In a very unusual blog post today, Seth Godin wrote a very long explication of one of the dumbest ideas I think I've ever heard: that marketers are, ultimately, morally responsible for the impact of what they market. If you market guns, in other words, you're guilty of a kind of murder. And if you market soda, diabetes and obesity are your fault. What a crock.
"If you get asked to market something, you’re responsible. You’re responsible for the impacts, the costs, the side affects and the damage. You killed that kid. You poisoned that river. You led to that fight. If you can’t put your name on it, I hope you’ll walk away. If only 10% of us did that, imagine the changes. Imagine how proud you’d be of your work."
Now, a caveat. I worship Godin. I think he is, hands down, one of the handful of best marketing minds out there. In a discipline with an unbelievable number of fakes, poseurs and incompetents, Godin is head and shoulders above almost everyone there is, including me. I read all his books. I recommend All Marketers Are Liars to clients. I read his blog daily. But this time, he really dropped a brick on his own foot.
Marketers are powerful, unquestionably. But we're not The Wizard, and the market isn't Oz. The best marketing in the world won't save a product people don't want or don't like. Thousands of new, expertly-marketed products die every year because people just plain say "No."
And at the end of every single tiny piece of marketing is the customer, or in my line of work, the client, who is going to do what he damn well wants. If I'm marketing Pepsi, he may decide to have one can of Pepsi a day. Or he may have ten a day. He's going to do what he wants. And I have no control over that.
I specialize in marketing professional services. Once the client has decided to retain one of my clients, my impact decreases to almost zero. Marketing has no effect on two human beings with a working relationship.
"Responsibility" is a VERY loaded word, and a very slippery one. And, as anyone who's read Codependent No More will tell you, taking responsbility for what other people do, PARTICULARLY PEOPLE YOU DON'T KNOW AND HAVE NEVER MET, is a very, very dangerous, bad form of magical thinking, and also a kind of arrogance.
Marketing is about ideas. Ideas are not things, and although they may influence other people's decisions, ultimately, they are decisions, and they're made by other people, not by me. If one of my clients turns out to be a liar, and incompetent, and defrauds one of his clients, I had nothing to do with it.
The day I can compel people to do what I want is the day I'm willing to take responsibility. But in the meantime, no marketer is good enough to be as responsible as Godin claims. Even Godin.
P.S. I'm happy to debate him about this anytime he wants. I think. The problem is, if I ever met him, which I never have, I think I'd really, really like him.