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From a social point of view, marketing is a process of creating and shaping social meanings and identities around products, services, and companies. In other words, marketing and branding are not just about promoting functional attributes or satisfying consumer needs but about constructing and communicating cultural and symbolic values that resonate with consumers’ aspirations, desires, and sense of self.

Marketing operates within a cultural and historical context that shapes how products and companies are perceived and valued. For example, the meanings associated with luxury, status, and identity are not fixed or natural but socially constructed through various discourses, practices, and institutions. Thus, marketing and branding can be seen as cultural producers that contribute to constructing and maintaining social hierarchies, norms, and identities.

Social constructionism also highlights the role of power and ideology in marketing. Marketers and brand managers do not have absolute control over the meanings and identities they create but are constrained and influenced by social and economic structures, discourses, and practices. Moreover, marketing and branding can reinforce or challenge dominant cultural norms and values, depending on the interests and goals of the actors involved.

Marketing and branding are not passive reflections of consumer preferences or market trends but active and dynamic processes that shape and are shaped by social contexts and practices. As such, marketing can be studied as cultural practices that contribute to constructing and negotiating meanings, identities, and power relations in society.

The problem with marketing

One of the critical problems with marketing is that it perpetuates consumerism, which is the excessive and often wasteful consumption of goods and services. This leads to a range of negative consequences, including the depletion of natural resources, environmental degradation, and social inequality. Also, by constantly encouraging people to buy more and more, marketing fuels a cycle of consumption that is both unsustainable and harmful to the planet and its inhabitants.

We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.
― Dave Ramsey

Marketing can limit critical thinking by creating a culture of conformity and superficiality. By emphasising the importance of material possessions and superficial qualities, marketing can encourage people to prioritise their image and status over more meaningful values and ideas. This can lead to a lack of critical thinking and a reduced ability to think deeply and critically about the world and its problems.

In addition to perpetuating consumerism, marketing also frequently engages in greenwashing. Greenwashing refers to making false or exaggerated claims about a product’s environmental benefits to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. This is often done by emphasising a small aspect of a product’s production process while ignoring the more significant environmental impact of the product’s entire lifecycle. This can lead to consumers feeling like they are making an environmentally friendly choice when, in reality, they are not.

The problem with advertising

Advertising has long been criticised for perpetuating toxic gender stereotypes. From ads that portray women as sexual objects to those that reinforce harmful ideas about masculinity, the impact of advertising on our understanding of gender roles cannot be ignored.

One of the most common ways advertising perpetuates gender stereotypes is through sexualised images of women. In many ads, women are depicted as passive objects of desire, with their bodies often being used to sell products that have little to do with sexuality. This conveys that a woman’s value is primarily based on her appearance and reinforces the idea that women exist mainly for men’s pleasure.

Similarly, advertising often reinforces traditional gender roles, with men portrayed as strong, independent, and in control, while women are portrayed as nurturing, emotional, and submissive. This not only reinforces harmful stereotypes about gender but also limits how individuals can express themselves and pursue their goals.

Another way in which advertising perpetuates gender stereotypes is through the promotion of unrealistic beauty standards. By promoting a narrow definition of beauty based on ideological and unattainable ideals, advertising can contribute to body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and eating disorders. This is particularly true for women, who are more likely to be targeted by ads that promote unrealistic beauty standards.

What can we do as designers?

  1. Redefine the problem: Designers can redefine the problem by questioning the assumptions that drive consumerism and conformity. They can challenge the notion that consumption equals happiness and examine the role of material possessions in people’s lives.
  2. Promote ethical consumption: Designers can promote ethical consumption by advocating for sustainable products and materials. They can encourage people to buy locally, support fair trade practices, and promote environmentally friendly products.
  3. Dismantle gender stereotypes: Designers can challenge gender stereotypes by creating products and campaigns that break away from traditional gender norms. They can develop inclusive products and drives representing a diverse range of people.
  4. Promote critical thinking: Designers can promote critical thinking by creating campaigns encouraging people to think more deeply about the products they buy and the messages they receive from marketers. They can encourage media literacy and educate people on how to spot greenwashing and other deceptive marketing practices.
  5. Create alternative narratives: Designers can create alternative narratives that challenge the dominant narratives marketers promote. They can create campaigns that celebrate diversity and promote social justice and use design to tell stories that inspire people to think differently about the world around them.