Although tattoo-free, I’ve always fancied myself a little off the beaten path. Someone who goes through a goth phase and picks an impractical major in college and grad school. Someone who tosses around words like “energy” and “being in one’s space” and believes plants have feelings. Corporate America has always been as distant as Iceland, minus the appeal of Bjork. Never have I planned to one day find myself in Washington, suit-shopping, and working on a practical degree. That’s why my new Integrated Marketing class is a little tricky: it’s about marketing.
As a kid in Russia, I read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. My father wanted to expose his scatterbrained soon-to-be immigrant daughter to American social etiquette.
Every advice Mr. Carnegie imparted — from being a good listener to remembering people’s names — had the premise of making a sale. You’re useful to me, so I’ll be nice and pretend to care about your wife’s sciatica. The art of developing loving bonds was reduced to calculated courtesy. Bad vibes! Bad vibes!
In today’s class, the same notion came up. Everything is about sales, the professor said. Whether at work or in interpersonal relationships – we are marketers. The class later dissected human motives in an attempt to study and use them to our advantage.
It’s that proletarian in me. After all, there was no advertising when I was growing up. There were no consumer choices, so why bother competing? The government handed people stuff, and they bought it if they were lucky. Or else, someone occasionally traveled overseas and brought shiny brand-name stuff along – like red refrigerators, Crest toothpaste, bubble gum, and other neon-colored tchochkes.
But in American partially market-based economy, everyone’s vying for our attention to sell us something. American kids study advertising jingles when they learn to play piano. Newly-cohabitating couples fight about whether they’ll brush with Crest or Colgate. Who cares, that’s what I wonder? If your breath doesn’t smell like an industrial toxic dump on a summer day – isn’t that all that matters? Why so much noise about brands?
In Russia, selling was sort of dirty. Salespeople skimmed off the top and were a little bit richer and a little bit chubbier. They were not considered good mensch.
A new documentary about the last days of the Soviet regime, My Perestroika, looks at the bifurcation of these very mentalities: the salesfolk and the intellectuals/creatives.
Nowadays, Russian salespeople are self-made oligarchs who created wealth out the ashes of the Soviet Union. The film director, Robin Hessman, portrays them as dictatorial caviar-eating businessmen who chose the practical route to make ends meet and provide for their families.
The creatives, on the other hand, lack the panache of their pragmatic brethren and view them with disdain. My Perestroika follows a couple who teach history in public schools, as well as their musician friends. They are educated, yet poor and bitter. Today, the Russian business folk and the intellectual folk are at the two ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. The rich and the poor. Never the twain shall meet.
Maybe there’s a closeted marketer in me somewhere, waiting to make a supersale. But experience has shown otherwise so far. In college, I showered customers with coupons in my photo studio, destroying the weekly average. As a teen, I sold pizza door to door, only to quit three days later, after telling off the boss.
When it comes to consumerism, I’m finding I still subscribe to the Soviet / New Age principle that instead of shopping, there are other values to aspire to, like love, spirituality, the pursuit of beauty.
But I increasingly realize that everyone needs to market themselves, including artists and the hippest nonprofits. I would not be averse to the term “selling” if it were something I truly believe in. Perhaps the bohemian and the practical could coexist – and it is exciting to be learning how.