Brand Purpose Marketing

Why marketing’s wellbeing agenda does more harm than good

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By Ian Murray, Co-founder

February 27, 2024 | 9 min read

Burst Your Bubble’s Ian Murray reveals the damage even the most altruistic marketers are causing to consumers, sorry, people. Perhaps you can’t manifest a better self with a simple purchase after all.

Man in dark

Permacrisis was Collins Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’ in 2022, and since then, few professions have embraced the idea more wholeheartedly than marketing. Social media is awash with professionals and brands offering their take on the ‘unprecedented’ challenges facing people and the planet.

Of course, marketers’ willingness to embrace ‘the myth of the unprecedented’ reinforces our industry’s privilege and a tenuous grasp on history more than any deep political and social awareness or business acumen. But, whether marketers’ sense of permacrisis is well founded or not, there is no doubt that many people in our industry are having a hard time.

Andrew Tenzer and I have surveyed our industry on a range of wellbeing metrics. It makes for stark reading: despite their privileged economic and social status, marketers, and particularly young marketers, are more likely than the general population to feel anxious and depressed and feel that their health limits their daily activities.

What is going on?

One intriguing possibility is that the marketing worldview itself is making marketers ill...

Wellbeing graph. Burst Your Bubble

At Burst Your Bubble, we do a lot of thinking about the consequences of the social lenses that people use to interpret their world. That means we also do a lot of thinking about neoliberalism, the dominant social paradigm that has shaped all our lives since the end of WWII.

Focused on organizing all facets of society around the principles of free-market capitalism, self-actualization, and individualistic achievement, critics of neoliberalism like David Harvey and Mark Fisher have observed that it has become so ingrained in our culture that most people cannot imagine any alternative. The research that Andrew and I have done on the marketing worldview shows that our industry has fully internalized neoliberal values.

A fascinating study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology offers a useful new perspective on marketers’ wellbeing crisis. The research broadens the debate about neoliberalism beyond tribal politics to focus on how it makes people feel.

It shows that holding, or merely being exposed to, neoliberal values and beliefs increases feelings of social disconnection, competition and loneliness, which leads to a lower sense of overall wellbeing.

Neoliberal viewpoint

The implications for marketers are profound. The foundational values of our industry worldview (e.g, individual achievement, self-actualization, the primacy of the market) are directly linked to a reduction in people’s wellbeing.

More harm than good?

Mental health and wellbeing have become central themes in the marketing agenda: informing drives to improve workplace culture and conditions and featuring prominently in the growth of ‘pro-social’ advertising campaigns. Many marketers are demanding change - for their own sake and the sake of the wider population.

But while marketers are undoubtedly driven by a genuine desire to effect positive change, they are also in thrall to a form of ‘progressive neoliberalism’ that is doing (themselves and others) more harm than good.

The critique of progressive neoliberalism focuses on the insidious way that large corporations and the market have co-opted narratives around wellbeing and social justice (among other things). The doctrine relies on a process of ‘individual responsibilization,’ i.e. making individuals accept responsibility for social problems or take on tasks and risks that were previously the duty of another (e.g, government, employer etc.).

Heaping pressure on the individual leads to the feelings of social disconnection, competition and loneliness highlighted above.

Exploring responsibilization from a feminist perspective in ‘Confidence Culture and How it Does Harm to Women. Shani Orgad and Roz Gill bring the process to life, arguing that imperatives directed at women to ‘love your body’ and ‘believe in yourself’ imply that (individual) psychological blocks and shortcomings rather than entrenched social injustices hold women back: “Confidence messaging may feel good, but it suggests that women–along with people of color, disabled people, and other marginalized groups–are responsible for their own conditions.”

Orgad and Gill’s critique of ‘confidence culture’ can be generalized to highlight a deep flaw in ‘progressive’ marketing’s radical pretensions and theory of change. Championing mental health, wellbeing, and other social causes makes marketers feel they are doing something. And it may feel good. But often, they are still working from the responsibilization playbook. Many of the initiatives they champion are unwittingly propping up the status quo that is making people ill, not challenging it.

Responsibilization in the workplace

In 2023, when The Drum asked, ‘How Do You Solve a Problem like…bolstering agency mental health policies?’ the responses focused on measly personalized perks and offsets (payday pizza, subsidized beauty treatments, free yoga, free one-to-ones with a financial advisor, etc) that effectively leave agency employees to sort their problems out for themselves.

Few mentioned the need to get to grips with structural problems in the industry and an increasingly exploitative business model based on underpaying and overworking young talent because that would have been... more difficult.

Responsibilizing the ‘consumer’

Responsibilization is also manifest in the growing trend for wellbeing-focused advertising.

‘When the Fun Stops’ and ‘Take Time to Think’ campaigns (funded by the gambling industry) have been widely criticized as a blatant attempt to obscure the need to have stronger regulation of gambling advertising.

But unfortunately, many more well-intentioned campaigns fall into the trap of common sense individualism and responsibilization. Unilever’s wellbeing message to young mean is about ‘looking after yourself before looking after anyone else.’

EE’s campaign about the challenges of being a teenager is linked to a ‘learning partnership’ with Calm - ‘the leading mental health brand with the #1 app for meditation, sleep and relaxation’. On the face of it, these campaigns and many others produced by our industry look like a ‘good thing.’ But the critique of progressive neoliberalism and responsibilization tells us we need to think more critically about the wider cultural impact and health consequences of the values we signal in our campaigns.

Beyond emotional capitalism

Marketers have powerful tools and expertise, not least in manipulating people’s emotions. The marketing industry has been central to what many believe is a pernicious evolution of ‘emotional capitalism,’ where emotions have become commodities to be traded just like everything else.

Recent research in the Journal of Consumer Research shows how emotion is used to push individuals towards the market to seek solutions to social problems (when it is the unfettered market that may make us feel bad in the first place). Simultaneously, people are pulled away from collectivist solutions and institutions that may be far more productive ways of effecting the mass change that so many desire.

But recognizing our role in emotional capitalism may also suggest what a genuinely radical and progressive marketing agenda could look like. Emotion remains a highly effective way to get people to engage and relate to ‘complex and relatively distant social problems.’ But we need to couple emotion to a genuinely radical and progressive agenda.

Imagine what we could achieve if we flipped the narrative on responsibilization. Imagine if we harnessed our industry’s expertise in emotion to demystify neoliberalism and support a genuinely radical discussion about the structural, economic, and cultural forces that got us all in this health and wellbeing ‘permacrisis’ in the first place.

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