In Defense of Marketing Hype

Last Updated May 3, 2011 3:56 PM EDT

I like to read about Eastern philosophies, especially Buddhism, that counsel us to live in the moment and not get distracted by consumerism. I said read, not practice. I am really a big fan of buying things, especially stuff I want but don't need. Like Krispy Kreme donuts. Like Le Creuset cookware.

Turns out this mindless quest to acquire is a good thing, and that marketing that makes us aspire to buy things we don't want or need is providing a valuable service to the economy, opines Duke economist Dan Ariely in the May issue of Harvard Business Review.

Noting that this sentiment goes counter to recent calls for companies to make profits from products that make the world better rather than from useless junk, Ariely admits he risks "touching the third rail."

But to his way of thinking, marketing things people want, no matter how useless, motivates consumers to work harder to earn money to purchase them.

"Consider for a moment a world without marketing hype," Ariely writes in The Upside of Useless Stuff. "One in which there's nothing you really desire beyond what you need to live. There's nothing your kids want; they don't bug you every time you're in the supermarket. How hard would you work in such a world? What would motivate you to work harder?"

Thus, iPads, garden gnomes and designer water are nothing less than "thousands of motivational speakers hovering around us," which can fuel productivity and improve the economy.

I feel better already. Now what did I put that Sharper Image catalog?

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(Photo by Flickr user Martin Brandt, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.