For Earth Day: Don’t Panic (maybe)

by Yule Heibel on April 21, 2003

’If you would care,’ said the girl with the strident voice, ‘to examine the agenda sheet…’ ‘Agenda rock,’ trilled the hairdresser happily. ‘Thank you, I’ve made that point,’ muttered Ford. ‘…you ….will …see …’ continued the girl firmly, ‘that we are having a report from the hairdressers’ Fire Development Sub-Committee today.’ (…) ‘Alright,’ said Ford, (…). ‘What have you done? What are you going to do? What are your thoughts on fire development?’ (….) ‘Well, you’re obviously being totally naive of course,’ said the girl, ‘When you’ve been in marketing as long as I have you’ll know that before any new product can be developed it has to be properly researched. We’ve got to find out what people want from fire, how they relate to it, what sort of image it has for them.’ The crowd were tense. They were expecting something wonderful from Ford. ‘Stick it up your nose,’ he said. ‘Which is precisely the sort of thing we need to know,’ insisted the girl, ‘Do people want fire that can be fitted nasally?’ (…) ‘And the wheel,’ said the Captain, ‘What about this wheel thingy? It sounds a terribly interesting project.’ ‘Ah,’ said the marketing girl, ‘Well, we’re having a little difficulty there.’ ‘Difficulty?’ exclaimed Ford? ‘Difficulty? What do you mean, difficulty? It’s the single simplest machine in the entire Universe!’ The marketing girl soured on him with a look. ‘Alright, Mr. Wiseguy,’ she said, ‘you’re so clever, you tell us what colour it should be.’ — The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (circa December 1978) by Douglas Adams, chapter 32: Ford Prefect trying to talk sense with a group of B-Ark Golgafrinchams composed of telephone sanitizers, hairdressers, and marketing folk, who have crashlanded into a prehistoric Earth and are starting civilization over from scratch. In their marketing, hairdressing sort of way. Fast-forward a quarter century to 2003: “Far more creativity, today, goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves, athletic shoes or feature films.” – Hubertus Bigend, marketing exec at Blue Ant agency, speaking to Cayce Pollard, a cool-hunter, in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, p.67. For Douglas Adams, marketing was still funny enough to make it the butt of his B-Ark population joke, and the carrier of the butt was a “girl” about whose silly talk we could have a great laugh. Twenty-five years later, the seriousness of marketing is conveyed by Hubertus (“Hub”) Bigend — possibly also a big-butted person, but resolutely male, eminently powerful, likely malevolent, and certainly deadly serious. Marketing really does threaten to crowd out everything else, a proposition I find rather frightening. Call it spin, call it PR, call it marketing: it would appear to be replacing whatever it was that in the past we called reality — consensus, dialogue, dissent, materiality, resistance, democracy. Examples abound. Take my BC Government, whose “neo” label precedes the word Liberal, but whose true colours are more closely matched by “neo” or “new” movements all over the western world: neo-conservatives, new labour, neo-liberal. The “neos” have co-opted, colonized, and bought the rights to marketing: it’s what they do best, because that way it’s less apparent how badly they do other things, or how bad their other things are. It makes them look modern, of course, because it makes them look in tune with corporate market forces which seem to roll over our cultural and natural landscapes like so much force of nature, like so much “it goes without saying,” like so much inevitability. The BC Government, for example, is going to build a CAD$12 million “dream home” community on the outskirts of Shanghai, to serve as a showcase for BC lumber. The government’s hope is that it will entice the 700,000 Mainland Chinese families currently rich enough to build their own single family homes into building them with Canadian wood, abandoning their more traditional use of brick and cement (which incidentally are better suited to the damp climate). Obviously, there must also be thoughts of the remaining population’s eventual need to move into that consumer niche, so it’s a huge potential market. Let’s see: according to the CIA World Factbook, China’s population in July 2002 was estimated to be at one billion two hundred eighty-four million three hundred three thousand seven hundred five people. Silly me, here I was worrying about a measly 280,562,489 American potential buyers of raw Canadian lumber, but Gordon Campbell, BC’s ever indefatigable neo-Liberal premier, hopes to have found about a billion more. What I find so disturbing is that the Premier and his team rely on marketing for economic vision & policy. He wants to “create a demand for wood-framed homes in China.” He acknowledges that the “Dream Home China program is a marketing plan and comes with no guarantees.” He claims that “eco-groups” opposed to current clear-cut logging practices are “targeting jobs” and are trying “to shrink the number of jobs in British Columbia.,” but the fact is that the BC logging industry has been in “steep decline” for the past decade and that over 13,000 jobs were lost along with 27 permanent mill closures in those years. The “eco groups” are just trying to put the brakes on a new scheme that seems based on marketing, but not on sustainable economic and environmental policies. Too much of what’s proposed by the government relies on creating demands that weren’t there in the first place. This strategy has made some of us in the First World very rich in some ways, but is it sustainable, especially when these “attacks” on the environment are happening globally, typically under a “neo” banner? Unfortunately, no one is going to come along and put all the marketing people into a B-Ark programmed to crash-land on some remote planet, but maybe we should be thinking about how our focus on marketing is determining both our environment as well as our creativity.

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