Marketing Bothism in the time of HFSS 

I had always wanted to hear the famous author and academic Umberto Eco speak. When it was question time, I stood up first, keen to impress with my erudite questioning.

May 30, 2022

By Neil Davidson

I asked how he managed to straddle the opposite worlds of academia and best-selling fiction, even hiding semiotic themes within multi-million selling novels. After a pause that seemed to go on forever, Eco gave out a weary sigh and replied,

‘As I have said many times before, I fail to see why it should be seen as so difficult to embrace both worlds or different views of the world.’   

I could feel the packed audience withdraw from the space around me as the rebuff to my question sank in. He’d heard this question many times before, and the inability to only see a juxtaposition in these worlds was also a good marker for those of low intellect.

From best-selling authors to better marketing – Bothism 

I cringed again at this memory the first time I considered Mark Ritson’s thoughts on Marketing Bothism (which I’m as happy to steal from him as he was happy to admit stealing it from others). His argument was that we should reconsider the many juxtapositions that marketing is riddled with. These include long or short, brand or performance, quant. or qual., digital or traditional, differentiation or distinctiveness, and segments or mass. It’s also not a big leap to argue that the rise of a black and white view of the world, belonging to one political persuasion or the other, or someone always having to be wrong, really isn’t helping the world at the moment.

A marketing world of juxtapositions and only one strategy, one answer, and one idea doesn’t do us any favours. It closes our minds to the possibilities of the rejected options and the opportunities in the grey areas. If so-called traditional media is dead and marketing is all about distinctiveness, then we close our minds to the incremental argument for different types of media working together; that traditional media is often digital now, and that working through a strategy that embraces elements of differentiation and distinctiveness has more power and potential than just one school of thought winning over the other.

As a recent MBA student I saw this in the adulation of quantitative data over qualitative insights, It was also a revelation to many students that marketing had more to it than social media and TV ads, and wasn’t the same as the worst episode of The Apprentice, (the one where the teams come up with really bad ad campaigns). Marketing was seen as marketing communications by those students working in other disciplines, and nothing else. Whilst we are busy arguing one marketing way of thinking over another, we aren’t convincing many that we aren’t the ‘coloured pens’ people.

The long and the short of it – HFSS is still coming 

There can’t be many marketers who don’t know Binet and Field’s work, and even less who don’t understand the challenge of marketing for the short-term versus the long-term. Binet and Field’s work is often cited as the argument for thinking and investing in the long-term health of brands,  however it can be seen as the perfect example of Marketing Bothism. Long and short-term strategies are needed, and the correction is usually over-emphasis on the short-term.

With this in mind, it would have been easy to expect a knee-jerk reaction to the delay of some elements of the HFSS legislation implementation, the 9pm TV watershed and buy-one-get-one-free deals. It’s been pleasing to see many marketers take the long view, progressing with their existing plans because they saw that these made sense for their brands and businesses anyway, and even thinking about what else they could do more broadly to address the wider health agenda, not just respond to legislation. In these instances, it’s encouraging to see some brands not just follow the health agenda, but try to lead it.

Whether it’s semiotics, marketing, or HFSS foods, the best decisions are rarely about choosing one thing over another. It’s usually a bit of both. Thanks Umberto.