/his needs be satisfied. S/he will determine whatand how much will be made, when it shall be made and what s/he will pay for it.
However, to serve the customer has a cost. Yet the desire to please – delight,enchant – can be carried too far. Therefore firms must determine the break-evenpoint for itself in order to achieve good profit by giving the customer/consumerwhat s/he wants. All market participants being equal and free, consumers canchoose among offerings and brands just as firms (marketers) can choose amongconsumers. Since markets are heterogeneous and changing, then marketers definehomogenous segments of demand and manipulate the elements of the marketingmix to better adapt a firm’s supply to market demand – in other words, target segment(s). By concentrating resources on a responsive segment a firm can oftenincrease its competitive advantage.
There is a gradual developmental process of firms toward a customer/marketingorientation – seen as a progress implemented by enlightened firms. Moreover,economic/business history is conceived as a sequence of successive eras whichplace marketing as the end result of an irreversible process/progress. Thissequence strives to present the series of steps as natural. Marketing textbooks referusually to Keith (1960) and outline the production era, the selling era, and thenthe marketing revolution. Both production and selling eras are seen as pastorientations. The production orientation aligns with a ‘supplier’s market’ erawhen firms were faced with an insatiable demand for anything that could be Marketing ideology and criticism
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produced. A selling orientation emphasizes ‘pushing’ a company’s product orservices to sometimes unwilling customers. A customer orientation is seen as thebest orientation and others must be denounced because managers have to beshielded from their influences. A customer or market orientation is the future forany firm as well as for economic evolution.
Marketing doctrine conceptualize the whole economy as a system of markets and,within firms, marketers try to get everyone to practice marketing. Everything,everywhere can be seen as a ‘product’ (goods, services, ideas, money, jobs, educa-tion . . .) and any individual can be seen as a consumer/customer (patient, student,art lover, donor, employee, citizen . . .). All social actors are to be transformed intoconsumers (Kotler and Levy, 1969). Marketing provides a useful set of conceptsfor guiding all organizations worldwide. Social regulation through marketing andthe market is desirable because every organization performs ‘marketing-like’activities whether or not they are recognized as such. No organization can avoidmarketing and this recognition ties marketing economic activity to a higher socialpurpose.
Loosening the safety belts: the role of criticism
In order to examine marketing’s contribution to (US) society, Wilkie and Moore(1999: 200) define it as a huge system which incorporates classic distributionfunctions, marketers’ plans and programmes, actions by consumers, and actionsby government. Such an ‘aggregate marketing system’ is close to the Americanversion of the whole market economy. Therefore it is difficult to evaluate theunique contribution of marketers. We are more humble and concentrate on thesafety belts of marketing ideology.
The more compelling and convincing a justification supporting marketing practice is, the less the justification needs to be sustained in order to maintain thepractice. Therefore, as marketing becomes more widely diffused and accepted, the frequency and number of justifications should decrease. Why then should awidely adopted practice such as marketing require justification to maintain itsadoption? The answer is: criticism. On the one hand, thanks to the first safety belt,marketing ideology produces legitimacy for a marketer insofar as s/he satisfies therequirements of ‘true’ competition and transparent information. On the otherhand, criticism questions whether competition is always strong enough to forcefirms to cater fully to the market and whether it is reasonable to see the market asindependent of firm actions. It argues that firms operating in competitive marketssometimes have a lot of room for following their own preferences. It strives toreveal the moral pretensions that hide realities such as power imbalance.
Thus, marketing doctrine must incorporate a response to criticism if it wants marketers to remain legitimate. It is the ‘price to pay’ if customers/consumers marketing theory 6(2)
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are to consider marketing activities – and firms which implement them – to belegitimate. In other words, marketing ideology acts both as a justification for themarketing action and as a constraint on the marketing process. It legitimates market order and provides reasons for accepting marketers’ activities but it alsoconstrains them. We could even say that it only provides legitimacy as it acts as aconstraint upon it (Chiapello, 2003: 10). Marketing ideology is seen as a pool ofjustifications useful both for marketers and criticism.
To assess marketing doctrine we have to consider that it strives to be consistent with the democratic conception of justice which postulates the equal distributionof basic liberties and the fair equality of opportunities. Otherwise, why criticizemarketing ideology? Suffice to reject it as a ruling class ruse. We have to believetoo that those who are interested by marketing doctrine are neither manipulatednor blinded by it. This means that we consider that all people, decently informedabout market exchange, must be granted the same elementary capacities as socialscientists when it comes to questioning ideologies.
The role of criticism is to doubt the effectiveness of the production of legiti- mization by marketing ideology. Skills are essential to reveal the abilities mobilized by gurus’ texts in using metaphor and rhetoric to provide a literaturethat talks of an enchanting world which no one has ever really encountered. It iseasy to uncover some contradictions. We know now that the production era is historically a myth (Fullerton, 1988) and that the unlikely ‘Copernican revolution’– the customer moving to the centre of the business universe according to Keith(1960) – has been announced periodically at least since the 1930s (Marion, 1993).
Other justifications are more difficult to criticize. The alignment of firm and con-sumer interests raises several questions: who is defining the consumer to be served?How is s/he defined? How are customer requirements identified and anticipated?We suggest that the main issue is the peculiar anthropology of marketing doctrine.
The economic evolution issue raises the question of prophecy. Both justificationsare connected with the universal claim of marketing doctrine.
A peculiar anthropology
Marketing needs a definition of Human (consumer as well as marketer) consistentwith the ‘laws of nature’ because taken-for-grantedness needs universal statements.
The self-interested individual from economics provides the first representation ofthe consumer: a rational economic actor oriented toward the maximization of aproduct use value (‘utilities’ for economics, ‘benefits’ for marketing).
To understand the relationship between various marketing stimuli and the con-sumer’s response, marketers looked for a theory of needs and motives. Maslow’s‘hierarchy of needs’ (1954) was the providential tool to explain why people aredriven by particular needs at a particular time. For most marketers of the 1960s Marketing ideology and criticism
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this hierarchy was universal and they were not interested by the fact that manypeople from Asian backgrounds are perplexed by the idea that ‘self-actualization’could be more important than ‘status’ within one’s community. Clever marketingscholars make no more reference to Maslow’s scale. But they still take needs as acornerstone. As they are aware of the controversy over whether needs can be created they argue that needs can be expressed and/or latent and conclude thatmarketing does not create or invent needs but merely allows them to surface.
Hunger, thirst, discomfort, esteem – these are latent needs and when they arearoused to a sufficient level of intensity they become a motive. Thus the con-sumer’s response to marketing programmes is the expression of a need.
But what does marketing doctrine mean exactly by ‘latent’ need? Latent means unexpressed; needs are latent until activated by marketers. Thus we are facing anentity that by definition is impossible for buyers to articulate. But, where do latentneeds come from? Mainstream economics cautiously assumes that needs areexogenous – an independent variable that should be explained by anything otherthan economic relations. However, the marketer is paid to open the ‘black-box’and marketing textbooks detail factors affecting the rational decision-makingprocess of the buyer. When marketing doctrine has to answer to the critic, itargues that latent needs are not constructed but ‘given’. In doing so it frees marketers from any mediation role and any responsibility. Moreover, needsappear as the starting point of the deductive approach provided by marketingdoctrine. Needs are changing but do exist and are exogenous to marketer’s action.
This certainty gives self-confidence to the marketer’s action.
Of course there is no guarantee of success, for marketers cannot automate the production of customers and cannot manufacture consumer’s consent. But this isnot the point, the issues are: (1) what is the marketer’s contribution to the emerg-ing process of needs?; and, (2) what is the effect of an environment saturated withmessages and devices exhorting individuals to consume? Marketing does notacknowledge these issues because it pays attention only to competing productsand social spaces relevant to offerings and, on the demand side, to social groupsengaged in an equally limited form of observation. It does not attend to the behaviour of the global system. However, marketers collectively contribute largely to economic change by the development of, for instance, the minivan,Walkman, Viagra or CNN. They influence, in so doing, consumer’s collective representations of objects (products, services, places etc.) as well as collective representations of consumers’ needs and motives. Before George Eastman’sinvention, few people had had the goal of taking photographs. Kodak devised thenotion of ‘amateur photography’ and, at the same time, defined the object thatwould convince everybody to take photographs (Latour, 1987: 115).
It is not a matter of coercion. Changes of values come from people themselves, butmarketers change representations as to what is in line with consumers’ values.
They provide goods, services, messages and atmospheres, and consumers have to marketing theory 6(2)
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make sense of their resulting consumption experience. People attribute meaningsto objects and these meanings reflect the collective representations to which they have been exposed and presently operate. People presume objects to havespecific meanings but they are always dependent on the interpretation of othersfor the confirmation of the reality of their experience. A consumption experienceis produced not by nature but by society and marketing practices.
As we take much of our own reality for granted, the most compelling evidence for multiple realities and the relevance for people’s activity of its own structuredreality may come from cross-cultural research. Rationality is itself a culturallyvariable concept. The individual as an autonomous entity exercising free choice in pursuit of her/his interest is a modern western construct. Market society both causes and requires change in human values. Markets engender increasedself-attributing of responsibility (Sampson, 1977). Thus, the concept of a personentailing agency and individuality renders some persons better equipped to operate in market concepts than others.
Marketers have long played a mediating role in this process and have occupied a central position in the market economy. They contribute to the development ofa cult of innovation in which we honour the new over the enduring. In so doingthey produce informationally imperfect consumer markets because marketingsupplies the vast preponderance of information-persuasion messages and becauseproducts become more complex and quality less easily evaluated. It is possible thatmarketing, as a mercenary for anyone who can hire it, can be enlisted to opposethe habits it is accused of sustaining (demarketing?). It is possible that marketing‘science’ provides a neutral tool-box. But, marketers are paid to seek for newopportunities, to create markets and develop market shares, to create revenuesfrom new customers buying products or services that yesterday they did not knowthey needed and today cannot live without. This is the power of marketing and when marketing gurus deny this power, marketing ideology produces legitimization, in other words, dissimulation and distortion.
Marketing doctrine argues that people want to feel unrestrained by social normsof the past and demand freedom to do their own things as long as it is a self-regarding action. But, people also demand the right to contradict the pre-formatted meanings and the ‘ready-to-think’ messages provided by marketers.
The consent of consumers is never finally won, elements of resistance alwaysremain, and the degree of consent/dissent will vary considerably among the readers of this page. This is more optimistic than the Marxist vulgate that regardsmarketing as having been created to maintain dominance with advertising and themedia as responsible for creating false consciousness.
Traces of resistance and contradictions may be identified by critical analysis of texts. This will show, for instance, that there is no symmetry between the sup-posed marketer’s rationality and consumer’s rationality and, worse, the supposed(ir)rationality of the female consumer. Whether or not contradictions are actually Marketing ideology and criticism
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taken up and acted upon can be established by study of the practices of every daylife (Certeau, 1984) and ‘thick description’ of consumption meanings. This willshow, for instance, how consumption meanings and practices are negotiated frommass media images and objects.
A theory of evolution?
Marketing doctrine argues that what the market economy has achieved workspretty well and any kind of tampering with it in a radical way will almost certainlymake things worse. It is because societies broke loose from the norms and con-straints of old institutions and let the market work that advanced industrialnations have achieved economic progress. Therefore, marketing doctrine assumesthat the present economic evolution means progress. But, how do we explain thistendency? Marketing gurus claim that present evolution is a clear march to progress towarda higher and better form of economy and society. The argument is that competi-tion will force firms in that direction. This process is (more or less implicitly) seenas a natural evolution through ‘natural selection’, in other words, the idea thatfirms, like animals and plants, compete in a struggle for existence in which natu-ral selection results in ‘survival of the fittest’. This social Darwinism suggests thatfirms are in militaristic competition with each other and that the fittest firms arethe ones that emerge successful in the battle.
This analogy is wrong. It is not possible to describe cultural change as a process of natural selection. The attempt to apply this theory to the business world forgetsthat, in human culture, acquired characteristics can be passed on to the next generation. It is called learning. So the analogy to natural evolution does not work.
The standard of success is defined by the most efficient extant firms, not the efficiency that is theoretically possible. The possibility that the market system islocked into paths that are not globally optimal is still open. In particular, learningprocesses may be very path dependent and the ‘best’ technologies are often barelyadequate. Economic history points out that the overall economy could follow a path that is partly decided by chance, is history dependent, and is less than optimal. Thus, when marketing ideology asserts that economic evolution tendstowards some state that is globally optimal, it is producing legitimization.
No marketing theory provides a general analysis of why institutional evolutiontook the path that it did and not another one. Marketing gurus know perfectlywell, or have the intuition, that the future is not a state to be foreseen but a stateto be created. It is a prospective state, one of the many possible states. Therefore marketing theory 6(2)
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they know that they can, and have to, contribute to the realization of what theyconsider the desired state. How can they contribute? By providing a vision of thefuture sufficiently optimist to be desirable and sufficiently credible to mobilizepeople in order that they take actions which will promote such a future state. Onthe one hand that is why it has to be shown that the gradual adoption of market-ing is the result of the economic system’s historic trend toward the market economy, so that it is taken for granted. On the other hand, it also has to be shownthat this situation must be ‘made to exist’. The acknowledgement of eras in Keith’sfashion is not a work of historiography, it is the rhetoric of a project. A prophecywhich, like any prophecy, is made to have an effect on the future.
Marketing literature is replete with such rhetorical operations. Gurus know that their speech is intended to have effects on the future in providing a vision. Such aproject suggests a desirable future and tries to engage present action in reaction/anticipation to this desired state. Moreover, the past is ‘open’ to interpretation,while the future, as the cause of present action, is ‘fixed’. The past is open, to theextent that it is rewritten according to the new prescription – in other words, theerror of the past versus the new and ‘real’ marketing to be adopted. Therefore the number and content of previous eras to be denounced are incessantly changing.
For instance, if we follow the most recent attempt of denunciation we havenoticed in Sheth et al. (2000), market orientation and ‘demand management’ (p. 61) are denounced in favour of ‘customer-centric marketing’ (p. 56). The‘fixed point’ of marketing theory is thus the prophecy of a brighter future whichprovides prescriptions in a deductive way. A good marketing prophet is an expertin the art of make-believe.
But, when the time comes to explain social change, marketing doctrine is mute.
Moreover, it is unable to understand and explain its own change. Its only themesare: consumers and markets change; firms and consumers interests align throughthe magic of the marketing concept; and the art of marketing is the art of delight-ing the customer. However, it is difficult to disentangle the relationships between customer orientation and environmental characteristics (competitive intensityand market and technological turbulences) and what it means to be customer- or market-oriented to continue to evolve. But, marketers fully understand the firm’spreference: to be in a position where it can dominate its customers and suppliersby virtue of direct, or indirect, competitors’ weaknesses. In fact, any marketexchange is a compromise of interests and, for a customer, to accept a compro-mise does not equate to being delighted. Of course, anybody sharing some experience of buyer/seller relationships knows very well that ‘compromise ofinterests’ is a fair description of market exchange. But this is not enough for marketing advocates. They need the clarity of compelling and convincing justifi-cations to avoid equivocation and ambiguity in order to suspend disbelief andachieve marketing taken-for-grantedness.
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Marketing universalism?
Segmentation and then hyper-segmentation had become the indisputable rule inmarketing: a wider variety of products each tailored to a specialized populationcreates more buyers in total and less cutthroat competition. For consumers, asmass markets increasingly splinter, individuals have gained more opportunity toexpress their separate identities through their choices. Marketers and consumersco-produced segmented and fragmented markets as well as consumer culture. AsFoucault’s line of argument indicates (1988), we not only have to choose a self, buthave to constitute ourselves as a self who chooses, in other words, a consumer. Asa result, all aspects of our existence are monitored and scrutinized as objects ofinstrumental calculation in the creation of the self. Therefore, as far as our owneconomic interests are at stake (at least in the short term), we are all reliant on themarket.
Critics can oppose consumer culture for reasons that are external to individual consumption. Ecologists criticize consumption because it ruins the environment.
Consumption will be fine once it takes a sustainable form and some advise a moveto a simpler life. These external reasons for criticizing consumption deserve attention and support as well as criticisms of extravagant consumption that ties upwealth that should be used to help the poor. But, we suggest that the main issue isthe legitimacy of the consumer to be representative of the citizen.
To face up to the taken-for-grantedness of marketing doctrine is thus to face upto the constant striving to acknowledge the cost/advantage calculation from theconsumer’s view point. How can we depart from this short-term maximizingrationality? Or, more exactly, how can critics as well as marketers understand thatpeople are able to shift from mindset to mindset according to the situation? Howcan action move between one based on a personal and self-interested frame ofaction and one based on social values – in other words, regarding other people’ssentiments? We have to accept that people shift among multiple logics of actionand justifications for each of several domains of social life: economy and market,family and home, polity and citizenship etc. Thus, we can look at the chronic tension which exists between the idea of the consumer and that of the citizen(Lang and Gabriel, 1995). Consumers are free, able to choose, and allowed toexpress their individuality, whereas the idea of being a citizen implies mutualityand control as well as a balance of rights and duties. Citizens are at once listenedto, but also prepared to defer to the will of the majority. In as much as they canmake choices, citizens have a sense of superior responsibility. The consumer onthe other hand, is self-interested and the marketer provides products and adver-tising to incite the individual to govern him/herself according to fundamentalhedonism for which pleasure, happiness and well-being are synonymous.
Marketing doctrine seeks to incorporate the citizen into its image of the consumerby using the concept of votes and ballots: the consumer votes in the market place marketing theory 6(2)
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in the same way as citizens are voting. In this way of marketing legitimization, themore wealth of purchasing power the consumer has, the more votes s/he gets.
According to this view, it is up to citizens as consumers to decide whether theywant a service from the state and what quality they are prepared to pay for. On theother hand consumer activists are promoting the notion of citizenship in contra-diction to the notion of the consumer. They seek to enlarge the consumer intosomeone who is responsible and socially aware. Marketing gurus have redefinedthe citizen as a purchaser, while consumer activists stretch the idea of consumerin the direction of the citizen.
When transforming a citizen into a consumer, marketing ideology is legitimiz- ing marketing action in the civic space. It’s extending beyond the legitimate orderof the market to introduce its representations and justifications in a different legitimate order: the civic one. In other words, marketing ideology is producinglegitimization for its own justificatory regime in an attempt to anchor any socialorder in its own single common higher principle. What kind of people is thisprocess producing? In 1830, Tocqueville (1947: 311 [1850]) saw the value of self-interested action among American citizens, but he saw as well that it led to anisolating individualism, to the citizen who ‘to sever himself from the mass of hisfellow and to draw apart from his family and friends . . . leaves society at large toitself’. Marketing ideology helped in shaping the contour and divisions of consumer culture, accentuating what divided people and undermining commonconcerns. Does the distinction between consumers and citizens remain acute? Yes,if there is some room for criticism. Is it possible to reverse a century of entwinedcitizenship and consumership? This remains a question or, at best, a conviction.
The dialectical relationships between marketing ideology and

A critical position is not easy because marketing doctrine develops through incor-poration of criticism. Let’s take some examples. Frank (1997: 54) shows the logicthat made rebel youth culture of the 1960s so attractive to advertising leaders andmarketers in search for a ‘creative revolution’. Cooptation is seen as a process bywhich rebel subcultures and bohemian cultural style moves from adversarial attitudes and language to the advertising discourse. Through a dialectical modelof branding and consumer culture, Holt (2002) explains how contemporarybranding principles have evolved historically. The increasing literacy of howbranding operates produces reflexivity that challenges the conventional brandingtechniques which gradually lose their efficacy. According to Holt, the anti-branding movement is now forcing companies to link brand and companies’ civicobligations and forcing marketing to evolve. When business-to-business market-ing described networks of interactions between buyers and sellers (Håkansson et al., 2004), the worldview of traditional marketing changed. The empirical phenomenon of network, first treated by classical marketing as some kind ofexception, is becoming central. Critiques of the traditional model are stronger.
Marketing ideology and criticism
Gilles Marion
Vargo and Lusch (2004) give us some clues that it could be soon outmoded infavour of a new dominant logic. This means that marketing theory is incorpo-rating new metaphors (relationships, co-production and networks) and adoptingand adapting ‘new’ analytical grids and ‘new’ tools.
Thus marketing doctrine can co-opt criticism and transform marketing tech- niques. It can also use several tactics to reject criticism: asserting competition as asufficient incentive for the marketer; defending, by and large, the vigorous andgrowing consumption as the chief indicator of a prosperous and a confident community; arguing that criticism clichés provide nothing new; showing that thecriticism is wrong and that reality is not what criticism purports it to be; and disarming criticism by presenting critics with a world, the post-modern one forinstance, that they no longer know how to interpret. Therefore how can criticismbe renewed? Either it is ignored and thus useless, or it is heard and co-opted.
The first safety belt of marketing ideology is very difficult to loosen because the legitimate order which is the framework of marketing action is constituted byconventions inherited from traditional economics and generally accepted in oursocieties for judging the fairness of market economy. Therefore if alternativesbecome unthinkable, challenge becomes impossible and marketing becomesunassailable by construction. Taken-for-grantedness represents both the mostsubtle and the most powerful source of legitimacy. The second safety belt is easier to loosen because the main target is the guru’s rhetoric to win convictionand enhance the marketers for action. However, like a fashion, this criticism isconsidered caustic by the media or the academic field, then more or less quicklyadopted and transformed by those it was supposed to criticize.
Yes, the critical process is a never ending one; that is why it has to be continued.
And the first target remains the production of legitimization by marketing gurus. Any ground won by marketing ideology has to be constantly defended by marketing doctrine. Marketing practitioners, like any social actors, are placed inan ambiguous and uncertain world. They might not know that certain courses ofaction are more efficient than others. They may not even know the potential oftheir own power. This ambiguity allows for the influence of rhetorically savvyconsultants or academics, as well as the dissenting voice of criticism which mustface the same pervasive lesson of rhetoric: whatever the audience (consumers,students employees or top managers), and whatever is for sale (goods, services,ideas, jobs, management tools) few people can stand much equivocation or ambi-guity. Therefore they avoid complex presentations weighing the pros and cons.
Colourful and lightly documented ready-to-think affirmations work better thantortuously reasoned explanations.
To create and develop markets, firms need a rather large population of marketers:full time professionals (brand managers, marketing directors, ad people . . .); part-time professionals (engineers, technical sales reps, key account managers . . .); marketing theory 6(2)
research note
professionals around them (market researchers, consultants, package and productdesigners. . .); and marketing academics. To practice marketing those people needprinciples and tools, as well as good reasons to be committed to their job and tojustify their activities around them. Because individuals that have to play the marketer’s role strive to alleviate the tensions to which they are subject, theychoose among existing models that have been legitimated and legitimized in themarketing field. In doing so they attempt to justify a particular way of looking atthe world. But if the world has a meaning, it is because actors are constructing and reconstructing intentions and accounts, and thereby their own and other’sidentities. If collective representations exist it is because they are continually beingcreated and recreated. This leads to the dialectic relationship between the pro-duction of marketing ideology and the production of criticism. In the absence ofany robust marketing theory the production of legitimacy and legitimizationserves as a proxy for an unlikely marketing science: it provides a belief systemabout economic and social relations as well as economic evolution. Therefore, theuncovering of a lack of consistency in this production, or the discovery of a new set of implications viewed as disturbing by adherents to this creed, will favourcriticism.
1 I select ‘legitimization’ rather than ‘legitimation’ to refer to the process whereby an entity is justifying its right to exist, while ‘legitimacy’ is referring to cultural con-formity rather than self-justification.
2 This word is coined on Austin’s (1975) notion of performative utterance in linguis- tics: those speech acts that simultaneously say and do what they say: ‘I now pro-nounce you man and wife’, ‘I declare the meeting open’.
3 While I borrow ‘creed’ from the religious lexicon, I tend not to get confused between the marketing ideological process and the religious process of belief. The former triesto connect its statements with scientific knowledge pretending to decipher reality,while the latter does not pretend to be connected with any scientific knowledge.
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marketing theory 6(2)
research note
Gilles Marion is currently professor at EM LYON (France) and head of the doctoral
programme in Management with Lyon 3 University. His research interests include
issues pertaining to marketplace ideologies and consumer’s interpretive tactics, semiotic
consumer research, marketing management history and marketing’s effect on society.
He has written several articles which bring together this research interests: Contributions
of French Semiotics to Marketing Research Knowledge, The Marketing Management
Discourse: What’s New Since the 1960s?
, Apparence et identité : une approche sémiotique
du discourse des adolescents à propos de leur expérience de la mode.
He has recently
published a book dedicated to marketing ideology: Idéologie Marketing (Eyrolles, 2004),
in French. Address: EM LYON, 23, avenue Guy de Collongue, BP 174, 69132 Ecully
Cedex, France. [email: [email protected]]



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