Marketing Anthropology

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Marketing and Anthropology: Ne’er the Twain Shall Meet?
Brian Moeran

Anthropology and marketing (together with consumer research) were once described as ‘linchpin disciplines in parallel intellectual domains’ (Sherry 1985a: 10). To judge from the prevalent literature, however, this view is not shared by many anthropologists, who tend to look at markets (for example, Carrier 1997) and exchange rather than at marketing per se (Lien 1997 is the obvious exception here). For their part, marketers, always open to new ideas, have over the decades made – albeit eclectic (de Groot 1980:131) – use of the work of anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mary Douglas whose aims in promulgating their ideas on binary oppositions, totemism and grid and group were at the time far removed from the endeavour of marketing both as a discipline and as practice. Can anthropology really be of use to marketing? Can the discipline in effect market itself as an effective potential contributor to solving the problems faced by marketers? There is no reason why not. After all, it is anthropologists who point out that there is more than one market and that these markets, like the Free Market beloved by economists, are all socio-cultural constructions. In this respect, what they have to say about the social costs of markets, as well as about the non-market social institutions upon which markets depends and the social contexts that shape them (cf. Carruthers and Babb 2000:219-222), is extremely pertinent to marketers anxious to come up with definitive answers as to why certain people buy certain products and how to persuade the rest of the world to do so. At the same time, however, there are reasons why anthropology probably cannot be of direct use to marketing. In particular, as we shall see in the following discussion of marketing practices in a Japanese advertising agency, anthropology suffers from the fact that its conclusions are based on long-term immersion in a socio-cultural ‘field’ and that its methodology is frequently unscientific, subjective and imprecise. As part of their persuasive strategy, on the other hand, proponents of marketing need to present their discipline as objective, scientific, speedy and producing the necessary results. How they actually go about obtaining such results, however, and whether they really are as objective and scientific as they claim to their clients, are moot points. This paper focuses, by means of a case study, on how marketing is actually practised in a large advertising agency in Japan and has four main aims. Firstly, it outlines the organisational structure of the agency to show how marketing acts as a social mechanism to back up inter-firm ties based primarily on tenuous personal relationships. Secondly, it reveals how these same interpersonal relations can affect the construction of apparently ‘objective’ marketing strategies. Thirdly, it focuses on the problem of how all marketing campaigns are obliged to shift from ‘scientific’ to ‘artistic’ criteria as statistical data, information and analysis are converted into

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linguistic and visual images for public consumption. Finally, it will make a few tentative comments on the relations between anthropology and marketing, with a view to developing a comparative theory of advertising as a marketing system, based on the cultural relativity of a specific marketing practice in a Japanese advertising agency (cf. Arnould 1995:110).

The Discipline, Organisation and Practice of Marketing The Marketing Division is the engine room of the Japanese advertising agency in which I conducted my research in 1990. At the time, this agency handled more than 600 accounts a year, their value varying from several million to a few thousand dollars. The Marketing Division was almost invariably involved in some way in the ad campaigns, cultural and sporting events, merchandising opportunities, special promotions, POP constructions, and various other activities...
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