The Italianist

Things That Happen in Italy

Effective marketing strategies

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A couple of days ago, I posted on Facebook some vague ranting about the Italian Government’s last performances. Some people commented on that post, loosely sharing my feelings, but a friend of mine wrote something that caused some puzzlement in my bald head. Now, having spent the last 48hours dealing with World Cup flu (the famous infection that keeps you in bed with headache, while all your friends gather to watch the Football World Cup), I have had the chance to ponder a bit more over that comment.

My friend wrote: “It was just an effective example of how one can apply marketing to politics”.

For an Italian, this comment does not sound new. If anything, in fact, it sounds like an old advertisement.  Supporters of the Italian PM have often repeated (over the past sixteen years) that Berlusconi is a self-made man, who created an empire from nothing, who runs the country as he runs his business, that is, successfully. Thus, the argument goes, when someone feels unpleased by Italy’s legal enactments, it is because they lack an understanding of the principles of economy. Enough, therefore, with being astonished/depressed about  people still voting for Berlusconi: in fact, it turns out they are the ones who really understand how the market runs.

I confess, my knowledge of the market is scarce, to say the least. The friend who made the comment on Facebook recently turned from philosophy to human resources (is that really a change? mah..), so she probably has a more profit-oriented approach than I do. I know something about political theory though, and know that often in politics “the end justifies the means”. But that hasn’t helped me grasp the economic principles in action in Italy’s choices – given it is not clear what the end of most Italian policies would be.

So, I went and look on the Web for specialised articles, to find discussions about how Berlusconi applies effectively marketing to politics. The big guys of finance will tell me!  – I thought, while sneezing and coughing. So I looked at the Financial Times, which gave me some confusing insight. Actually, seriously confusing.

A longer and more in-depth analysis told me that “the Italian economy continued to contract sharply in the third quarter of 2008 as exports fell sharply – declining at the fastest rate in three years – under the impact of a global slump which weighed down on foreign demand for Italian products, and pushed the Italian economy into its worst recession since at least 1975. Sales of Italian goods abroad fell 1.6 percent from the previous quarter, their biggest decline since 2005.”  This is probably communist press, though.

I eventually looked into one of the most well-known liberal magazines in the market economy, The Economist. They will tell me why we should rejoice at Berlusconi’s capacity to apply effectively the market to politics. The Economist seems to have, in fact, a strong position regarding this point:

Why is it so hard to grasp the magic behind the PM’s policies? Why can’t we, backward-looking critics of Berlusconi’s rule, have the same financial understanding of his electorate?  This makes me suffer, and my flu go worse. Especially because I want to give a strong reply to those who say that Berlusconi is not what he looks like. And to the allegation that he, at times, seems not really concerned with the common good. Is there any market expert out there who can help? Because, to be honest, Berlusconi is effectively applying something to politics, but I am not sure it is the market.

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Written by TheItalianist

13/06/2010 at 16:14

One Response

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  1. Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I would like to add a few reflections to it. Certainly, while marketing has to do with products to be sold, politics has to do with values that can’t be quantified in merely monetary terms: it would be surely correct to put it this way, but I think it would be still too quick. It would be too quick because, from the point of view of an expert of communication strategies, political values might be considered a particular class of “products” that he/she can make more attractive to the “consumers” (i.e. the voting citizens). Let’s try to look at Berlusconi’s case from this point of view then. Indeed, there is something correct and something wrong (and cynical) in the claim that “after all Berlusconi is just applying marketing strategies to politics”. CORRECT: he is using scientific strategies of communication in order to influence the opinions of the citizens, and after all this is perfectly legal and consistent with democracy (democracy allows and encourages it). Marketing in politics is then an expression of democracy. WRONG (and cynical): he is not *just* exploiting marketing within a democratic system, he is also subverting the democratic system by means of these strategies. I would like to keep what is correct in this claim, by stressing the continuity objectively existing between marketing (communication strategies) and politics, and at the same time I would like to underline that Berlusconi is doing also something more, different and worse. Marketing in politics can become a danger for democracy when it morphs into something else which – nevertheless – has its roots and its conditions of possibility in marketing.
    I’ll try to define this ‘something else’ in the following way: Berlusconi doesn’t only do marketing; he does *meta- (or “hyper”) marketing*. Marketing = the science of influencing the consumers in order to sell a product. Meta-marketing = the science of influencing the citizens in order to hack the basic principles governing the “market” and the state of right in which marketing is usually framed. Meta-marketing occurs, for example, when media are used to persuade the citizens that the following actions are rightful and necessary: acquiring the monopoly and the total control over information, including censorship or campaigns ad personam, changing arbitrarily the constitution so to bypass the previous laws on information, achieving total safety from legal prosecution, destroying the welfare state and the education system so that the citizens are more easily influenced and controlled, and so on.
    The difference between marketing and meta-marketing is not a matter of grade and is not a difference between “convincing” VS. “forcing”. Actually meta-marketing does not *force* anybody to do anything (at least not at the beginning and during the process of persuasion. Berlusconi, like Hitler, has been democratically elected; he is pushing the rules of democracy for undermining the constitution of democracy itself, but he is doing it slowly ad gradually, with the consensus of a large part of the citizens. That’s why a few analysts talks about a “soft-golpe”, slowly leading to a moderate form of fascism. We are seriously worried because the end of this process doesn’t look democratic at all, but the means used by his coalition are by and large consistent with the laws and with the rules of democracy).
    Rather, the difference between marketing and meta-marketing lies in the different foci and goals of the action of persuasion: marketing focuses on a product to be sold (or on a “political idea” to be promoted), meta-marketing focuses on the rules that define the powers and the limits of marketing. Marketing looks for consensus but also assumes pluralism, always and necessarily; meta-marketing looks for consensus in order to progressively annihilate pluralism and ultimately achieve a position of control from which consensus is not necessary anymore. In these terms, marketing has democracy as its pre-condtion and is allowed by a state of right, while meta-marketing aims to overwhelm this frame and subvert democracy, and actually it has the power to drive democracy to a sort of fascist propaganda and totalitarian control over the different powers of a state.
    Indeed, there is a possible (at least partial) analogy between marketing and propaganda of a regime, and the experts of communication know it very well (I might provide a few evidences): it is a fact that Goebbels and today’s advertisement companies have something in common, i.e. the capability to use communication in a scientific way in order to influence the opinion of people. There is nothing wrong or anti-democratic in this, considered for itself, but it can become an anti-democratic means of control if it is used to change the pluralistic and democratically ordered framework in which communication and information normally occur.
    Do you think this conceptual distinction might hold? Maybe empirically it doesn’t work at all (we simply wouldn’t know how to recognize in advance the different instances of meta-marketing when they are used), but at least conceptually it seems to me a solution to avoid the cynism intrinsically implicated in the reduction of politics to marketing while taking very seriously – at the same time – the fact that a strong relationship can actually exist between these two terms (and this is not necessarily bad in the usual life of democratic institutions).

    Max Cappuccio

    14/06/2010 at 01:42


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