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On the Ancient Roots of Marketing

Wengrow and Andrew Bevan, edited a book, Cultures of Commodity Branding, which argues that people have been marketing products for more than six thousand years and marketing is neither modern nor western. Later in the introduction, Wengrow deals with contemporary approaches to branding. He writes (2010: 13-14):

Both the German (Frankfurt) and French (semiotic) schools seemed to implicate branded commodities in the decline of modes of modern subjectivity based on kinship, class relations, and caste, arguing that mass consumption creates a new set of normative identities, tying consumers to the exploitative conditions of capitalism production.... Jean Baudrillard,... for example, saw modern branding practices as a form of cultural alchemy and unparalleled in earlier social formations. The brand sign, he argued, brings together in an ephemeral material form two conflicting psychological tendencies in the drive for short-term gratification and the long term need for transcendence.... I was particularly struck by how some marketing analysts had picked up on the earlier psychoanalytic literature, arguing that the appeal of brands is rooted in the “quick fixes” they offer for deep existential crises in modern societies, generating distinct and self-perpetuating forms of dependency between consumers and their most coveted products. The major difference seemed to be that 21st-century experts on marketing treat the construction of self-image through mass consumption as a basis for commercial strategies that, if properly managed, might transform an ailing business or public institution into a global success story.

The problem these perspectives on marketing face, Wengrow suggests, is that they all assume marketing is a product of modernity, which is incorrect. Commodity branding existed for thousands of years before capitalism, so it doesn’t seem reasonable to argue that capitalism generated marketing and branding and everything that stems from them.

On the other hand, just because contemporary semioticians and psychoanalysts and other critics of marketing are incorrect about assuming it was created by capitalism, that doesn’t mean that their critiques of marketing are not correct. They may have been mistaken about when marketing and branding originated, but they are not necessarily wrong about how they function in contemporary society.

What we learn from reading Wengrow is that branding is rooted in (Bevan and Wengow 2010: 29) “universal and perennial problems of human interaction.” In the ancient bazaars, which were the precursors to the contemporary markets, department stores, and malls, there were means of differentiating between products and assessing their quality, and the bazaars functioned based on networks of trust between sellers and buyers and personal loyalty. That function is now taken by magazines like Consumer Reports and by many sites on the Internet and the ancient bazaar has been transmogrified and made electronic in the creation of Amazon.com.

 
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