Living in 'promotional times'

Promotion appears everywhere, so much so that we no longer notice. This is not just about explicit selling and buying. The promotional arms race has seeped into all fields, powerfully re-shaping individuals, organisations and our wider society.

Aeron Davis
14 June 2013

Without realising it we have found ourselves living in a time of ‘promotional excess’. By that I mean a time when the practices of public relations, advertising, marketing, branding and lobbying have infiltrated much of our everyday existence. In the 21st Century such promotional activity and its outputs have become ubiquitous. Promotion appears everywhere and, at the same time, we no longer notice its presence. It is common to ask questions about how finance, globalisation, digital technologies and war shape our world, but no-one asks much about our promotion-saturated world.

However, over the course of a century, promotional practices have come to play an increasingly central part in advanced economies. Obvious signs of the rise of promotional activity can be recorded in the general expansion of the promotional industries mentioned as well as those in related professional fields (e.g., pollsters, publicists, speech writers and agents). Each of these occupations have became central to ‘Anglo-American forms of promotional capitalism’ in recent decades.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2008) in 2008, there were 623,800 people employed as ‘Managers’ in ‘Advertising, Marketing, Promotions, Public Relations and Sales’. This was predicted to rise to 704,000 by 2018. According to the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS, 2011), in 2011, 432,000 people were employed directly in marketing, advertising and public relations. These figures do not include the hundreds of thousands more employed in junior roles, as well as those who work in linked or server professions. In 2011, $156 billion was spent on advertising in the US (IAB, 2011). In the UK, £15.9 billion was spent on advertising and £7.5 billion on public relations (AA, 2011, PR Week, 2011). 

Once, promotion was fairly ad-hoc and primarily driven by the selling of goods and services. Now the expanding promotional professions have helped institutionalise and systematise its practices. Promotion is no longer just about flogging goods. It is also now about selling organisations, professions, ideas and people. For industry practitioners, everything is promotable: big or small, public or private, complex or simple, exclusive or common, solid or intangible, present or future.

However, promotional activity and culture is not simply reducible to a few recognised selling professions. Likewise, the impact of promotion on our societies is not just about persuading individuals to believe in or buy things they would not otherwise do. I would argue that the ways promotional culture has impacted on society are both more varied and substantive. Promotion has seeped and overflowed everywhere, having a powerful influence at the levels of the individual, organisation and wider society. 

Why should we care?

At the society level, it is the more wealthy and powerful parts of society that can spend most on promotion, or are most promoted to, and hence can have greatest influence over public discourse. This has its worrying consequences. Thus, in the short-term, it matters that large states can persuade their publics of the case for illegitimate wars abroad using propaganda that gets blanket coverage. It is problematic that those political candidates with the biggest advertising budgets and best spun personalities have a strong electoral advantage. It is destabilising when billion dollar contracts are won under false pretences, or subprime mortgages turned into respectable AAA-rated investments, with clever financial promotion.

In the longer-term, it also matters that big advertisers get to dictate what kinds of media content they subsidise and what audiences deserve their attention. This generally excludes poorer and minority audiences. Currently, advertisers are abandoning newspapers in droves thus endangering the future of serious news. In all US elections, both Democrats and Republicans have come to focus all their elections efforts on a small proportion of swing voters and states while ignoring the majority of the electorate. It is also very alarming that oil companies are able to continue undermining legitimate scientific research about global warming, to the extent that political and public doubts remain. It is concerning that individuals over-consume to levels that are unsustainable personally and globally, while debt and obesity levels rise, finite resources deplete, and large-scale poverty continues. It is unjust that women, ethnic minorities and the poor are made subtly to feel inadequate or second class citizens by promotional content. It also matters that fundamental qualities of art, culture, political representation, public debate and market economies can be significantly altered by promotional activities.

It is also of concern that powerful organised interests appear to have undue influence over the political process itself. Big business maintains over 1000 lobby groups at the European Parliament, employing some 70% of the 15,000 lobbyists working there (Hoedeman, 2007). Opensecrets (2012) found that in 2010, the corporate-dominated US lobby total spend was $3.55 billion and just under 13,000 individual lobbyists operated around Congress in Washington. None have greater influence than the financial sector. Annual lobbying expenditure from the securities, investment and insurance sectors, between 1998 and 2012, amounted to $2.632 billion (Opensecrets, 2012). Following the 2010 UK election, 134 Conservative MPs and Lords were (or still are) employed in the financial sector, and financiers have provided over 50% of the Party’s funds (Peston, 9.2.11). The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (2012) identified 129 organisations engaged in lobbying for finance and estimated that £92.8 million had been spent lobbying the UK Government just in 2011. 

A promotional arms race

At the individual and organisational level, promotional influence also means greater promotional orientation in everyday activity. That is to say, individuals and institutions give promotion a greater priority, more resources and more time. This is because the promotional industries have not only sold their services to a variety of occupations, they have sold the idea of promotion itself. In so doing, a promotional arms race has been triggered in many work sectors and parts of society. Whether or not promotion is effective, a wide array of organisations and individuals feel they cannot avoid promotion for fear of losing the race. This in itself has reshaped the behaviours of organisations and people in multiple ways. 

So, for example, promotional practices have spread to a number of occupations and settings which once had little or no promotional function. Legal firms and police authorities, religious leaders and royal families, schools and hospitals, news organisations and charities, are just as likely to turn to media managers and brand consultants as the producers of soft-drinks or widgets. In many instances, strategic decisions to promote specific things are consciously made. But, in many respects, the need to promote has simply become unconsciously internalised by people and institutions. 

Over time this has had a subtle ‘social-shaping’ influence on those who adopt it. Politics, markets, popular culture and media, civil society, work and individual social relations, have all adapted to promotional needs and practices. Heads of marketing, advertising and public relations, sit on company boards and hold equivalent senior management positions elsewhere. Their objectives are given higher organisational priority. Budgets now routinely include promotional costs. Indeed, the promotional budget in many diverse types of organisation has grown several fold over the decades. For example, between 1987 and 1997, Nike’s promotional budget grew ten-fold to reach almost $1 billion annually (Goldman and Papson, 1998). In 2005, the average Hollywood studio film had come to devote 38% of its budget, or $39 million, to its promotion and distribution. It had been 12% in the 1940s (Epstein, 2005). In the UK, over the last three decades, the number of information officers employed in the Ministry of Defence has quadrupled while those in the Metropolitan Police increased 11-fold (COI, 2012). In 2008 the combined campaign expenditure for US presidential candidates, political party committees and PACs (Political Action Groups), reached $5.98 billion (Magleby, 2011).

Organisational strategy and decision-making, in turn, is influenced by promotional imperatives. Heads of marketing have a significant say on which musical acts, authors, television productions and stars should be supported. The producers of mass culture are funnelled towards the mainstream, encouraged to use well-known stars, repeat successful formulas, and draw on existing markets and fan bases. ‘Synergy’-obsessed conglomerates push media production towards creating outputs that may be reproduced in multiple media. A film is no longer just a film. It may also be a television series, a computer or board game, a theme park ride, an interactive website, and a fanzine; all in addition to being a sequel, prequel, a DVD, or digital download for computers and mobile phones. Such strategies favour certain types of film-making, such as for families and children’s markets, over others.

Likewise, companies chose to make and market products not because they offer anything new or useful but because they can help build the brand. And everything is brandable, from hi-tech electrical goods to simple jeans and pots of paint. Innovation and risk can be quite restrained in industry. New product development is risky and expensive. Copying, redesigning and repackaging, with skilful promotional professionals, is often the cheaper option.

Promoting ourselves

Individuals, whose primary occupation is not promotion, regularly undergo promotional skills training. Marketing knowledge is now highly desirable to move into professions such as financial management or fashion design. Great writers, artists, inventors and performers (and academics) are more likely to invest in the promotion of their own public personas as a means of disseminating their work. It is now common for public figures, be they politicians, CEOs or heads of charities, to have media relations training. Politicians and policies rise and fall, in part, as a consequence of decisions based on expectations of media coverage, focus group and survey data. Thus, studies of US elections have shown that a majority of voters supported the policies of Al Gore (2000) and John Kerry (2004) but voted for George W Bush on the basis of his more appealing ‘character traits’. Many of the new generation of UK political leaders, including David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have had previous experience working in either public relations or journalism.

At another level, ordinary individuals, in their day-to-day experiences, have both grown accustomed to a promotion-rich society, and come to internalise and reproduce basic promotional practices, both in work and leisure. Everywhere we look and travel we are besieged by promotional images. According to estimates, individuals are bombarded with over 3,000 adverts a day (e.g., Twitchell, 1996). These are on bill-boards, television channels, films, websites, radio stations, on the sides of public transport and sports stadia. Many everyday objects contain the logos and imagery of their producers. Gap T-shirts, Levi jeans, Apple phones and Channel perfumes scream out at their consumer-owners with each use. Sponsorship deals and product placements pop up in Hollywood films and television shows. Fast food comes in packaging with the latest Disney or Pixar characters on the front. 

At the same time, individuals have internalised the practices of self promotion. Many service companies exploit the ‘emotional labor’ of their employees. How workers dress, their mannerisms, behaviour and scripted speeches, are each regarded as key promotional elements of the firm (Hochschild, 1983). Self promotion continues outside of work too. As Bauman (2007) notes, in order to operate in today’s consumer society, people turn themselves into promotional commodities. Choices of clothes and goods promote the ‘commodity-self’ to others, whether at work or in leisure. CVs, blogs and social networking sites are also used more consciously to present the individual self to a wider audience. To raise one’s online profile one has to conform to the operational parameters of Facebook, Twitter, Google and Youtube.

Internalising the logic

In turn, we come to feel more alienated. We see ourselves more as individual consumers rather than parts of a wider community or citizenry. We look to celebrities and public figures who rise and fall in our media and expectations. We also begin to lose our sense of trust and certainty as promotional hard sells invariably fail to deliver on their semi-subliminal claims. New mobiles do not bring alienated teens lots of new friends. ‘Hope’, ‘Change’, ‘Compassionate Conservativism’ and the ‘Third Way’, said with a charismatic smile, can prove to be quite meaningless in practice. Modern forms of consumption can also be quite destabilising. Top clothing stores change their lines every three to four weeks. Prime time television series have a handful of episodes to attract sizeable Nielson ratings. New fashions in clothing and entertainment provision move on just as consumers and fans are becoming accustomed to the old ones. New televisions, recording devices, computers and mobile phones rapidly arrive, fight for market share, and then decline. In effect, promotion-driven consumption can be a precarious, insecure and unstable occupation. One’s favourite items or collections can be made culturally or physically redundant in a short space of time.

Thus, slowly, and often imperceptibly, promotion has seeped into all areas of society, at the organisational, social and individual levels. Organisations, and those who work for them, have internalised and come to reproduce, often unconsciously, a series of promotional responses and routines. This can run right the way through an organisation, from the CEO, to the designers and engineers, to the ordinary service staff on the shop floors and call centres. Products and product lines have shifted. Organisational structures, budgets and the balance of personnel employed, have changed. Ideas, norms and values have altered, influencing elite and wider public understanding and decision-making. Mainstream public media and popular culture have been reshaped. Consumption itself has changed leaving consumers feeling less in control. There is much to consider once we notice just how much modern times have become promotional times.

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