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Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Is Mark Thompson Right About Marketing and the Collapse of Political Language?

Recent press comment has highlighted the impoverished quality of political debate in the media around the EU referendum and, in the USA, in the presidential campaign . Political communication often seems intent on stirring emotions by tapping into prejudices, and voters seem ill-equipped to critically deconstruct the crude rhetoric of political populism.    
Mark Thompson, the former BBC Director General, has suggested that the opacity of expert language and the democratisation of opinion through social media are amongst the factors leading to a collapse in the quality of political language. Another factor is the role of commercial marketing in desensitizing voters to the techniques of persuasive rhetoric
It might seem a slightly ambitious leap of logic to argue that, consequently, marketing education is important for liberal democracy because it can educate citizens in the rhetoric of persuasion and equip them to deconstruct it and push back. 

It might also seem wishful thinking from someone who would like to imagine that my professional life as a marketing professor could be meaningful in a wider scheme of things.

But I don't think it stretches plausibility too far to argue that better informed citizens make better voters. What we are seeing right now around the world is large numbers of voter/citizens who react viscerally to rhetorical strategies wielded by politicians that are actually pretty crude.

This is not a matter of simply deriding the motives and intelligence of Trump supporters and Brexiters. We live in a world in which ideologies are holding sway for all groups of voters, and the antidote to ideologies is education. It isn't only protest voters who don't see beyond the shadows in Plato's cave.

Why Rhetoric?          

The ancient Greeks understood well the need for all citizens, not just elites, to engage in the political process. The means of doing this was by debating the merits of different political arguments. The art of rhetoric therefore became central to the education of those who would aspire to public life . More than two thousand years after the great orators vied for power in Greek politics, the skills of rhetoric have once again become the foremost currency of politics, with social media as the forum.

All communication has a rhetorical character, yet the word ‘rhetoric’ is often invoked pejoratively to mean communication that is deceitful. Politicians like Donald Trump who claim to be plain speaking men of the people are using one of the most powerful rhetorical techniques in politics: parataxis, the rhetorical technique of claiming not to be using rhetoric Whilst clarity of communication is a political virtue, the content-light rhetoric of the politician who ‘talks our language’ is especially invidious because it legitimises uninformed opinion and undermines the authority of knowledge and experience.
Even the great organs of record are now guilty of normalising political rhetoric that was once treated as beyond the pale Political speeches are rarely reported with authoritative circumspection. Rather, the rhetoric is repeated and its effect magnified, even when at its most cynical. Witness Michael Gove’s attempt to present himself as a plain speaking common man with his claim that Britain has no need of experts .  

It is too easy to blame journalists for dumbing down political debate. They, like their employers, are subject to the logic of the market. Journalists now have to ape the techniques of advertising copywriters to generate the social media clicks and shares that drive online advertising revenue.
Marketing evades much critical censure because it is difficult to pin down exactly what it is, but Thompson is right to point to its culpability in anaesthetising the public against a critical awareness of persuasive rhetoric. Thompson was thinking mainly of the rhetoric of speech, but all of marketing's persuasive techniques, verbal, visual and aural, have a rhetorical character.   

Marketing can be dismissed as trivial Barnum-esque hyperbole unworthy of serious attention, but it enjoys vast influence both as a field of practice and as one of the most popular subjects of university study worldwide It is probably not a coincidence that as marketing education, research and scholarship have risen to prominence in university business schools since the 1960s, the ideology of markets has swept through public life 
Advertising is noted as the cutting edge of commercial persuasion but marketing as a whole can be seen as the broader management and organisation of the persuasive disciplines . In recent years, more and more communication disciplines formerly discussed only in literary, cultural or media studies are being absorbed into mainstream marketing practice.

Witness the propaganda-like techniques of celebrity endorsement, sponsorship  and public relations , not to mention the ethically dubious promotional techniques of product placement, ‘branded content’ and ‘native’ advertising Political marketing, too, is a well-established discipline that embraces all of the above in addition to the more traditional styles of rhetorical persuasion associated with political speech-making.        
The Complicity of University Business Schools in Uncritical Marketing Education

Universities have a responsibility to support democratic debate by educating students to be critical thinkers. Sadly, marketing education in universities has been deeply complicit in subduing critique of marketing’s persuasive rhetoric Research in marketing has similarly been lacking in a critical dimension    

It is not too far-fetched to suggest that marketers are the new Sophists even though their armoury of persuasive techniques has expanded far beyond the limits of verbal rhetoric to embrace all media. Indeed, teaching students of the link between their discipline and the Sophists so unfairly denigrated by Plato is one way to foster a critical understanding of the far-reaching social implications of their calling

Universities have a responsibility to students to improve their career prospects. They also have a duty to contribute to democracy by fostering critically aware graduates. The two goals are not incompatible if marketing studies are informed by the liberal arts, humanities and critical social science, as much as by statistical science. Marketing rhetoric should not go unexamined, especially in universities.