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The Fake Protest

There is a problem in videogame marketing today. This problem is Dante's Inferno. This problem is that one Dead Space 2 commercial. This problem is booth babes. This problem is that a significant portion of game marketing is not just bad, but is, at its core, irresponsible and immoral.

Now, of course we all expect marketing to be amoral, right? Marketing consultants aren't paid to be moral people, they're paid to ensure sales figures are good. Marketing is amoral in the purest sense: there is simply no way to connect moral responsibility to an imperative like that, right? But the problem is that they aren't doing this in a vacuum, they're doing this out in the world, making the world and changing the world.

Marketing happens in a world that we are each, all the time, creating. The world we live in is, at this point, primarily created by other people, in a very real and physical way. We build cities, cultivate cropland, build fences, renovate houses, etc. And atop that we build culture: write books, create images, use language. Indeed, this article is, in some small way, involved in the same endeavor.

And marketers are even more deeply involved in this than most of us. Their job, looked at a little sidelong, is to create a world in which more people know about and buy their products. The physical ramifications of this are obvious to anyone who has ever looked up at the billboards in Times Square. The cultural implications are harder to see, but perhaps more important. And because of this increased power they, unsurprisingly, ought to bear an increased responsibility, a responsibility which means that no matter how theoretically amoral their animating imperative, they must act morally in carrying it out.

The question remains, though: what exactly is immoral or even irresponsible about marketing campaigns like that of Dante's Inferno? It's all well and good to say that "we each are creating our world," but what exactly does that have to do with marketing?

Three words: The Golem Effect. This is the cruel twin of the slightly better known Pygmalion Effect. These are two psychological phenomena relating to expectations: the Pymalion Effect refers to the fact that the greater the expectations placed upon people, the better they perform, while the Golem effect states that lower expectations lead to lower performance. These were both originally investigated and experimentally confirmed in schools. The Golem Effect, for instance, is one explanation for the math and science gender gap, or likewise, the continued racial divide in educational outcomes.

In any case, taken together these phenomena say one thing, and that clearly: expectations matter. Which returns us to marketing and morality. Marketing campaigns, successful or otherwise, impact the culture, and that culture's expectations.


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To put it another way, when I said that we are each creating the world we live in, I was serious. Marketing campaigns like the ones I mentioned above are creating a world in which people think that's how marketing works. They're creating a world in which people think that's what gamer's buy and more importantly, where they think that's why gamer's buy. Each sale Dead Space 2 made was in some small, and individually insignificant way, telling the world that the people who play it are juveniles who enjoy offending their mothers'.

To disagree by saying that no one actively drew that conclusion, aside from being of questionable truthfulness, misses the point. These cultural expectations are in the air we breathe, they are barely conscious. To point to an obvious example: it's not as though people just woke up one morning and decided that teenagers are irresponsible and angsty, or that hipsters are suddenly their own demographic. These are constructions in the subconscious of the culture slowly built by millions of minor actions and interactions. By the same token, the expectations (and certainly the changes in behavior they cause) of the Golem and Pygmalion Effects are often not conscious: teachers do not, as a rule, intentionally bias their behavior towards certain students.

Ultimately, the point is not that all marketing is evil, or anything like that. Although I may have been slightly polemical here, that's not the point I'm trying to make. Rather, the point is that this particular kind of marketing not only shouldn't be effective, but shouldn't exist in the first place and that the companies that create it are, knowlingly or not, ignoring a moral responsibility.