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Critical Marketing Expository Essay

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Updated: Jun 18th, 2019

Critical marketing has recently become one of the most popular objects of research and analysis.

With the growing body of marketing literature and increased relevance of marketing strategies in business, more scholars are willing to reconsider the relevance of the most popular marketing concepts and advance the role of ethics in strategic marketing.

In this sense, critical marketing is believed to be intended to challenge the existing status quo and promote a more objective view of the postmodern marketing realities. Yet, the meaning of critical marketing is not as comprehensive as it may seem.

On the one hand, researchers need to re-evaluate the intent and approaches of critical theory in the marketing field. On the other hand, critical marketing requires a stronger emphasis on application.

Despite the growing body of critical marketing research, the exact meaning of critical marketing remains extremely ambiguous; one of the greatest problems facing critical marketing is that its findings are rarely translated into practical applications, being used mainly to criticise old ideas rather than propose new ones.

Critical Marketing: Defining the Boundaries

Critical marketing is a popular object of scholarly analysis. Different researchers proposed their vision of critical theory in the marketing field.

Hastings and Saren (2003) suggest that critical marketers follow the traditions set by Arnold and Fisher, famous reconstructionists, and use diverse approaches to question marketing processes and outcomes.

These approaches may include but are not limited to feminism, sustainability, ethics, and discourse analysis (Hastings & Saren 2003; Hastings, Angus & Bryant 2011).

In terms of marketing processes, critical theory covers the ideology and assumptions underlying the fundamental marketing theories, the methods and models of doing marketing, and the relevance of various marketing ideas and concepts (Saren & Hastings 2003).

Critical theory is also used to re-evaluate the outcomes of numerous marketing activities, ranging from advertising and customer loyalty schemes to the role played by marketing in the most complicated social processes, including commodity fetishism and social exclusion (Saren & Hastings 2003; Stone & Desmond 2007).

In most cases, critical marketing involves an ethical perspective and takes a pro-social stance.

The philosophy behind critical marketing is so complex that it is difficult to describe it in a few terms. More often, critical marketing is claimed to be closely affiliated with critical management, thus bearing the features of methodological pluralism, reflexivity, and denaturalisation (Tadajewski & Brownlie 2008).

Simply put, critical theory in marketing provides broad spaces for the use of diverse methods of analysis and, at the same time, fosters reflexivity and examination in the most problematic aspects. One more feature of critical marketing, namely, non-performative stance, requires more detailed examination (Tadajeswki & Brownlie 2008).

This feature implies that critical marketing is more theoretical than practical, and it has little to do with real-life applications. This feature of critical theory will be evaluated and criticised later in this paper.

It is wrong to believe that critical marketing is limited to the analysis and critique of unethical marketing practices.

Rather, the term “critical” should denote that scholars who take this stance subscribe to one or more radical ideologies to make explicit assumptions about the relevance of various marketing processes and outcomes (Saren 2007).

“Critical” also implies that such re-evaluation occurs within the context, in which the processes and outcomes labelled as “marketing” actually take place.

Prefix “critical” used in the marketing field is usually associated with a higher intellectual activity that “involves taking ideas and demonstrating a thorough understanding of them by comparing, evaluating and interrogating their standards of logic and evidence” (Hackley 2009, p.11).

Based on what most researchers say about critical theory in marketing, it is a diverse and extremely heterogeneous body of research, where multiple models are used to reconsider the processes and outcomes of marketing within the context, in which they take place.

This diversity of the critical marketing field is also justified by the fact that different scholars subscribe themselves to different theories and ideologies, thus promoting theoretical and methodological pluralism.

In the presence of so many research methods, critical marketing raises the question of universal validity and truth, since one and the same marketing process or outcome may look equally relevant and invalid, depending on the ideological stance taken by the scholar.

No less controversial is the claim that critical marketing can only be used by the scholar, who envisions himself (herself) as a transformative intellectual, and whose basic intent is to liberate the audience from the chains of stereotypes and historical structures (Perry, Riege & Brown 1999).

This is probably why Baker and Saren (2010) associate critical marketing with emancipation, liberation, power relation, and self-reflection. Still, this claim does not seem to correspond to the description of critical theory as inherently non-performative (Tadajeswki & Brownlie, 2008).

Transformation usually implies action, and no action is possible within a non-performative domain. However, it is possible to assume that critical marketing occupies a middle position, where scholars seek to transform the existing definitions of marketing processes and outcomes without applying them in practice.

In light of these controversies, one fact is undeniable: critical marketing occurs at different levels of meaning, mainly functional, ethical, intellectual, and political (Hackley 2009). Functional critique entails the analysis of marketing concepts and techniques and their overall efficacy and validity (Hackley 2009).

Functional critique is quite popular among marketing scholars. For instance, researchers explore the relevance and validity of emotions in marketing (Huang 2001). They may also try to re-evaluate the salience of various defensive marketing strategies (Hauser & Shugan 1983).

Simply put, functional critique argues and reflects on the general functionality of marketing as both science and application and demands detailed re-evaluation of the most essential marketing management principles.

Ethical critique occupies one of the most relevant spaces in marketing theory and practice. Objectively, marketing is the source of both good and evil, and many marketing models and practices are subject to sound criticism (Hackley 2009).

This is, probably, one of the most “practical” aspects of critical theory in marketing, as it is focused on the analysis of marketing applications rather than theories and tests the way marketing strategies promote the idea of ethics and social justice.

Critical theory questions the ethical nature of marketing activity (Gaski 1999). It restates and reconsiders the most popular ethical frameworks (Ven 2008).

Unfortunately, the problem of ethical critique is in that it often ignores the broader impacts of marketing on society and fails to review the principles on which marketing was initially founded (Hackley 2009).

Intellectual and political critiques in marketing often go hand in hand. Researchers criticise the logic of the production era (Fullerton 1988) and re-evaluate the political consumerist orientation in postmodern marketing (Shah et al. 2007).

While intellectual critique helps re-establish the intellectual and logical value of marketing processes and outcomes, politics enables scholars to look deeper into the essence of the institutional and political forces that keep marketing afloat (Hackley 2009).

Unfortunately, even then, the controversies surrounding the definition of critical marketing and its application value continue to persist.

One of the main controversies is in the way critical marketing is being defined. Since critical marketing implies the presence of methodological and theoretical pluralism, the word “critical” creates a lot of confusion among marketing scholars.

When Saren (2012) writes that the word “critical” in marketing is still in play, he also means that different scholars tend to assign different meanings to it. One of the biggest mistakes is placing the meaning of “critical marketing” within the boundaries of one particular ideology or school.

When researchers say that critical theory is based on the Frankfurt school and, more specifically, on the ideas of Marcuse and Habermas, they intentionally or unintentionally limit the scope of critical theories that can be used to analyse marketing flaws and unintended consequences for society.

Another mistake is in viewing critical marketing as inherently feminist or Marxist (Saren 2012).

None of these theories can completely satisfy the growing demand for reflexivity and self-analysis in marketing, a trend which reflects the fundamental features of postmodernism, with its emphasis on critical self-examination and diversity (Brown 1993).

Critical theory in marketing should be associated with critical pluralism, when scholars adopt a tolerant position towards new methods and theories and, at the same time, subject these theories to critical scrutiny (Hunt 1994). This is, probably, the best way to resolve the definition controversy affecting critical theory in marketing.

Another problem with critical marketing is in its inherently “non-performative” stance, as Tadajeswki & Brownlie (2008) put it.

As mentioned previously, this emphasis on non-performance and non-practicality in analysing and criticising marketing processes and outcomes seems to contradict to the originally transformative nature of any criticism, including marketing.

Moreover, in critical marketing that holds a promise to uncover truth about the quality and ethics of marketing processes and outcomes, being non-performative is the same as being scientifically suicidal.

In the absence of an explicit action, critical theory becomes irrelevant and irrational, simply because “a goal whose realisation we could not recognise even if we have achieved it is surely a mark of unreasonableness and irrationality” (Hunt 1990, p.7).

The problem of critical theory is in its focus on the history and past, with little motivation to move ahead. Critical theory as an instrument of self-reflection is just a means to react to older fallacies and gaps, without opening any new research spaces (Burton 2005).

Certainly, it is possible to suggest that critical marketing is a unique attempt to overcome the overarching value of profits and materialism in science. Simultaneously, no theory is possible without progress.

Comprehensive critical theory in marketing should become a potent mechanism of driving the entire marketing field towards its deMcDonaldisation (Burton 2005).

Marketing scholars should re-evaluate critical theory itself, before using it undisturbed and unchallenged (Saren 2012). Chances that these controversies will be resolved are still hanging in the air.

Conclusion

Critical marketing is extremely popular among scholars, but no consensus has been achieved in terms of its meaning and practical implications.

No single definition of critical marketing has ever been developed, and practical application of critical theory conclusions raises many questions.

At present, critical theory takes a reactive, non-performative stance, meaning that its intent is limited to identifying and analysing the existing theoretical and practical gaps and does not include practical recommendations.

However, critical theory should become a powerful driver of structural changes in the marketing field and enable businesses and marketing professionals to act more effectively and ethically. No theory is possible without progress, and critical theory should become the source of valuable practical ideas for marketers around the globe.

References

Baker, MJ & Saren, M 2010, Marketing theory: A student text, London: SAGE.

Brown, S 1993, ‘Postmodern marketing’, European Journal of Marketing, vol.27, no.4, pp.19-34.

Burton, D 2005, ‘Marketing theory matters’, British Journal of Management, vol.15, pp.5-18.

Fullerton, RA 1988, ‘How modern is modern marketing? Marketing’s evolution and the myth of the ‘Production Era’’, Journal of Marketing, vol.52, no.1, pp.108-125.

Gaski, JF 1999, ‘Does marketing ethics really have anything to say? A critical inventory of the literature’, Journal of Business Ethics, vol.18, no.3, pp.315-334.

Hackley, C 2009, Marketing: A critical introduction, London: SAGE Publications.

Hastings, G & Saren, M 2003, ‘The critical contribution of social marketing: Theory and application’, Marketing Theory, vol.3, no.3, pp.305-322.

Hastings, G, Angus, K & Bryant, C 2011, The SAGE handbook of social marketing, London: SAGE.

Hauser, JR & Shugan, SM 1983, ‘Defensive marketing strategies’, Marketing Science, vol.2, no.4, pp.319-360.

Huang, MH 2001, ‘The theory of emotions in marketing’, Journal of Business and Psychology, vol.16, no.2, pp.239-247.

Hunt, SD 1990, ‘Truth in marketing theory and research’, Journal of Marketing, vol.54, pp.1-15.

Hunt, SD 1994, ‘On rethinking marketing: Our discipline, our practice, our methods’, European Journal of Marketing, vol.28, no.3, pp.13-25.

Perry, C, Riege, A & Brown, L 1999, ‘Realism’s role among scientific paradigms in marketing research’, Irish Marketing Review, vol.12, no.2, pp.16-23.

Saren, M 2012, Critical marketing: Defining the field, Burlington: Routledge.

Saren, M 2007, ‘Marketing is everything: The view from the street’, Marketing Intelligence & Planning, vol.25, no.1, pp.11-16.

Shah, DV, McLeod, DM, Kim, E, Lee, SY, Gotlieb, MR, Ho, SS & Breivik, H 2007, ‘Political consumerism: How communication and consumption orientations drive lifestyle politics’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol.611, pp.217-235.

Stone, MA & Desmond, J 2007, Fundamentals of marketing: A critical evaluation, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Tadajewski, M & Brownlie, D 2008, ‘Critical marketing: A limit attitude’, In M

Tadajewski and D Brownlie (eds), Issues in contemporary marketing, John Wiley & Sons, pp.1-28.

Ven, B 2008, ‘An ethical framework for the marketing of corporate social responsibility’, Journal of Business Ethics, vol.82, no.2, pp.339-352.

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