C’mon, Seth. You can do better than that.

Seth Godin, my acclaimed marketing guru, just made an excellent point with an excellent analogy and based it on a falsehood. I had to wince. But it’s intriguing and worth discussing, so let’s throw it out on the table.

Five thousand years ago, every human was a hunter. If you were hungry, you got a rock or a stick and you went hunting.The problem was that all of the animals were either dead or really good at hiding.Fortunately, we discovered/invented the idea of farming. Plant seeds, fertilize em, water em, watch em grow and then you harvest them.The idea spread and it led to the birth of civilization.Everyone got the idea… except for marketers.Marketers still like to hunt.What we’re discovering, though, is that the good prospects are getting really good at hiding. —Seth’s Blog, 1/11/06

He makes a great underlying point: in order to succeed in marketing at a large scale, you need to create your own prospects. That’s poignant, creative, and true. He’s just got a little work to do on his logic. “The problem was that all of the animals were either dead or really good at hiding.” Sorry. Wrong answer. We didn’t go hungry in our hunter-gatherer days, nor did we kill off all of the animals in sight. There was always enough for what we expected of ourselves–modest population sizes in tight-knit tribes that took care of its members. There’s a lot to be said for the tribal lifestyle, not the least of which was its trust in and compassion for the land it lived on. We didn’t take more from the land than we needed, and we didn’t try to control our neighbors’ food supplies. The main difference between our hunter-gatherer days and our farming civilization days were size and settlement. When we took control of our own food, our population numbers exploded, and we no longer needed to keep moving around. With the added stability, we started putting time into other advancements, like technology that could make even more food, so we could have more people and make more advancements. And that’s still a great business model. To compare it again to marketing, we limit our success by allowing our prospects to be in control. If you can create and control prospects, your potential explodes. You can expand, you can dominate the market you want, and you can create more of what you love. It’s not that prospects are dead or hiding. It’s that they aren’t plentiful enough to meet your great ambitions, which, in the capitalist world, exceed the basic needs for livelihood. That’s just how the system works. But of all the analogies, Seth had to pick this one. What does it say about a happy ending? Yes, we’re in a “thriving civilization,” but we’re also becoming increasingly aware of the damage we’ve done to our land by dominating it. We need the land to survive, and yet we’re pumping it clean of resources and polluting its atmosphere. Our population exploded happily, but now we have more than 6 billion people. And although we have enough food for all our people, we distribute it unevenly in the name of commerce–the system that brought us to where we are–and many starve. And those who have plenty of food take it for granted, and don’t understand what a gift it is to have it. Our explosion has been self-destructive, and we are only just beginning to feel its consequences.While I realize this is a bleak perspective on the analogy, I think it brings up some important questions. What are the consequences of creating and controlling your marketing prospects? What damage does it do those people, whom you rely on for your livelihood? How much success can you handle while still taking care of what matters most to you? And how will it imbalance the systems around you? Generally, I’m gung-ho about marketing and idea viruses, but only when they’re done ethically. The concept of growing your own prospects opens a can of worms for abuse and loss of control. We see it most disturbingly in teen marketing, where the industries feed a cycle of “cool” that pushes teens toward more and more extreme behavior. Young minds are malleable, and the marketers plant whatever seeds they want to see grow there. Marketers have more influence over the upcoming generations than parents do. Is that a good thing?Where do you draw the line?

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3 Responses to “C’mon, Seth. You can do better than that.”

  1. seth godin Says:

    thanks, Sarah. I hear your point.

    did you know, according to Jared Diamond, that just a few hundred years after the Native Americans walked to California (via Siberia) they had killed most of the large mammals–to extinction! Including armadillos the size of bread trucks.

    I am fascinated by an armadillo the size of a bread truck.

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