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Stupid is as Stupid Does

Read this post by Grant McCracken about the meaning of marketing, including the passage below, and then consider how we might consider copyrights and patents, as well as trademarks, in similar terms. McCracken is criticizing a piece on marketing in yesterday’s WSJ which asserted, “the marketer’s fundamental task is not so much to understand the customer as it is to understand what jobs customers need to do — and build products that serve those specific purposes.”

The “purpose brand” proposition is egregious nonsense. Brands, at their best, and among other things, [are] bundles of meanings, some of them robust, some of them delicate, all of them poised to speak to one or more segments and to deliver unto them an understanding of not just what the product does but what it stands for, how it may be used, for whom it may stand, and where it is located in the larger scheme of things, commercial and cultural. (These values are not functions. They are values that create value.)

To reduce the brand to “purpose” is to dumb down the enterprise, diminish the art and science of marketing, begger the consumer, and so displace the marketer, that our three wise men must be seen to conduct themselves as proverbial bulls in the china shop of marketing concept, method and action, destroying the advances made over the 100 years.

Shakespeare was clear on this. When Lear is stripped of the markers of his standing, and told that he doesn’t really need them, he replies

reason not the need, elsewise men’s lives are cheap as beasts

But not just Shakespeare takes umbrage. The social sciences once embraced and then quite emphatically repudiated the “purpose” approach to things. They called it “functionalism” and came to regard it as a violent act of reduction. Functionalism reduced complicated human artifacts to purposes they served. Thus did theory make us stupid. Functionalism obliged us to ignore much of what we knew to be true about the object of study.

[The full, correct version of the Shakespeare quote is:
O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s.

4 thoughts on “Stupid is as Stupid Does”

  1. I guess I’m stupid too, or at least ignorant. Are you saying he misquoted or that he got the meaning wrong in his paraphrase? What does Lear actually mean? I can’t tell from the snippet. Not everybody is fluent in the plays and/or speaks Elizabethan.

  2. He misquoted Lear, but if you read his post, he knew that already. He got the meaning right: The point of the quotation is that (in modern terms) a functionalist approach to meaning fails to describe the full complexity of the human condition.

  3. Ah. Thanks. One more clarification? When you say “consider how we might consider copyrights and patents, as well as trademarks, in similar terms” I don’t see the parallel you’re asking us to pursue…unless I can substitute “intellectual property” for your phrase “copyrights and patents, as well as trademarks.” i.e. Your point is obscure to me when I read you to be talking about the trusty legal mechanism that is patenting, but clear enough if I read you talking about the innovations we patent. Maybe you’d like my metaphorical-anthropological scheme for thinking about IP.

  4. Patents and copyrights (and other legal forms) are designed things and bearers of meaning, and they inhabit ecologies of their own just as inventions and works of authorship do. That’s one of the points of my forthcoming Things and Law, and one of the points of my earlier Reconstructing the Software License,
    35 Loy. U. Chi. L.J. 275 (2003).

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