Doctor in economics, Thibault Le Texier is an associate researcher at the European Center for Sociology and Political Science at the Sorbonne (CESSP). His work focuses in particular on the history of management and contemporary theories of power. In his latest book*, he offers a critical history of marketing, questioning the caricatural vision that we can have of it.
Your book begins with an observation: marketing is the poor relation of studies in the social sciences. How to explain it?
There are several explanations. First of all, in the hierarchy of disciplines, disciplines close to the field, oriented towards action, are often despised while more abstract disciplines, such as mathematics or philosophy, are valued. Next, marketing suffers from a poor image. It is often presented as superficial, false, venal. It is believed to have deleterious effects on society and individuals, inculcating them with unnecessary needs. Finally, it is a fairly recent discipline. Marketing was born a century ago. It appeared long after the economy, so it had less time to be institutionalized.
If marketing manipulates, it is only at the margin. We are far from shadow manipulators or brainwashing.
You oppose this – oft-repeated – idea of manipulative, all-powerful marketing. So we would have a biased image of marketing?
Marketing is what I call “servant power”. It puts itself at the service of individuals by trying to guide their behavior. He thus studies their habits and the way in which they consume. He then uses this information to sell, at the right time and in the right place, the right products to the right people and with the right arguments. Marketing attempts to detect trends at work in society. If marketing manipulates, it is therefore only at the margin. We are far from shadow manipulators or brainwashing.
To work, marketing must not be too restrictive, but must be attractive, conform to people’s tastes and opinions. That’s why he uses the carrot more than the stick. We often have a caricatural vision of marketing. In reality, he basically functions by preaching to converts. If you’re a vegetarian, the best marketing in the world can’t get you to eat meat. Marketing cannot force people, only slightly redirect their behavior…
Does the consumer therefore remain a “king consumer”?
There are few means of pressure on the consumer. If he doesn’t want to buy, he won’t buy. This is why marketing must seduce him, put himself at his service to try to offer the right product at the right time.
It is clear that today, we are getting better and better at understanding the consumer. But at the same time, as this targeting becomes more precise, the consumer is less and less naive.
But with social networks and digital platforms, isn’t the accumulation of data about individuals a game-changer? Can we not speak, at this level, of manipulation?
Advances in the social sciences and neurosciences have always been integrated by marketing since its birth. Marketing is at the service of companies to produce the best possible targeting of the consumer, but not necessarily to manipulate it. It is clear that today, we are getting better and better at identifying the consumer, at targeting him more and more precisely. But at the same time, as this targeting becomes more precise, the consumer is less and less naive. Currently, advertising is also less and less effective. The content of the shopping cart depends less on the content of the advertisement than on the social position of the individuals.
We have gone from corporate advertising monologue to a dialogue with consumers.
The relationship of consumers with brands has also changed considerably?
Yes, and companies are very aware of this. The most beautiful marketing campaign can be destroyed by a video posted on youtube by a disgruntled user. The risk of bad buzz is permanent. As marketing gains power, users also gain power. We have gone from corporate advertising monologue to a dialogue with consumers.
If marketing is not all-powerful, it is precisely because it is very difficult to change people’s habits and behaviors.
Today, consumer habits will no doubt have to adapt in a world where abundance is no longer appropriate. Can we envisage virtuous marketing that would be particularly in line with the climate emergency?
Yes, it already exists, it’s what we call “demarketing”. There is a type of marketing that tries to decrease the consumption of a product (like cigarettes), by doing negative publicity. There is also social marketing, to promote condoms or cancer screening tests, for example. Marketing can therefore have extremely diverse purposes. It is not entirely capitalist, dedicated to making people consume more and more. It is also less powerful than people imagine. We see this clearly with regard to global warming. We know that the solution is to consume less, to consume local and organic, and yet we hardly change our consumption habits. If marketing is not all-powerful, it is precisely because it is very difficult to change people’s habits and behaviors.
Big business doesn’t pollute for fun, but to provide us with goods and services we don’t want to be without.
But isn’t marketing, in principle, more conservative than subversive?
Of course, marketing remains linked to commercial logic. He always seeks to sell more and has no interest in selling less. But, in itself, marketing can be used to sell SUVs as well as bicycles. Marketing has also embraced the ecological wave since the 1970s.. Marketing is not responsible for global warming. The culprit is the individual who chooses to adopt this or that harmful behavior. Big business doesn’t pollute for fun, but to provide us with goods and services we don’t want to be without. We blame marketing by claiming that we are the victims. This is obviously a way of deluding oneself and of relieving oneself of responsibility.
With political marketing, the great social debates have disappeared. The debates have been segmented and each community has its own.
There is also, as you show, a collusion between marketing and politics. What are its effects?
Marketing was introduced late in politics, in the 1970s. He transformed the way politics is done, and not necessarily in the best way. In particular, he excluded from the political debate people who do not vote, the latter no longer being considered as “targets”. With political marketing, the great social debates have disappeared. The debates have been segmented and each community has its own. It has also marginalized political parties. However, marketing does not rain or shine in politics. It remains selectively mobilized.
You can’t make politicians like you make soap.
Can we still do politics without marketing?
It is an important tool, but not necessarily the main instrument. You can’t make politicians like you make soap. Politicians like Hillary Clinton may even have suffered for looking “too fabricated”. In politics, it is still the law of charisma and chance that makes personalities emerge. Marketing is far from reigning supreme over politics.
A large-scale social revolution would necessarily lead to a marketing revolution.
What could radically change marketing in the years to come?
Social developments. Marketing is focused on the real world. A large-scale social revolution would necessarily lead to a marketing revolution. For example, if people stop buying meat or cars, marketing will have to adapt.
Is a world without marketing conceivable, in your opinion?
It would be a world made up of small autonomous communities, a world that would resemble that of the Middle Ages, where there would no longer be any intermediaries between the consumer and the producer…
Marketing has given birth to an extremely attractive world, a world of abundance, of comfort, of “freedom” – even if it is a commercial version of freedom.
But this world refocused on the local, some propose it to us today, in particular to face the environmental stakes…
Yes, but it remains very marginal. People who decide to leave commercial networks and create small communities of local exchanges remain an extremely small minority. Marketing thrives in the gaps that separate producers and consumers, which it aims to reconcile, to harmonize. Marketing acts both on supply (to adapt products to consumers) and on demand (to adapt consumers to products). He gave birth to an extremely attractive world, a world of abundance, of comfort, of “freedom” – even if it is a commercial version of freedom. That’s the reason it’s so hard to give it up. In the current context, it’s sad to say, but only a dictatorial power could impose drastic changes in behavior.
*The visible hand of markets: a critical history of marketing, Thibault Le Texier, Éditions de lacouverte, 656 p., €26