Seeking the human meaning in consumer behavior

The Elevation of Marketing To Play

The Elevation of Marketing To Play

Both from within and from without the world of business, serious voices caution us that we must not find too much meaning in marketing.

From outside, critics contend that marketing is inherently insincere and shallow. They accuse marketers of seeking to deceive people into consuming things for which they have no natural desire. From inside, experts assert that their craft can only properly deal with those qualities that can be consistently reduced to quantitative measurement. In a humorless attitude reminiscent of Greta Garbo’s dour Ninotchka, they promote a sensibly materialist regime in which consumers only consume what serves an objectively defined function, and marketers only engage in promotional activities that data-driven analysis proves will serve those objective needs.

This rational approach to marketing has the benefit of humility, but it’s dreadfully dull. The critics who seek to establish marketing as a matter of practical business urge us put marketing aside from the vibrant, meaningful passions of “real life”. Their unspoken premise is that real life is about responsibility rather than inspiration.

Such an approach is sensible, and efficient, and it works up to a point. The problem is that human beings dread a life that merely makes sense. People play. We are Homo ludens, not Homo rationalis. Despite the veneer of gravity we adopt in professional situations, people in business remain fully human, ridiculous to the core. We seek to bring a sense of passion into our lives whenever we think we can get away with it. We can’t help but look for a bit of magic hidden within the supposedly mundane.

The power of ritual comes into marketing through the seismic cracks that allow the spirit of play to emerge even in the most stolid business environment. Ritual, as game theorist Johan Huizinga pointed out, brings together serious concerns with the strange strategies of play. In marketing, a ritual approach unites the lowly and the lofty.

Genuine innovation, after all, is the product of the strange dynamics of flow as much as the logical force of will. Humanity has advanced, not merely through a gravely dedicated drive for achievement, but through a playful attitude, in which we pick up ordinary objects, and consider their deeper potentials, discovering, along the way, the deeper potentials within ourselves. Anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote that, “No experience is too lowly to be taken up in ritual and given a lofty meaning.”

Big Data will have its role, to be sure. The field of play requires its scorekeepers and referees, but the numbers these officials produce are mere measurements of what matters, not what’s important in the game itself. Within the magic circle of ritual play, consumers and marketers alike can take hold of a more fulfilling experience of the marketplace, and build more enduring relationships than algorithms alone can supply.



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