Is Marketing ruining democracies?

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On the day of the Portuguese Revolution, it’s interesting to look into the effect Marketing has on the political scene and how it is affecting it. It’s no secret the importance of political propaganda throughout history with it being often associated with authoritarian regimes. More recently, the scandal over Cambridge Analytica’s tactics in the Brexit and Trump elections using micro-segmentation in digital marketing brought the talk over the effect marketing has on our democracies. So, is Marketing ruining democracies?

Looking into the world of political propaganda we realize it has existed since ancient civilizations. The Greeks who didn’t have access to the radio, television, or newspaper, used instead theater pieces to promote their political, social, and moral ideology. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the Catholic Church that the formal concept of propaganda was first introduced to Europe with its missionaries and crusades to spread the faith. However, prior to the 19th century, the word took on a different meaning. In the beginning, propaganda was seen as an honorable act for its connection with faith but afterward, it started to be perceived as a subversive act. In the 20th century, changed how things were viewed in the political world. The first World War brought propaganda to new reigns with both communism and fascism using it in the aftermath to gain control over the regimes. Of course, democratic states also used this type of tactic to achieve their goals, such was the case of the United States.

Propaganda is often associated with a certain type of image and communication with bold colors and strong fonts that are able to appeal and impact a great number of people. But in a digital age, mass propaganda is not the most dangerous or used one. With the appearance of digital marketing came micro-segmentation which segments people into highly specific and detailed groups. This allows for segment-specific propaganda that is able to connect to those individuals on a deeper level which allows the message to enter more easily.

Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum worked with Cambridge Analytica, a company that through data performed ad-targeting on Facebook so that millions of users saw segment-specific propaganda. This caused a giant scandal and the company eventually closed doors as the way the company had access to data was not entirely legal. However, the legality of data acquisition is not the only concern that can arise from both examples. While in the past, political propaganda was for the masses, in this digital age, it’s difficult to realize that the propaganda is happening, it’s just one more Facebook or Instagram ad but instead of trying to convince you to buy a pair of sneakers, it’s trying to influence your vote.

Marketing has often been criticized, some say it’s deceptive and intrusive and incites self-centered materialism. But like anything in life, there is good and bad marketing. If bad marketing is associated with propaganda good marketing can then be associated with democracy. In fact, there are six characteristics both Marketing and Democracy share and without them, both would fail. First, an exchange of value, that can be goods but also promises and services. Second, the consumption of those goods and services. Thirdly, and very important, free flow of information, democracies without free access to information aren’t real democracies, and marketing without it is just a deception. Lastly, it’s important to mention active engagement and inclusion of all. Engagement to buy or to vote, it doesn’t matter and it’s for all, not for a restricted group of people. Without these six traits both marketing and democracy fail and with them so does society. That’s what happened in the 20th century with political propaganda or recently with Cambridge Analytica. There was no free access to information, the people didn’t know their data was being illegally used, or in some cases collected, and then democracy failed.

Marketing is not ruining democracies, in fact, Marketing can help democracies. Fifty percent of the world lives in a democracy which means there is still a long way to go. Democracy is like any brand, it needs to maintain its clients through brand loyalty and attract new ones. In democratic states marketing can serve as a lesson if politicians seek to maintain brand loyalty the same way brands do, the tendency to only listen to the people in the year of elections will die of and there will be a constant awareness for the people’s voices which will lead to a better democracy.

To conclude, marketing is not destroying democracy, at least not all marketing is. Good marketing can be of help to transform the way politics and the people interact and also give more voice to society, the ultimate consumer. Which, in the end, is the goal we all wish to reach.

Maria João Branco

Head of External Affairs


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