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Updated: Jan 2, 2020

I teach marketing like no teacher they've had before, my students at Stanford and Cal tell me. MBAs, and novice marketers, most have the same rejoinder after my first class lecture.

They are responding to my personal definition of marketing, as all the other definitions I've heard through my college education, and 20+ years of MarCom experience have been, well... vague at best.

MARKETING is manipulating people to do as you direct them to do,” I teach. I even have a slide on it, so students not only hear me say it, but get the visual reference as well.

This slide comes only a few slides (out of 500+) into the course, and I always get push-back with it.

“Isn't 'manipulating' a bad thing?” ask several students in any given class.

It's true, I could have chosen “motivate,” instead of “manipulate,” but that would be a lie. And I swore I'd never teach bullshit.

I got fired from my first job out of college because I was taught bullshit in school. “Design an album cover,” was a typical assignment in one of my graphic design classes. But there were no parameters given on how to produce it, no knowledge of marketing infused to design an album cover that was actually producible, and would help sell the music inside. We created “art.” So, my first job out of college, I designed 'art.'

“Your cover designs, and your interior layouts have leveled-up our look, to be sure,” my sweet boss, Alex, said the day he fired me. “But you are costing us a fortune in lithography (this was before the Mac). Regardless of how beautiful the books are under your direction, the ROI just isn't there.” He was very apologetic, though he shouldn't have been. It wasn't the first time he'd told me to come up with simpler design solutions, instead of keeping the lab working almost exclusively for me.

Shortly after I was fired from Windsor Publications, I got a job art directing five international divisions of a popular jewelry manufacturer. The computer was just coming into play, and lithography was going away, but I understood from my first job experience that Alex was right. Advertising and marketing were all about making money, not 'art.'

I got a teaching gig at FIDM in L.A. a year later, and I swore I'd never teach the way I was taught in college. I'd use my everyday professional experience—the marketing, copywriting, and graphic design processes I engaged in daily, to teach real-world Marketing PRACTICE. And I did, and have, since I began teaching over 20 years ago.

I teach words matter, and that I didn't chose the word “manipulating” blithely. The positive feelings associated with the word "motivate," is so far off the mark of what marketing actually is (in the real world, the non-politically correct world, the one we actually live in daily, not the one we hope we do, or wish we did), it hearkens back to what I was mistakenly taught in college.

Raise your hand if you like, enjoy (have positive feelings associated with) sitting through a 25 second video ad for something you could care less about before seeing the YouTube video you're there for. But you do. In fact, the advertiser has manipulated you to sit through the ad to get to the content you want. Even, assuming, it is something you care about, after a while you stop caring because you just want to see your damn video instead of having your life taken up by ads that are forcing you to wait to get what you came for, like a line at the store.

“Motivate,” is positive. “Manipulate” has a negative connotation, it's true. But it's closer to an accurate definition of what Marketing IS. And I've sworn to teach the truth as I know it.

This IN NO WAY means “manipulation,” is bad. According to Google, manipulate means to handle or control (a tool, mechanism, etc.), typically in a skillful manner.

OK. Let's go with that. In fact, if you strip away the social consensus, it's a verb, a very specific action, not theory. What makes 'manipulation' a moral issue depends on who you are trying to manipulate, and for what purpose.

I manipulate my kids daily to do what I think is best for them. Get As, to get into good colleges, to compete in the global, automated job market you'll enter, I've preached since they've entered middle school. I try and talk them into dealing with their real feelings instead of hiding in bravado. Eating right. Sleeping 8 hours a night. Get off their fu**ing cellphones. If I were ad campaigns, our home would be stuffed tight with 18 years of memes, tweets, blog posts, brochures, flyers, post-its, one-sheets, videos, and emails to my kids trying to get them—manipulating to them—to do as I say, or as I'm directing them to do, from speaking, to potty training, to applying for colleges.

We all market our messaging, and our brand virtually daily. Dress to impress at work, or on a date? You choose a BMW or Prius? Have kids? What have you raised them to believe, that you do? How have you raised them to behave?

In marketing terms, “manipulate” simply refers to getting people to do what they wouldn't normally do on their own, by using a motivator, an incentive to respond as directed. As babies, of course, and then kids, my children naturally responded to my marketing efforts, often simply for the reward, the motivator, of pleasing me. Now, as teens, not so much. So I have to up my marketing efforts, change it up with their new demographic, to make any impact. I'm working on that as I type this...; }.

Marketing is an iterative process!

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