Clutching at straw men

603119_s“Gone are the days when…”  It’s an old game, but it’s still played frequently.  How many times have you read an article, or seen a presentation, that introduces a new idea, or way of doing things, that is contrasted to how it – inappropriately – used to be done?  Except that when you think about the supposedly defective representation of the past being given, you realise what a fallacious picture is being presented.  In other words, it’s a straw man.

A leader in a marketing trade journal earlier this year included the observation that “In the past, it was enough simply to do your job well; now, marketers must think about the skills needed for the future.”  I wonder which period in time the leader writer had in mind – was there ever likely to have been a time when this was not true of marketers?

A feature in the same journal stated that “The days when corporations could hide behind process and corporate jargon are long gone.”  It is not entirely clear what “process and corporate jargon” actually are, but it was always possible to discover which corporations owned which brands and were responsible for which services.  Whilst the advent of the digital age has certainly made it easier to ‘peek behind the curtain’, those companies that wish to try to obfuscate will continue to try to do so.

In another journal, earlier this year, a communications agency contributor offered her views on the options now available to get on to a customer’s consideration list: “Until now, challengers had just two strategies to do so: invest in extra share of voice and/or in award-winning creativity.”  Even if the writer was writing solely about advertising, which she was not, the assertion would not hold true – effective advertising does not have to be award-winning to be highly efficient at quite low ratings and there has been a wide choice of media to achieve cut-through against chosen segments for a long period of time.  In any case, marketers stretching back up to 50 years ago could extol the success they have found in options such as PR, sponsorship, sales promotion, packaging, point-of-sale, pricing, distribution and – most obviously – the core product or service.

Unbelievably, the CIM’s (Chartered Institute of Marketing) weekly summary of marketing news came up with this gem late last year: “Marketing has traditionally focused on short-term strategies to produce faster profits, but a longer-term strategy will help to address new markets and contribute to the company’s vision.”  I can categorically state that, no, that is not what marketing has “traditionally” done, nor is it a version of marketing taught on  the CIM’s own qualification programmes.  The second part of the sentence simply states the blindingly obvious.

Is this misrepresentation, illustrated in these examples, due to laziness – an unwillingness to find out about the reality of the past?  Is it ignorance, based upon a genuine misapprehension about what has gone before?  Is it a deliberate attempt to mislead in order to try to boost an argument?  Or is it a sign of a weak proposition requiring the establishment of a much greater contrast than in reality exists?

I’m happy to say that I’ve come across far fewer straw men in the world of sustainability than in the marketing sphere.  Maybe it’s because the future that sustainability practitioners are alerting us to really will be so substantially different from the past that exaggeration and distortion are unnecessary ingredients in the argument.  Maybe it’s because marketing people sometimes too easily do slip into the clichéd representation of their profession as being pedlars of a distorted reality.

Frequently in life, we tend to find that most alternatives are not black and white, but shades of grey.  Yet, much like our adversarial political and legal systems, it is so much easier – perhaps even more fun – to paint the choices (and the present or future compared to the past) as being starkly different from each other.  In the case of sustainability, however, it is true.

I’d love to hear about your examples of straw men!

Image credit: dnivrab / 123RF Stock Photo


About David Whiting

I help organizations to create competitive advantage, build brands and develop new opportunities, in particular by aligning sustainability understanding with customer insights
This entry was posted in Defining Sustainability, The Challenge for Marketing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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