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European Business Review

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Dark marketing: ghost in the machine or skeleton in the cupboard?


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DOI (Permanent URL): 10.1108/095553412112224771

Article citation: Stephen Brown, Pierre McDonagh, Clifford Shultz, (2012) "Dark marketing: ghost in the machine or skeleton in the cupboard?", European Business Review, Vol. 24 Iss: 3, pp.196 - 215


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The Authors

Stephen Brown, Department of Marketing, Strategy and Entrepreneurship, University of Ulster, Jordanstown, UK

Pierre McDonagh, Dublin City University Business School, Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland

Clifford Shultz, Graduate School of Business Administration, Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Abstract

Purpose – Dark marketing is the “the application or adaptation of marketing principles and practices to domains of death, destruction and the ostensibly reprehensible”. This paper examines the nature, character and extent of dark marketing, noting that it is made manifest in manifold shapes and forms.

Design/methodology/approach – Primarily a conceptual paper, this article includes several mini case studies – exemplars, rather – of dark marketing's many and varied expressions.

Findings – The paper considers the scale and scope of dark marketing, and endeavours to classify both. Dark marketing is discernible at micro, meso and macro scales. Its scope consists of four shades or degrees of darkness, entitled light dark marketing, slight dark marketing, quite dark marketing and night dark marketing. An evolutionary trend in the direction of darkness is also noted.

Research limitations/implications – The paper is a think piece, not an empirical analysis. It is, therefore, a first step rather than a definitive statement.

Practical implications – Practitioners and academics are inclined to regard marketing in a positive light, as a force for the good. Crusading journalists and certain social scientists see it as the spawn of the devil. This article argues that the dark and light aspects of marketing are inextricably intertwined.

Originality/value – The paper provides food for thought, a markedly different way of thinking about marketing and its place in the world.

Article Type:

Conceptual paper

Keyword(s):

Dark marketing; Dark tourism; Death; Marketing concept; Marketing strategy.

Journal:

European Business Review

Volume:

24

Number:

3

Year:

2012

pp:

196-215

Copyright ©

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

ISSN:

0955-534X

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,

As one great furnace flam'd; yet from those flames

No light, but rather darkness visible

Served only to discover sights of woe (John Milton, Paradise Lost, Part I).

Darkness über alles

If it is Tuesday, this must be Dachau. According, that is, to the itinerary of Face of Evil, a grisly guided tour of the Federal Republic of Germany (Brooks, 2011). Inaugurated in June 2011, the eight-day sightseeing trip takes in several locations associated with the National Socialists. These include Dachau concentration camp on day one; Adolf Hitler's mountain retreat, Berchtesgaden, on day two; and Nuremberg, the site of the pre-war rallies and post-war trials, on day three. The remainder of the time is spent in and around Berlin, where the infamous subterranean bunker, Sachsenhausen concentration camp and the Wannasee lakeside villa (which hosted the conference that inaugurated the Holocaust), stand out as “highlights” of the £2,000 excursion. Although the organisers of the tour are at pains to stress the probity of their Nazi-hunting fieldtrip – by stressing that participation is not only limited to serious historians with an established track record, but that each member of the 30-strong party is vetted beforehand – the Face of Evil tour has been widely condemned for its grotesque sensationalism and sheer bad taste. “If you focus on the sites most pertinent to Hitler,” states an appalled spokesperson for the Holocaust Memorial Group, “you are concentrating on the cult of that personality. The trip in effect becomes a perverse pilgrimage” (Brooks, 2011, p. 9).

Perverse as it is, there is no denying the popularity of pilgrimages like Face of Evil. The postmodern tourist trail is replete with “fatal attractions” (Rojek, 1993), whose appeal is predicated on shock, horror, depravity, brutality, all that is wicked or despicable (Strange and Kempa, 2003). The killing fields of Cambodia, the Sixth Floor Book Depository in Dallas, the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, the Jack-the-Ripper tours in east London, the so-called Road of Death to Coroico, Bolivia, and the Auschwitz/Birkenau extermination camps in Kraków, Poland, are just some among many examples of “dark tourism” (Lennon and Foley, 2000). Formally defined as “the act of travel, intentionally or otherwise, to sites of death, destruction or the seemingly macabre” (Stone, 2006, p. 146), dark tourism deals in destinations “from which the average tourist would, and should, run a mile” (Joly, 2010, npn). It is, though, a fast-growing component of the travel industry and a much-discussed matter by academicians (Blom, 2000; Sharpley and Stone, 2009; Tarlow, 2005). The study of dark tourism has not only attained quasi-disciplinary status with specialist conferences, web sites and newsletters, but the body of scholarly literature is very substantial, albeit somewhat unsettling to scrutinise.

Although the formal study of dark tourism has been around for little more than a decade, the phenomenon long predates its academic consecration (Tunbridge and Ashworth, 1996). As Seaton (1996) shows, the prehistory of “thanatourism” is ancient and enduring, whether it be the nineteenth century day-trippers who watched battles unfold during the American Civil War, or Madame Tussaud's wax casts of aristocrats' severed heads while the French Revolution was in full spate, or the trans-European pilgrimages of the middle ages, where assorted body parts of holy men and women were placed on profitable display by relic-rich religious institutions, or indeed the Colosseum of Ancient Rome, which staged all sorts of blood-soaked spectaculars from full-scale naval engagements to the ever-popular Lions-versus-Christians smackdown. Dark tourism, nonetheless, is intimately associated with today's postmodern condition, insofar as the practice is reputedly related to the “time-space compression” precipitated by contemporary communication technologies, the “de-differentiation” associated with increasingly blurred boundaries between education and entertainment, the immersive “hyperreality” of themed attractions that recreate reality on a grossly exaggerated scale, and the purported “perpetual present”, where past styles, present technologies and future possibilities are brought together in a pick “n” mix retro-futuristic fusion of way-back-when, now is-the-time and things-to-come (Lennon and Foley, 2000; Rojek, 1993, 1995).

Darkness at the edge of town

The postmodern credentials of dark tourism are debatable. But what is not in dispute is the part played by marketing[1]. In order to attract visitors, dark places must be packaged, promoted, priced and positioned, just like any other product or service. The very act of doing so, however, causes considerable academic consternation and not a little anguish, since it invariably involves the commodification of sites closely associated with death, disaster, destitution and degradation (Seaton, 2009; Stone and Sharpley, 2008). Making money from misery, packaging pain for pleasure, trading on terrible human tragedies is understandably regarded as deeply unseemly, not to say hideously exploitative. Within the heritage industry, marketing is widely considered to be a necessary evil, a pact with the devil, near enough (MacCannell, 1999; Walsh, 1992). Granted, there is a wide spectrum of dark tourist activity – from the deepest hues of Gunther von Hagen's “Body Worlds” exhibition to the light-hearted delights of Walt Disney's “Haunted Mansion” – and the presence of overt marketing activity varies accordingly (Miles, 2002; Ryan, 2005; Stone, 2009). Still, striking the right balance between commemoration and commercialisation is not only very difficult but a constant source of tension within the sector. In Dallas, for instance, the touristic development of the notorious book depository building was resisted for decades (Foley and Lennon, 1996), whereas Ground Zero was turned into a macabre merchandising opportunity within a matter of months:

Remember when it was just hallowed ground? Ground Zero is now one of the most popular tourism attractions in the city. It's a place where tour guides charge $15 a head to point out the spot where the fire-fighters raised the flag. The proud can buy twin-tower T-shirts, the angry can buy toilet paper bearing the face of Osama bin Laden, and the curious can climb up the fence to take the perfect picture of what is now just a big hole. The hustle of commerce hawking to the crush of sightseers has prompted some to call it September 11 World (Blair (2002) quoted in Stone (2006, p. 156)).

Dark tourism, in short, demands dark marketing, which can be defined as “the application or adaptation of marketing principles and practices to domains of death, destruction and the ostensibly reprehensible”[2]. Such a definition, apposite though it is, raises more questions than it answers. Clearly, it covers the targeting and positioning, selling and branding and merchandising and communications strategies of fatal attractions like the Alamo, Pompeii, Pearl Harbor, Père-Lachaise cemetery, Chernobyl nuclear reactor, Vietnam's Cu Chi tunnels and the much-discussed Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC (Lennon and Foley, 2000). But it encompasses so much more. The arms trade, the drugs trade, the sex trade, the sale of body parts, blood diamonds, surrogate children and counterfeit goods, the funeral industry, the gaming industry, the human trafficking industry, the private security industry and aspects of the fashion industry, all fall under dark marketing's ignoble auspices (Glenny, 2008). So vast, in fact, is its seeming remit, that marketing could be considered a dark practice, full stop. Certainly, it is seen as such in the tourism/heritage sector and by many members of the general public, who often associate marketing with the mendacity of merchant bankers, the rapaciousness of realtors, the inveigling of insurance agents and the repertoire of dirty tricks that not only separate fools from their money but vulnerable people as well (Simms, 2004; Smith, 2006). Marketing may not be one of the seven deadly sins as such, but for some people it peddles perversions, delivers depravity, pimps for impiety, trades in trespasses, hawks all sorts of unholy products and services, and sells sacrilegious activities on a Sunday (or any other day, for that matter).

Many marketing academics, it has to be said, would not recognise this (mis)representation. Marketing, according to the standard textbooks, is a force for the good, a provisioning technology, the deliverer of a standard of living, an honourable profession with a commendably constructive social conscience (Kotler and Keller, 2011). True, there are numerous unscrupulous salesmen, manifold disreputable dealers, copious cheating cowboy operators – every barrel has its bad apples, after all – but they are the exceptions rather than the rule (Baker, 2008). Marketing is the linchpin of a complex value chain, a crucible of sorts, assembling producers, sellers, distributors and retailers, in order to satisfy consumer needs, wants and demands. If these needs, wants and demands include products, services or experiences that some consider dark, depraved or disgusting, it is for legislators not marketers to draw the line, by and large (Levitt, 1991). Marketing exists to give the customer what he or she wants. End of story.

Critics, of course, will have none of this. They contend that far from meeting pre-existing consumer demands – that is, simply responding to the freely expressed needs of keen customers – marketing creates the demands that consumers subsequently express (Barber, 2007; Klein, 2000). Marketing induces consumer desire, places temptation in people's paths, panders to humankind's baser instincts, insinuates that incessant self-indulgence is somehow admirable and, armed with the prodigiously powerful technologies of advertising, promotion, public relations, market research and all the rest, takes unfair advantage of vanity, cupidity, stupidity, sloth and every other human weaknesses for its own profit-maximising purposes (Desmond, 2003). Marketing is implicated in, and culpable for, the postmodern plagues of affluenza, consumerism and shopaholism, to say nothing of waste, pollution, disease, resource depletion, environmental degradation and all kinds of unethical activity (Kilbourne et al., 1997; Svensson and Wood, 2007, 2008; Zutshi et al., 2009). Marketing, its critics contend, is intrinsically dark, bad to the bone, an irredeemably nasty piece of work (Bakan, 2004; Blumberg, 1989; Elliot and Schroth, 2002; Gabay, 2009).

The reality, in fairness, is rather less polarised and much more ambiguous than the antagonists contend and the apologists insist. Just as many marketers take their moral responsibilities very seriously and go out of their way to be good citizens – the macromarketing community is exemplary in this respect – so too some critics stand accused of tarring all marketers with the same brush, while failing to recognise the valuable socio-economic function that middlemen perform, not least the gainful employment of millions (Sheth et al., 2006). It is no accident that the 9/11 atrocity was immediately followed by a presidential plea to keep shopping, keep consuming, keep visiting New York City, because the post-industrial American economy depends on spendthrifts. Marketing may be a psycho-killer in many people's minds – the ruthless pusher of cigarettes, alcohol, fast food and so forth – but there's no denying that it is the killer app of capitalism (Ferguson, 2011). Where would developed economies be without it?

Heart of darkness

Perhaps, the most that can be said, after weighing both sides of the argument, is that although marketing is not exactly angelic, it is not entirely Satanic either. In such circumstances, the best way forward might be to step back and reflect on the scale, scope and significance of dark marketing. With regard to the first of these, it is clear that marketing's darkness is apparent at micro-, meso- and macro- scales. Dark marketing at the micro scale refers to dubious or suspect behaviours marketers engage in as a matter of course, the tricks of the mix, as it were (Rudd, 2011). Examples include deceptive advertising, where implausibly hyperbolic claims are made on behalf of decidedly average goods and services (such as promised broadband speeds by telecoms companies); drip pricing policies, where the headline price of a product or offer –, e.g. allegedly low cost air fares – are a fraction of the price finally paid; bare-faced mis-selling, where self-styled experts pull the wool over misinformed and misdirected consumers' eyes, as in the case of unnecessary car repairs or critical illness insurance cover; misleading marketing communications, where sanitised press releases, seeded social networks and supposedly socially beneficial charitable activities are employed to boost disreputable organisations' sullied reputations (BP, Wal-Mart et al.); substandard customer service, where vendors quibble over no-quibble guarantees, wriggle out of money-back assurances or refuse to honour their loudly touted obligations with the aid of fine print, weasel words or worse (see extended warranties on electrical appliances); and disingenuous store atmospherics, where the layout and design of retail outlets are subtly arranged to ensure maximum customer disorientation, distraction, derangement and, ultimately, down payments, as the delirium that is IKEA attests:

IKEA f***s with your head. All you want is some furniture: why do they want your sanity in return? The layout alone makes you feel like a lab rat. The stores are like psychoactive jigsaw puzzles with moving pieces, designed by a sick Swedish physicist with access to extra dimensions. They have what look like short cuts between adjoining sections, allowing you to pop through a little walkway from one part of the store to another. But where you end up won't be where you were trying to get to, even if the store map said it would be. Worse, if you decide you were better off where you were, and pop back through the hole, you won't end up where you started, but in a different section again. Sometimes on a different floor altogether. In a different branch of IKEA (Lowe and McArthur, 2005, p. 127).

Meso level dark marketing operates at a higher level-cum-broader scale than the above mix-based bilking[3]. Telemarketing, spamming, phishing and so forth are pervasive practices that cannot be categorised under any single one of the 4Ps and in fact make use of marketing's entire conceptual repertoire from USP to STP to do their dirty work. Stealth, guerrilla and ambush marketing are equally widespread, if rather less heinous, since they straddle the admittedly blurred boundary between best-in-the-business and worst in the world (Robertson, 2010). The inexorable rise of consumer surveillance and segmentation technologies, such as data mining, RFID tagging and real-time cookie-communicated customer profiling, the results of which are surreptitiously sold to advertisers by social networking web sites, is no less questionable, not to mention downright creepy (Mitchell, 2011; Naughton, 2011). More unsettling still are the neurologically informed, neo-subliminal, geo-synchronous satellite-instilled manipulations of today's Hidden iPersuaders, which are designed to denude consumers' resistance and, if not quite pick their pockets, encourage them to splash the cash like it is going out of style (Burton, 2009; O'Driscoll, 2011). It could even be argued that something as commonplace as CRM is meso dark marketing made flesh, inasmuch as the relationships marketers establish with consumers are business relationships masquerading as social relationships. Since these two interpersonal modalities operate on very different principles, claiming to be one while acting on the other is the cause of considerable consumer anguish (O'Malley and Tynan, 1999, 2000). As Ariely (2008, pp. 78-9) rightly notes:

You can't treat your customers like family one moment and then treat them impersonally – or, even worse, as a nuisance or a competitor – a moment later when this becomes more convenient or profitable […] No matter how many cookies, slogans, and tokens of friendship a bank provides, one violation of the social exchange means […] consumers will take personal offense. They'll leave the bank angry and spend hours complaining to their friends about this awful bank. After all, this was a relationship framed as a social exchange.

Macro level dark marketing pertains to the commonplace public perception, alluded to above, that marketing is a venomous nest of vipers, a putrid profession full of pus, piss and poison (Heath and Potter, 2004)[4]. Many years ago, Wright (1986) referred to the so-called “schemer schema”, consumers' inbuilt assumption that marketers are not only manipulative, mendacious malefactors but venal to the point of felonious (DeCarlo and Barone, 2009; Pornpitakpan, 2004; Reinhard et al., 2006). Zuboff and Maxmin (2003, p. 11) subsequently expressed similar concerns when they contended that today's consumers “do not want to be the objects of commerce, treated like anonymous pawns in the exploitative games of market segmentation, penetration and manipulative pseudo-intimacy”. Indeed, this unequivocally negative image is still alive and kicking. According to Sheth et al. (2006), the marketing profession is held in very low public esteem, ranking just above politicians, journalists and (nowadays) bankers in the great occupational scheme of things. Johansson (2004), likewise, attributes America's increasingly unsavoury image, its lamentable fall from international grace, to its cutthroat commercial culture where show-me-the-money is all that matters and doing deals, making sales, screwing suppliers, exploiting workers, evading taxation, overpaying executives or blinding the customer with because-you are-worth-it bullshit is ineradicably engrained in the nation's fast buck-infested mindset:

American marketing is morally bankrupt. American marketing practices have helped turn the American way of life into its lowest common denominator. I don't mean in terms of material welfare, but in terms of quality of life. The watchwords to describe the American way of life are not those of the seven virtues, but rather the seven vices. We marketers encourage unlimited spending, outrageous behaviour, and the unmitigated pursuance of individual gratification. And we do this because we have the marketing tools to do it, the companies have the financial muscle to do it, and the competition gives us a justification for doing it. As former President Bill Clinton said in a weak defense of his own sexual pursuits: “I did it because I could”. American marketers use the same excuse implicitly and sometimes explicitly – and it is equally immoral (Johansson, 2006, p. 37).

Johansson's visceral viewpoint is replicated in, and reinforced by, the representation of marketers in popular culture, though the unprincipled behaviour of Martha Stewart, Dov Charney and similar high-profile businesspeople has not exactly helped our profession's public image (Barkemeyer et al., 2010; Word Magazine, 2011). Novels like Union Atlantic and Other People's Money, documentary films akin to Inside Job and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, mainstream cinema releases such as The Social Network and The Company Men, and magazine articles along the lines of Rolling Stone's legendary exposé of Goldman Sachs, which famously depicted the organisation as a “giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells of money” (Taibbi, 2009), only serve to remind the masses that they were right about business all along (The Economist, 2011). Marketing is tainted by association.

Darkness visible

Such micro-, meso- and macro- distinctions, it goes without saying, are less clearly discernible in practice than they are in principle. The dark marketing activities in certain dubious domains, such as the selling of counterfeits, narcotics, firearms and suchlike, arguably involve all three levels in a commingled manner (Glenny, 2008). Many domains are dark from top to toe – the underhand trade in human organs, endangered species, illegal immigrants, etc. – whereas others are dark with no apparent harm done (Carney, 2011). The latter are commonplace in the entertainment industry, where the gruesome horror stories of Stephen King, the blood-soaked Saw, Scream, and Scary Movie franchises, shoot-em-up computer games like Call of Duty or, and gritty television series such as CSI, Silent Witness, Wallander, The Wire, The Sopranos or, for that matter, Embarrassing Bodies are scattered throughout the schedules. Although concerns are often expressed about the impact of violent or disturbing media output on vulnerable individuals – consider the 1980s' moral panic around “video nasties” (Thompson, 1998) – as a rule such experiences are marketed with impunity, often with blood and gore to the fore (Twitchell, 1992). They are predicated on the prurient premise that sick sells.

The salient point is that just as the scale of dark marketing is vast, so too its scope is varied. Most would agree, for instance, that there is a world of difference between the marketing of horror-packed Harry Potter movies, whose “too scary for children” warnings only act as an incentive for the under-aged (Brown and Patterson, 2010), and Nestlé's notorious milk formula debacle of 1977, when the company attempted to wean women off weaning in the developing world (Desmond, 2003). The latter is still considered a low point in hard sell's less than illustrious history. Alongside Coca-Cola's expropriation of aquifers in India and Lever Brothers' colonialist sale of “washes white” soap to black communities in southern Africa, it represents marketing at its most meretricious (Belk, 1998).

With this in mind, it can be tentatively hypothesised that a spectrum of dark marketing exists. Any such spectrum, admittedly, is likely to be ill-defined, since gradations of darkness are difficult to specify[5]. Nevertheless, four initial shades of dark marketing can be identified: light dark, slight dark, quite dark and night dark. A fairly typical example of light dark marketing is Halloween. Once a minor component of the holiday calendar – in Great Britain a feeble warm up act for Guy Fawkes Night – All Hallows Eve has been sprinkled with marketing's magic dust and is now a major ceremonial/commercial occasion (Belk, 1990). What began as a pagan celebration of the winter solstice, with fires, feasts, frights and so forth, Halloween is now the second most important marketing opportunity after Christmas, well ahead of Easter, Valentine's and Mother's Day. Come October 31, the seasonal promotions aisles of major supermarkets are chock-a-block with scary masks, spooky costumes, crazy candy, fearsome fireworks, prodigious pumpkins and frighteningly fattening party foods, all of which fly off the shelves like a proverbial rocket. Ghosties, ghoulies, goblins, gremlins, gargoyles, grotesques and just about every gargantuan ogre this side of the Brothers Grimm has been resurrected and recycled, co-opted and commodified, disinterred and dusted down by the light dark lords of light dark marketing. Meanwhile trick-or-treaters stalk the streets of suburbia, importuning innocent householders, threatening the hesitant with hexes galore and taking gleeful advantage of the evening's candied cornucopia. So popular indeed has Halloween become in Great Britain – long gone are the days when dunking for apples was the height of All Hallows action – that pumpkin farmers are plagued by rampaging gangs of rustlers, who abscond with the iconic root vegetables and sell them to eager buyers via the (entirely apt) black market (Martin, 2007).

If Halloween represents harmless horrors for tweenies and teenagers, albeit sales of turnips have plummeted on account of the pumpkin's popularity, slight dark marketing is rather less wholesome. “The X Factor” is emblematic in this regard. A hugely successful and brilliantly marketed talent show format, which has been sold to 22 countries including Australia, Iceland, Colombia and Kazakhstan, “X Factor” is the top-rated television series in Britain and is expected to topple its nearest rival, American Idol, when it airs in the USA in September 2011 (Hoyle, 2010; Owen, 2011). Needless to say, it generates countless millions of advertising dollars for the networks, and exploits all sorts of ancillary revenue streams, everything from telephone call income and sponsorship deals with comfort food purveyors to exclusive ranges of tie-in merchandise like karaoke machines, arena tours, glossy magazines and chart-topping CDs (Hackley et al., 2010). Seven series in, it has become something of a Saturday night fixture for millions of consumers whose word of mouth, word of mouse and words of water cooler wisdom are integral to the product's staggering popularity. At the same time, however, there is something disturbing about “The X Factor”. The amateurish auditions, where couch potato viewers gloat over, laugh at, and make mock of the musically afflicted; the verbal humiliation visited upon deluded wannabes by the all-powerful judging panel; the carefully cultivated persona of Simon Cowell, the curmudgeonly “Mr Nasty” behind the fiendish franchise; and the tabloid-led torture of finalists, whose personal foibles are plundered for publicity purposes, all add up to a product that leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth (Day, 2010). There is more than a modicum of the freak show about “X Factor”. It panders to humankind's baser instincts. It is cruel on occasion and unkind as a matter of course, it represents the ultimate triumph of tastelessness. Little wonder that professional musicians regard Simon Cowell, not as a potential saviour of the illegal downloads-afflicted music industry, but something akin to the anti-Christ (Murison, 2009)[6]. A marketing mastermind Mr Cowell may well be, but according to Armstrong (2010), the light dark product he peddles is a contemporary version of bear baiting.

While Simon Cowell is somewhat unsavoury, Big Pharma is downright distasteful. The pharmaceutical sector, which is worth approximately $700 billion per annum, epitomises the quite dark strand of the dark marketing spectrum. Clearly, the health and welfare benefits that Big Pharma delivers, year in year out, are truly astounding and genuinely admirable. The haleness, heartiness, sprightliness, and general quality of life enjoyed by those who receive Big Pharma's benefactions are indisputable, as is the industry's laudable alleviation of countless unpleasant conditions and life-threatening diseases. Equally clearly, Big Pharma is characterised by innumerable unethical sales tactics and marketing strategies (Law, 2006; Moynihan and Cassels, 2005; Rost, 2006). These include inexcusable profiteering, especially among impoverished sufferers in the developing world who cannot afford to pay for treatment; shameless astroturfing, where the understandable concerns of, say, breast cancer sufferers are callously co-opted for companies' commercial ends; bare-faced hypocrisy, where excessive profits are justified by allegedly enormous R&D costs, even though Big Pharma's marketing spend far exceeds its investment in new product development; calculated committee cozening, where supposedly independent medical regulators are pressurised into (for instance) lowering the official threshold of “hypertension”, thereby vastly increasing the market for ACE inhibitors; sneaky patent prolongation, where highly profitable brands are tweaked slightly or reformulated a tad, which extends their protection and guarantees hefty margins going forward; devious double-detailing, where vast sales forces use every trick in the boiler-room book – such as free gifts a-go-go – to bend physicians to the pharmaceutical industry's will; and, not least, disingenuously identifying debatable medical conditions which they then proceed to cure, often with a minor reformulation of an existing drug. Restless leg syndrome, social anxiety syndrome and female sexual dysfunction are notable examples of the industry's “make the ills, sell the pills” mindset. When all sorts of spurious research, statistical chicanery and data dredging are added to the mix, the quite darkness of the pharmaceutical industry is incontestable (Goldacre, 2009).

For all its well-documented faults, Big Pharma's allopathic achievements can reasonably be regarded as extenuating circumstances, a moral counterbalance to its quite dark marketing practices. The same cannot be said for masters of night dark marketing, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Although the Klan is nowadays regarded as little more than a joke, an anachronism, the last redoubt of reactionaries, rednecks, racists and right-wing buffoons with more prejudice than sense, it was not always thus. On the contrary, the KKK was an enormously powerful and hugely popular organisation during the 1920s, when an estimated 15 per cent of the eligible US population were fully paid up members or affiliates (Moore, 2008). The organisation may have commenced as post-Civil War protest movement in the former confederacy, where its principal targets were northern carpetbaggers and, to a lesser extent, freed slaves, but the second wave Klan was a nationwide movement, with overseas offshoots in addition. Its surge in popularity is largely attributable to rising immigration and the anti-outsider sentiments that this engendered among White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who saw their Caucasian culture being diluted by Irish, Italian and Polish Roman Catholics, as well as emigrant Jews from eastern Europe. More pertinently perhaps, the Klan's dramatic growth during the Jazz Age was due to highly effective marketing practices (Chalmers, 1981). These included its nothing if not distinctive branding activities (white livery, striking logo, proprietary salute), its headline-grabbing publicity stunts (burning crosses, torch-lit processions, gigantic rallies called klonklaves), its eye-catching advertising campaigns (including the widely circulated poster of an “heroic” Klansman on a rearing steed), its supremely professional sales force (who perfected multi-level marketing long before the Avon lady), its canny exploitation of the value chain (robes and regalia were manufactured in-house and sold at huge mark-ups), its absolute commitment to corporate social responsibility (charitable works for the local community, including generous donations during church services) and, above all, its marketing savvy leadership (Wade, 1998). Most of the organisation's managerial cadre, not least the Imperial Wizard Colonel “Doc” Simmons (a lapsed lingerie salesman), were converts to cutting edge marketing methods and kept up with the latest thinking. All things considered, the then unstoppable rise of the KKK is less ludicrous than it seems in retrospect. The picture presented in, for instance, O Brother Where Art Thou? – Klan as standing joke – is hard to reconcile with the organisation that proudly paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925 and numbered American presidents among its membership (Moore, 2008).

Darkness falls

Most neutral observers would concede that the Ku Klux Klan is a clear-cut exemplar of night dark marketing, as was that even more hideous and no less effectively marketed organisation, Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party. In many cases, though, the marketing of dark activities is reluctant, hesitant or fraught with doubt. Belfast, Northern Ireland, to cite a contemporary example, is well placed to position itself as a major necropolitan region (Lennon and Foley, 2000). The city is riddled with sites of death, destruction and disaster, a regrettable legacy of thirty years' inter-communal conflict (Boal and Royle, 2006; Neill, 2001). The touristic infrastructure, furthermore, is in place to accommodate any sudden influx of thrill-seeking, macabre-minded consumers. Yet the brand-building bequest of “The Troubles” is roundly ignored by those responsible for promoting and marketing the locality. The branding of Belfast focuses on the city's renaissance, its rehabilitation, its regeneration, its determination to put the dark past behind it and look to a brighter, buoyant future (Neill, 2010; Shirlow, 2006). True, there are numerous entrepreneurial suppliers of quite dark experiences – bus tours to the black spots, ex-army vehicles for hire, etc. – but these are unofficial, unsanctioned and understandably unpopular with the powers that be (McDowell, 2009). The city fathers, rather, have channelled the conurbation's thanatic history into the so-called “Titanic Signature Project”, a glossy visitors centre-cum-recreational facility that celebrates the construction and destruction of RMS Titanic, which was built in the city (Neill, 2006). Anything else, in truth, would be politically unacceptable in a metropolis whose residents would not tolerate any overt commercialisation of the conflict, certainly in the short term. As the dark tourism literature indicates, however, almost any atrocity can be commodified when sufficient time has passed and, as Belfast's bootleg operators indicate, businessmen rush in where bureaucrats fear to tread.

Time, indeed, is integral to dark marketing, inasmuch as many brands are not born dark but fall into darkness, as it were. Take Google. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin set out to master the world wild web and make everyone's online life easier, they not only gave us their invaluable search engine for free, but made it available with one express intention: to turn the world into a better place (Taylor, 2005; Vise, 2006). Ten years after the adoption of their admirable company motto, “Don't be Evil”, the organisation is routinely described as Googzilla, the Evil Empire, or worse (Auletta, 2011; Naughton, 2011). It has swallowed YouTube, devoured DoubleClick, hoovered up the contents of innumerable newspapers, magazines and public libraries – with nary a thought for intellectual property rights – and eaten large chunks of the advertising industry's lunch, thanks to AdWords, AdSense and analogous wiki-widgets (Ahmed, 2011a; Levy, 2011). If, what is more, the runaway success of the Android operating system is any indication (Ahmed, 2011b; Ward, 2011), Google is set to ingest a sizable slice of the smart phone market (prior to taking over the world, presumably). Google may not be Big Brother 2.0, as some privacy-preoccupied critics contend, but it has a reasonable claim to be the world's biggest Cookie Monster:

The rest of the world, particularly the media part of it, doesn't have a “touchy-feely view of the company. Google has been sued by Viacom for allegedly allowing YouTube to pirate its television programmes, by publishers and the Authors Guild for digitizing their books without permission, and came close to being sued by the Associated Press for linking to its stories without paying compensation. Newspapers and magazines are alarmed that Google News and Google search link to their content and don't pay for it. Hollywood frets that YouTube enlarges its own audience and diminishes theirs. Advertising companies are alarmed that Google and DoubleClick retain so much information that their advertising clients might turn to Google to purchase their online advertising, and maybe design their ads. Telephone companies are alarmed that Google is pushing into their mobile phone business. All feared Google would devise a navigation system for their media akin to what search was for the web, and thus would be poised to become the traffic cop for all media (Auletta, 2011, pp. 22-3).

For many concerned citizens, the goofy, geeky, free-gift grin that Google presents to the world – a wider world which loves and admires the organisation, by and large – is an anti-corporate mask behind which lurks a dead-eyed, black-hearted beast, with a voracious appetite and venom-filled fangs (Levy, 2011). When Microsoft is accusing someone of monopolistic practices, News International is up in arms about IP pilfering, and Apple is angry over breaches of good faith (Ahmed, 2011a), then it is clear that the genuinely noble aspirations of Google's founders have been torn asunder by the exigencies of tooth and nail competition and the insatiable demands of Wall Street, venture capital and media commentary on corporate performance. The degree of Google's darkness is moot, admittedly. But even its greatest admirers might concede that it is a couple of shades darker than when it started.

Lifecycle issues notwithstanding, the really noteworthy thing about the foregoing cases of light, slight, quite and night dark marketing is that in every instance the execution was exemplary. Whatever we think of “X Factor”, Big Pharma, the Ku Klux Klan or turning pagan festivals into money-making opportunities, their marketing was above reproach, pretty much. All four exemplars were brilliantly successful by many measures. “X Factor“ is one of the biggest media brands in the world. Big Pharma is so profitable it hurts. The Klan was gigantic ninety years ago and duly imploded when it misread the marketing environment, most notably the emergence of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s[7]. Halloween has slaughtered its nearest competitor, Guy Fawkes Night, and Father Christmas, if not quite quaking in his fur-lined boots, has much to be fearful about. The marketing prowess of such dark products/services/occasions/sectors cannot be denied, yet very few professional academicians would be willing to sing their praises, much less hold them up as role models. We scholars are happy to lionise the Barack Obama brand but the equally distinctive (albeit deceased) Osama bin Laden brand is beyond the pale. The marketing of celebrities like George Clooney, David Beckham or Lady Gaga hardly raises an eyebrow these days but brand name killers and criminals such as Myra Hindley, Ted Bundy or Al Capone are unworthy of marketing attention, even though their name recognition is to die for. Literally.

Darkness at noon

Modern marketing, to put it bluntly, is in an ontological quandary. On the one hand, the broadened marketing concept – something that is accepted by every self-respecting scholar and taught as part of our basic pedagogic package – automatically encompasses the above unspeakable exemplars and it cannot be withdrawn without compromising the core marketing concept, which purports to be a universal verity (Kotler, 1972). On the other hand, any attempt to assert that brand KKK is admirable in marketing terms is a step too far for most reasonable people. “Admirable?” many might retort. “Tell that to the innocent victims of Klan-instigated violence!” Tell that to the lynched, the tortured, the raped, the intimidated, the run out of town, the firebombed, or indeed the students of the University of Notre Dame, who defended their institution against a full-scale Ku Klux Klan invasion in May 1924 (Tucker, 2004). Such misbegotten actions presumably enhanced the Klan's image within its “brand community”, strengthened its positioning and reinforced its undeniably distinctive USP. But who among us is going to single it out for praise?

Our discipline's existential dilemma boils down to the simple fact that dark marketing, in accordance with Kotler and Levy's (1969) classic statement on broadening, can be done well or badly. But the former cannot be recommended and the latter cannot be rectified without condemnation or censure. That is to say, the dark marketing of “X Factor” or Big Pharma can neither be faulted nor exalted. It can, however, be exonerated. The moral fallback for all marketing activity, as noted earlier, is that the profession exists to meet customer needs. Marketing gives the customer what he or she wants, ideally in an efficient and effective and expeditious and exemplary manner. If the customer wants to smoke tobacco, or ingest fast food or drink alcohol to excess or pay for sexual services or play violent video games or gamble away their hard-earned salary or enhance their appearance through egregious cosmetic surgery, then that is their right, their own business, their free choice (Burnham, 1993). The marketing system (largely) exists to service such lifestyle choices, not pass judgment on consumer preferences or our all too human peccadilloes.

Tell us another!

Now, no one would deny that there is a dark side to the human condition. Innumerable illustrious thinkers have exposed the shadow side of our species' psyche – Freud, Jung, de Sade, Bataille, Darwin, Bakhtin, Nietzsche, Baudrillard, Marx and more – to say nothing of abundant poets, painters, playwrights, mystics, magi and myth-makers from Homer to Hemingway and Sophocles to Spielberg (Bloom, 1997; Eagleton, 2010; Shattuck, 1996). Indeed, there is a sizeable academic literature on the dark side of consumer behaviour (Fisk et al., 2010). Morris Holbrook (1995) notes various forms of what he terms “consumer misbehavior” principally immorality (e.g. adultery), illegality (criminality), irrationality (gambling) and irregularity (transvestism). Mitchell and Chan (2002) have investigated diverse instances of consumer irresponsibility from dodging fares on public transport to taking unfair advantage of retailers' return policies. Kent Grayson (1999) identifies various manifestations of “dark play” (cheating, hoaxing, tricking, making mischief) in extended service encounters. And of course, Beth Hirschman (1991, 1992, 1996) has published several poignant accounts of her own addictive-compulsive inclinations. Other consumer researchers have studied – to mention but a few – shopaholism, sexual fetishism, cannibalism, materialism, mourning, boredom, bulimia, time wasting, doing nothing, dysfunctional consumer-brand relationships and the dark side of the gift, what Jantzen and Østergaard (1998) call the “rationality of irrational behaviour”.

The key issue, nevertheless, is not whether a dark ravening beast lurks within the breast of humankind (which it does), nor whether marketers are functionaries who feed this dark beast on demand (which many do). Nor indeed it is an issue of whether marketing induces consumer needs, incites unwonted demands and stokes the insatiable flames of desire (as Belk et al. (2003) suggest). The crucial point is that the darkness cannot be dispelled or eliminated, it can only be ameliorated (or, arguably, alleviated to some degree by the adoption of social and macro-marketing principles).

The complicity of the commercial system in consumer misbehaviour is amply demonstrated by Fullerton and Punj (1998). After tracing the genealogy of consumer society, noting that it is not a human universal but an historical oddity largely confined to the west and westernising societies, they describe numerous forms of consumer misbehaviour, from fairly trivial price tag switching to wanton acts of mindless vandalism. Such activities, they further observe, have been studied at length by sociologists of deviance (as opposed to deviant sociologists) and attributed to unfulfilled aspirations, warped thrill-seeking, provocative situational factors and the absence of moral constraints, among others. According to Fullerton and Punj, however, they are actually a consequence of consumerism. The acquisitiveness, greed, hedonism and over-indulgence that drive the engine of consumer culture – what Campbell (1987) romantically terms “the romantic ethic of capitalism” – inculcate an unethical attitude among consumers, who don't consider shoplifting or swapping price tags or purchasing counterfeit goods or padding insurance claims as particularly delinquent, let alone criminal. To the contrary, consumer misbehaviour is part and parcel of consumerism. It is an unintended consequence that cannott be eradicated by fiat or wishful thinking or right-wing moral crusades of the hang-em, flog-em, lock-em-up ilk. Shoplifting, for instance, is ordinarily portrayed as thievery, pure and simple. Retailers routinely regale the media with shameful figures of the billions lost each year to light-fingered consumers. Yet, apart from the unwelcome fact that most “shrinkage” is caused by their own employees, retailers are partly responsible for the perpetuation of kleptomania. Faced with the tantalising displays, the tempting products, the sybaritic atmospherics, the beguiling advertising campaigns, the persuasive sales assistants, the now-or-never price reductions, the buy-one-get-one-free promotions and the general air of self-indulgent permissiveness – customer-is-king, you-can-have-it-all, because-you are-worth-it, and suchlike – it is hardly surprising that some consumers succumb. The really surprising thing is that shoplifting is not more prevalent than it is. The retail system is arranged to arouse the avaricious urge. It unleashes the buy-buy beast within. Shoplifting comes with the shopkeeping territory. Marketing means misconduct:

Consumer misbehaviour is an ineradicable component of consumption culture itself […] Following the strategic doctrine embodied in the “marketing concept”, the marketer genuinely tries to reach out to and to please consumers by such means as alluring displays, proliferation of product choices, easy access to credit, self-service and ceaseless coddling in an open and friendly atmosphere. These practices have become widespread precisely because of their appeal to consumers. At the same time, however, they have also encouraged misbehaviour. Further, these links are continually reinforced by the marketing efforts that encourage the culture of consumption (Fullerton and Punj, 1998, p. 403).

All marketing, to put it in an admittedly contentious way, is dark marketing. Perhaps, therefore, it is time to recognise that bad things and good marketing are not irreconcilable (Shultz and Holbrook, 1999). Perhaps, it is time to focus academic attention on the degree of darkness that obtains in any particular instance, context, occasion, exchange situation or scholarly subfield (Witkowski, 2005)[8]. Even social marketing, which purports to be an indisputably noble endeavour – since it attempts to improve public health, empower disenfranchised women, preserve the natural environment or enhance consumer wellbeing in some way, shape or form – is riven with contradictions, paternalistic underpinnings, inbuilt power imbalances and culturally disruptive outcomes (Kilbourne et al., 1997). Just as the universe is largely made up of dark matter, the functional purpose of which remains poorly understood (Panek, 2011), so too much of micro-, meso- and macro-marketing is dripping with light, slight, quite and night dark material.

Or is it?

Permission to land

If asked, in summary, to answer the question posed in the subtitle of this paper, some critical thinkers would probably reply that dark marketing is a ghost in the machine, the demonic driving force that has given us everything from super-duper, big-gulp, extra-special soda servings to road-hogging, gas-guzzling, fully loaded Hummers, with all the negative consequences, ancillaries and externalities. It is all too easy, however, to fall into the bad news mindset that prevails in the media, where death, disaster and destruction grab headlines, sell papers and deliver readers to advertisers. Good news does not get reported, by and large, and the same is true of marketing. As academic authorities often stress, much of marketing works quite well (Kotler, 2004). It delivers goods, services and customer satisfaction without fuss, flannel or flim-flam. The “great grinding US marketing machine”, as cult novelist Wallace (2004, p. 25) describes it, grinds pretty fine most of the time. Dark marketing, it follows, is a skeleton in the cupboard that rattles now and then, as indeed it is supposed to do. It provides an occasional fright, a shock to the system, a vital reminder that marketing is imperfect in many ways and that its exponents must always endeavour to do better.

There is, though, another interpretation of the situation. This accepts that “critical” and “mainstream” readings of marketing's place in the world are well-nigh irreconcilable – perhaps they need each other in a kind of yin-yang embrace, a thesis-antithesis dialectic – so, therefore, the most than can be said is that dark marketing is neither a skeleton nor a ghost, never mind a devilish combination of both. It is closer to a spectre at the feast, a necessary memento mori.

Notes

  1. For many cultural commentators, marketing and consumerism are also closely associated with the postmodern condition (Brown, 1995). Lennon and Foley (2000) likewise regard marketing in general and impulse purchasing in particular as integral parts of dark tourism.

  2. The term “dark marketing” is used by some practitioners in relation to certain forms of ambush marketing, though this is a much narrower interpretation – a meso-level interpretation, according to our typology – than that envisaged by the present authors.

  3. At the risk of appearing facetious, mix-based dark marketing could be summarised under the 4Cs of chiselling, cheating, conniving and callous disregard for customers.

  4. This sentiment is magnified on national (and global) scales when governments and multilateral organisations reject markets and marketing entirely, as is the case in command economies, or cynically turn to the market in ways that benefit oligarchs and bureaucrats, while citizens are left wanting (McDonagh and Shultz, 2002; Shultz, 2007).

  5. Granted, there are many analogous typologies in the dark tourism literature. Seaton's (1996) “continuum of intensity”, for instance, specifies five types of thanatourism, whereas Stone (2006) identifies seven distinct categories that parallel the spectrum of light. Such spectra, however, can be sliced and diced ad infinitum.

  6. Attributed comments include: “He should be melted down and turned into glue” (Coldplay); “Simon Cowell has no recognisable talent, apart from self-promotion” (Sting); “A vile individual […] he should be exterminated” (Jack Bruce); “Simon Cowell is just cruel and that is all there is to it” (Phil Collins), “A toxic blight on a generation” (Bill Bailey).

  7. There was much more to the Klan's demise than this, of course. The iconic imagery and positive messages of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, coupled with the supportive vision, infrastructure and resources of the Great Society, did much to create conditions conducive to the Klan's collapse (Marwick, 1999). According to Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner's (2005) bestselling book, it was also attributable to Superman, a 1947 radio programme where the man of steel bested the KKK (though this interpretation has been disputed).

  8. This statement applies equally to academic constructs, such as segmentation (Wensley, 1998), which can themselves have negative real-world consequences. Business schools, according to Caulkin (2004), have created a “management Frankenstein” (Khurana, 2007).

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Corresponding author

Stephen Brown can be contacted at: SFX.brown@ulster.ac.uk