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How would you teach marketing?

Arthur C. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times. On July 20th (yes, this year) he wrote an Op-Ed in the NYT. You can read it here.

Brooks begins with a story about ABD AL-RAHMAN III, an emir and caliph of Córdoba in 10th-century Spain. An absolute ruler, living in, as Brooks puts it, “complete luxury,” he assessed his own life as follows (I’m quoting Brooks now):

“I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity…I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: They amount to 14.”

What? Fourteen out of 14,600 days were happy days? (I allow for youthful ignorance and give him a pass on the first ten years of his life.) That is less than one one-hundredth of one percent! What went wrong for the man with all the fame, riches, and pleasure one can imagine?

I won’t spoil the story but leave it to you to read Brooks’ piece. The short of it is this. As the Dalai Lama pithily put it, it is better to want what you have than to have what you want. To do that you have to own up to a healthy condemnation of materialism as the source of happiness and be deeply skeptical of your own basic desires (which, Brooks suggests, are for fame and fortune).  While Brooks hints at this he does not say it as bluntly as I do here: Be deeply skeptical of all the desires marketers foist upon you/us.  Don’t love things. Love people; use things. (Note: The admonition is to use things, not to consume them. If you are unsure of the difference between using a thing and consuming it, go to a good dictionary and at the etymological roots of the two words – to use and to consume.)

Here is the issue facing those in our nation’s schools of business, especially those that ply their trade in the departments of marketing. How would one teach marketing (say, the principles of marketing) if one accepted the general outlines of Arthur C. Brooks essay? Think about that (but, of course, you have to read Brooks’ essay first). To do so, to teach the principles of marketing might contribute to the further demise of the growth economy. It might mean we would actually contribute to gross domestic happiness even if we didn’t contribute to the gross domestic product. Scary thought for some. Not so scary for others. You decide. And chime in (but read Brooks’ essay first).

  • By Mary Ann on 7.29.2014 at 12:34 pm

    You and Brooks raise provocative issues that we grapple with as faculty members in a Business School. Commerce provides jobs that can assuage the unhappiness wrought by poverty and starvation. Yet too much of a good thing appears not to bring happiness. The good news is that we do not teach marketing devoid of values. Students generally are guided to discuss consequences of decisions. In addition, Marketing is taught within the context of a balanced curriculum. I have hope, if not perfect happiness.

  • By Eric on 7.31.2014 at 1:34 pm

    How wonderful! After reading both yours and Brook’s post I can say that I’m encouraged for humanity in the sense that the things that really make you happy, indeed, you really can’t buy. On the other side, I’m a little discouraged for the industry i’m going into—marketing—as it’s in a way, totally promoting ultimate unhappiness. Yet consumerism is necessary, and when balanced in your life, can be good I think. Sorry if this seems jumbled, but it’s difficult to express my feelings on this subject…I’m encouraged, inspired, and think that people just need to be smart. Consumerism will never go away because it is indeed this human nature to pursue immediate pleasures. The weak (and often, the not-so-weak) will always give in and spend money, on instant satisfaction.

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