Do marketers create artificial needs?
March 12, 2008
I would like to discuss the claim according to which marketing creates (artificial) needs for the sole purpose of profit making.
The distinction between real and artificial human needs relies on the distinction between a good’s use value and symbolic value:
- Real needs are satisfied by a good’s use-value.
- Artificial needs are satisfied by a good’s symbolic value.
But what does it mean for goods to have a use-value only?
Lets take clothes, a basic-needs good, as an example. If clothes are to serve the sole purpose of protecting the human body from several environmental conditions, then we really only need one type of t-shirt, two types of trousers (one short, one long), no skirts (as their utility is lower than that of trousers), one jumper and one coat, for all human beings irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, class, or other cultural bases of differentiation.
Since what was described as ‘real’ needs is not necessarily identical to ‘basic’ needs let’s also take a different example: cars. If you’re a bachelor you get a 3-door car, if you have a family of four a 5-door, if you have more children a mini-van, if your job requires a truck of some sort. The same thing goes for pretty much all other products such as your home, its furniture, appliances and interior decoration.
In short, the only bases of differentiation in such a society are objective and scientific: occupation, life-stage, number of children, gender (only in certain cases) and a few others. I believe that this notion of real needs is based on an unrealistic understanding of the nature of human needs – in that it is asocial and therefore not human – due to the degree of cultural uniformity that it demands.
Now let’s look at the way in which what is called customer needs, but is in fact nothing more than human needs, are created in a human society.
Women in the west have not escaped their long history of bodily objectification and perhaps never will. With their newly won power however, they have managed to
- escape their possession by men, be that husbands or fathers, and
- objectify men in their turn
It is at this point that the balance of the equilibrium of sexual power changed and men started to look at their own butts in the mirror when buying a pair of jeans, which is to say that men are now looking at their own body through the eyes of some abstract female subject who is their object of desire, and who they want to satisfy by offering her what they think she wants.
- It was not a capitalist marketer that started bodily objectification however. It has existed across cultures since time immemorial. Greek marble statues are a case in point.
- Most importantly, it was not a capitalist marketer that brought about the emancipation of women for the purpose of bringing about the objectification of the male body in order to sell skin care products and fashion items to men. By means of acquiring certain rights for themselves – political (the right of women’s suffrage), economic (equal contract and property rights), reproductive (the right to control one’s reproductive functions), personhood (right to own their own person rather than be owned by their fathers or husbands along with their children – abolition of chattel marriage) – women had the freedom, and hence power, to choose their sexual partner. One of the results was that women acquired a gaze that had the power to objectify men and their body parts in an explicit manner.
- Finally there is nothing contradictory to manhood in a man’s utterance of a sentence like “I have an oily T-zone”.
It seems plain that the growing needs for products such as cosmetics, diets and fashion items that men have cannot be attributed to marketing need creation for the purpose of profit making but is the direct result of the emancipation of women. The ‘new men’ or ‘metrosexuals’ are precisely such a creation.
At the same time it would be interesting to think whether real needs are in fact only basic needs. Is a human’s need for music for example a real need? It certain that something that can be defined as music can be found in all human societies (although it would be hard to define music in a universal way). But I dont think its basic. I mean it would certainly not be an issue of survival if music ceased to exist in some way or other.