August 2005


What is marketing? Marketing has two faces: passive and active. Passive marketing is about selling. Active marketing is about control.

People have all kinds of ideas about what marketing is. The grade school version says that marketing is what a company does to better understand and respond to the market: marketing says we should build green refrigerators because people want to buy green refrigerators.

This kind of marketing can be aggressive: marketing says we need to differentiate our products from the common herd -- everybody else's refrigerators have always been white so if we make different colors, some people will like that better and buy ours. Not that a black refrigerator is in any functional way different from the same box in white, but people buy things for all kinds of crazy reasons, not all of them founded in rational thought.

This kind of marketing is passive. It responds to the market -- even if you're responding to what you think the market is going to do in the future, you're still attempting to modify what you're doing to take advantage of what your market is going to be doing.

When we think about good businesses, free enterprise, and so forth, this is the kind of marketing we think of: businesses doing well because they are serving the needs of the general public better - they build a better mouse trap and let people know about it.

There is, however, another kind of marketing: active marketing. In this kind of marketing a company seeks to manipulate the market itself, for its own profit, regardless of the effects of that manipulation on the public at large.

An excellent example of this kind of marketing was conducted by GM (and other auto companies) between 1925 and 1960: they bought local mass transit companies (trolley lines, commuter train lines, bus lines) and then closed them so that people in those areas would have no alternative to buying a car.

A similar kind of tactic has been used by Microsoft to market its operating system: Windows. For many years, if you manufactured or sold or distributed computers, you could get Windows operating systems (and sometimes other software) at a very low price indeed, provided that you sold all of your computers with Windows, and only with Windows. If you sold any computers without an operating system or with any other operating system (Linux or BE or Solaris) your cost for Windows more than doubled. Consumers lost the option of buying anything else because nothing else was offered. If you wanted something else, you had to buy a computer (and pay for Windows) and then buy the other operating system and put them together yourself -- something that 90% of the computer public does not want to do any more than most new car buyers want to select, configure and install their own engines.

There is yet another kind of active marketing, heavily favored by Fundamentalist Christians and Microsoft: reality management. In this scheme, the organization doing the marketing does not like the way things are, nor the history that led up to it. They begin to tell people (in a very loud voice through lots of paid spokespeople and the press) that the current state of affairs IS different. At the same time, they re-write history and pay people to talk about this new history, as if it were true. Examples of this kind of marketing program: Intelligent Design, XBOX, and the War in Iraq.

XBOX almost failed as a game platform. People didn't like it, and until Halo came out, it was an also-ran. Now the pundits of the game press are waxing poetic about the new generation of XBOX that will make everything else obsolete and drive the final nail in Nintendo's coffin. Hello? Does anyone have a memory that stretches back before last week? Remember how, after the trumpet blasts died down, the price of XBOX systems kept going down and down, because people didn't want them? Remember all the fires caused by early XBOXes and the notices from Microsoft about replacing the power cords? Nope, history's been changed and the market leaders are the same: meet the new XBOX, same as the old XBOX...

And that brings us to the oldest form of active marketing: war. When business people have financial interests in another country and, for whatever reason, those business interests are compromised or threatened, those business people put pressure on their government to intervene to make things "right" again. US Fruit in Central America is a prime example of this kind of active market participation via the US Marines.

The idea that our sons and daughters are put at risk to serve the marketing goals of major US corporations is unacceptable for most folks, so we dress up these activities with all kinds of lies and deceptions, so that when our children die we have a generally accepted fairytale to console us. The modern justification for war: "It is so because we say it is so because we wouldn't say it was so if it wasn't so." It doesn't take a ton of imagination to understand why there is a movement to get George Orwell's book "1984" reclassified as current events.

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