Is Marketing Culture Feeding Our Addiction Epidemic?

The Instagram account of a young woman in a sundress drinking things in the sunshine. She gets tons of 'likes'.

Marketers drive engagement, and we also drive consumption. In a landscape of compulsive likes and constant faves, are we exploiting an addicted audience?

Louise Delage leapt onto Instagram in August of 2016. She quickly accumulated over 16,000 followers and more than 50,000 likes on a feed filled with summery lifestyle shots. Stylish, attractive, and beautifully lit, Louise ticked all the boxes of aspirational Insta-bait.
But as her feed raked in followers and likes, an astute observer might have caught another pattern. Louise was always drinking.
Louise Delage, it turns out, was a careful fiction. A digital marketing agency, BETC, created the account as an awareness-raising campaign titled “Like My Addiction.” After about two months of likes and follows, the campaign revealed itself in a video posted to the Louise Delage Instagram account. “Like My Addiction” was subsequently covered by media outlets from CNN to COSMO to Entrepreneur. Louise Delage, the fiction, proved extremely good at her job.
The rise and fall and rise of Robert Downey Jr. who battled substance abuse while he played characters that glamorize indulgence.

 It’s easy for us to be seduced  

Associating glamour and romance with substance use (and abuse) is nothing new. We have a long history of attraction to the self-destructive excesses of brilliant or beautiful or simply entertaining addicts. And idealized over-consumption is not limited to alcohol or drugs: In a media landscape that measures self-worth according to what we have and what we lack, it’s easy to be seduced by things and experiences we can’t afford, don’t especially need, and might later regret.
Indulgence isn’t necessarily terrible, but what happens when indulgence is the norm? When addiction, like Louise Delage, begins to resemble the lifestyle we’ve always wanted?
As marketers, we ask our audience to consume. And whether they convert or purchase or click, they consume our ideas about what’s good and what’s desirable.
We are consumers too. Students of desire though we may be, we are as subject to it as anyone else. We are both architects and inhabitants of this marketplace.
Examples of cigarette and soda marketing.

 Measures of honesty and transparency  

Marketers sold cigarettes as health aids for decades and continued to sell them as accessories of women’s lib. “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” was wildly successful in 1971, and Matthew Weiner used the spot with plausible sincerity to conclude the run of Mad Men in 2015.
This type of virtue signaling doesn’t always play well, which Pepsi learned a few months ago with their flagrant appropriation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Pepsi’s commercial met swift and fitting ridicule, but the fact remains that a (very expensive) TV spot selling soda on the back of a social justice movement can still get made in 2017.
And just two weeks ago, McDonald’s ran a commercial that used the death of a parent to sell fish sandwiches. After public condemnation, it was quickly pulled.
In marketing, our stories make sales. We ought to be able to justify them in that context.

 Marketing can’t ignore wellbeing  

The point is not that advertising must never appeal to anything beyond pure utility. Nor is it the case that consumer goods will always lurk at a sort of moral nadir. Humans can make wonderful things that genuinely improve and enhance the lives of those who use them. Simple enjoyment is arguably excuse enough for both fish sandwiches and a large glass of rosé in the sun.
The trouble comes when we neglect the wellbeing of the marketplace that we are a part of: when we sell you on love but convince you that it comes in the form of a shoe.
If we create advertising that persistently conflates shoes with love, it gets easy for both marketers and consumers to imagine that there’s no such thing as too much.

Marketers are great at idealizing having more. What if we idealized having enough?

Read part 2 of this series here.

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