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What actually is critical marketing

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The above is precisely what I asked myself when I read the description for this module. What exactly is criticism? What does it mean? Isn’t criticism something people tend to have negative associations with? Isn’t it something hardly anybody likes to do? Critics? They are often outcasts and very unpopular in society! Who would be so ‘stupid’ to want to be alone and unpopular? The bottom line of ‘being critical’ is that one questions theories or models taught. This can apply to any discipline but this paper concentrates on marketing.

Marketing students might challenge Kotler’s approach to marketing and his ideas. One might scrutinize the ideologies [belief systems] and concepts or questions their circulation. Being critical in the marketing classroom attempts to get to the bottom of assumptions learned, or should I say concepts ‘learned by heart’? I would say that university students are told about specific models and that they learn them by heart hoping to understand in which contexts they should be used. “Is there anybody out there being critical? ”

As stated by Burton [2001] few universities broadly teach critical marketing theory as part of the curriculum and not many marketing academics have an interest in it. Bringing critical thinking into the marketing curricula can be a bold venture. Critical reflection is often referred to as being exclusively for academics and often there are dangers associated with it.

Critical thinking in education is not supported by governing bodies in education, politics, the British Research Assessment Exercise [RAE]*1 or even the Chartered Institute of Marketing. Radical changes to the curriculum may result in the withdrawal of support from professional bodies resulting in a reduction in student enrolments” [Catterall, MacLaren, Stevens 1999]. And according to Piercy [2002] it can “involve significant personal carer-related risks” for educators trying to integrate critical reflection. Teaching critical thinking therefore, is not very common and marketing as a discipline lacks critical theory. Fortunately, however there are some people interested in implementing critical marketing studies into the classroom.

Several professors and lecturers, e. g. M. Catterall, P. MacLaren and L. Stevens, are examining the issue of how to consider the possibilities of integrating critical reflection into the marketing curriculum. They urge the need for marketing students to examine critical ideas in the classroom. Alevsson and Willmott [1992] emphasize the importance that management students once graduated will engage in very important decision making which is not simply based on theory and techniques. Therefore education should include critical studies.

But it would seem that so far, they have had little success. However, in my experience, some teachers do actually manage to bring students a bit closer to critical thinking. There may of course be a difference in the approach of lecturers working in more recently established universities, such as Napier University, and those in more traditional institutions. I did come across questions such as “To what extent do the basic marketing concepts, models and techniques acknowledge and demonstrate relevance? ” [P. Mudie].

On the other hand students are generally left with advice such as “if in doubt, always refer to theoretical models as they tend to be rewarded with the highest marks” [Quote from a Napier lecturer]. According to Catterall, MacLaren and Stevens [1999] the main argument is “that the core ideas from critical marketing studies are much more likely to strike a chord with the everyday experiences of our students, as citizens, consumers, employees and managers, than the current curriculum [… ] because critical studies emphasize issues such as politics and morality in the management role”.

They say that political and current world affairs issues are often ignored by the current marketing curriculum. When reading Carson, Gilmore and MacLaren [1998] we realize that we should be wondering if “the traditional philosophies and often dogmatic emphasis presented in marketing text books will serve the requirements of the 1990s and beyond? ” I cannot say if that is generally the case however many of my lecturers are not very critical but tend to at least consider political and current affairs and very often refer to issues and cases of today.

Looking at marketing journals and magazines one can detect increasing doubts about marketing education. Within the marketing community many challenge the morality of marketing, the relevance of its principles and the relation with the ‘Real World’. Some articles have even spoken about a crisis in marketing which I personally think is a bit of an over-reaction. But one has to acknowledge that the emergence of crisis literature from academics and practitioners, the International Critical Management Conference, or Journals specifically dedicated to critical marketing theory do indicate that there is a need to revamp marketing education.

What has critical marketing to offer? ‘Critical thinking’ in marketing opens up new ways of thinking about the marketing education students receive. What are students going to do with all this knowledge they have received? How can it be applied in practice? Are theory and practice easily combined? Is what students learn at university relevant to the “real world”? Will students really follow theories from marketing gurus such as Kotler, Ansoff, Levy, Drucker, Levitt and so on. These people came up with their smart ideas ages ago.

Marketing has developed considerably in the post-war era so are they really relevant to today’s society? A good example of bringing theory and practice together is a German scheme called “Berufliche Ausbildung” [Vocational Education]. Students not only attend courses, lectures and tutorials, they also work for a company at the same time on a rotational basis. Secretarial students, for example, spend several weeks doing computer courses, then several weeks attending lectures and tutorials and then they spend several weeks working in a company.

This continues over the period of the course and each work placement company knows what stage the student is at and what experience he or she has. In this way students are able to combine what they learn with what they are doing in the company without being swamped. The advantage is that theory can be directly tested in practice. I underwent this sort of training and feel it is a very sensitive way to educate young people away from ‘school’ into the ‘real world’ bit by bit. Before I started my Marketing Management course I had been working within marketing departments of different companies.

I thought it would be very helpful to study this degree and gain a more theoretical background to what I had previously done and for what I wanted to do in the future. One of the first things I quickly realized is that much of the theoretical knowledge I am taught at university does not always relate to the ‘real world’. It should be seen as a fundament or framework for marketers, as opposed to a ‘non-plus-ultra’ for marketing practice as many teachers preach. Marketing theory helps a lot when it comes to building a base for projects but should also be topped up with more information and experience drawn from practice.

Many of the developed marketing matrixes, models and schemes or steps to follow are helpful but, I would say that marketing departments in reality will not always follow them all the way through. Many brilliant ideas and good campaigns are developed without following marketing theory in a very strict way. As Piercy [2002] puts it: “marketing is not created by models, it comes from new ideas”. Of course the basics of marketing theory should always be considered for marketing projects. I believe that marketing theory should be kept in mind when working on projects.

The best recipe should include theory as the base, add some marketing ‘common sense’, some sociology and psychology, a bit of maths and statistics, as well as, of course, cultural studies. Stir in some more theory, shake it, stir in some practice, shake again and ‘Et Voila’ before you know it, you have the best ‘marketing mix’ or cocktail in town! Conclusion The debate about the relevance of critical theory to the marketing discourse and its implications for the education of managers is a very important one.

I support the view that marketing students, educators, governing bodies, marketing managers, and all those practising marketing in one form or another, do need critical thinking in marketing. New ways of thinking about marketing education, theory and practice, should be developed to bring theory and practice closer together. I think that with the current education system a graduate is not sufficiently prepared. He might know all about the theory but what makes a good manager, namely engagement into critical thinking in order to produce great ideas, is also important.

The aim should be for marketing theorists to be able to ‘hand over’ students to practitioners with experience of how theory is relevant to practice. Unfortunately, practice hardly appears in the marketing curriculum at present. From my perspective, theory and practice should be treated more equally. Theorists and practitioners should be brought more closely together so they can both teach and train in an appropriate way with regard to both parts of marketing – Theory and Practice. One route alone is not the way forward.

I also believe that it is vital for students to reflect on what was taught. Nobody should consider ‘knowledge’ to be an ‘exact science’, it should be practiced and challenged. If there is no chance to ‘try out’, in practice, what has been learned then theories should be looked at in context. Theory cannot always be the answer to practical challenges. Critical reflection in the marketing classroom is not only about being against mainstream. It is also a vital component to changing marketing discourse and letting students know that claims made by Kotler and Co. hould not be seen as universal. Many marketing concepts are not as straightforward as they seem. One should be critical and look at things from different angles and perspectives. Marketing concepts should be extended and seen in the competitive context, technological innovation, societal concerns [S. Brown 1995] and so forth. Marketing basics should be re-assessed and explored from a post-modern perspective. Many critics are very difficult to read and consequently hard to understand.

If critical thinking is not only be exclusive to academics, as mentioned at the beginning of this paper, then those who do critically reflect on the world of marketing should consider the way they speak. To be superior when it comes to rhetorical power is only an advantage if, one speaks about something but does not really want the audience to know what he or she is on about. If critical thinking is to be implemented into marketing education then the target audience, young and inexperienced students should be considered with regard to the language used.

I have also asked myself if students will study critical thinking in the same way as they tend to study the mainstream theories of marketing. Students may show agreement, nod their heads and just take it as correct as they do with other subjects but will they really give it much thought? I have found that some people at university do not really think for themselves, they just take what they have been given [any theories], and study it by heart so that they can just ‘throw it all up’ in the exams.

There is for example always panic in the air when a lecturer does not have overhead slides. Some students seem never to have learned to be free with their thoughts. I sometime wonder if some students really understand what they are doing. When speaking to a fellow student about critical thinking marketers she said: “Yes, they should start thinking a bit more and contribute more to society! I mean, it’s pretty inconsiderate and selfish to produce mini skirts in a size 16! ” Well, there you go! I can’t wait for more people to be critical!

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