General text of lecture: 18 August 1999

Dean of Commerce Distinguished Erskine Lecture
Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Visiting Erskine Fellow in Management
University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand
Professor of Marketing
Auburn University, Alabama, U.S.A.

With any general audience, I must note the difficulty in discussing marketing, a subject in which everyone I meet is a self-proclaimed expert. As I met people around Christchurch during the past month, I would be reluctant to say I am here to lecture in marketing courses or that I teach advertising back home -- When I did, they always asked my opinion about the Toyota ad in which the people repeatedly say "Bugger."

As one of the most visible of business practices, marketing is criticized by almost everyone, from social critics to government lawmakers to political pundits. Even at social gatherings, marketing people find the introductions followed by all sorts of virulent complaints. Audience manipulation, offensive products and cultural destruction are among the social ills often laid at the feet of the marketing business. Many people believe that advertising has the power to manipulate people's minds. But the fact is that marketing people only wish they had the power those business critics presume. In reality, they don't.

This piece of plastic illustrates the idea behind what our textbooks call "marketing concept," a basic perspective for analysis that should drive all basic marketing planning. As long as you know the way people want to go and understand why, you can help them, or maybe try to encourage them to go faster or slower. But as my microbiologist friend likes to point out, "Under carefully controlled conditions, organisms behave as they damn well please." The plastic item will only allow you to spin it in a counter-clockwise fashion -- spin it the other way and it wobbles, hestitates, and reverses direction.

Some people might believe that marketing people pull consumers' strings. Many people think consumers are controlled by marketing or advertising, but they're not. Advertising people try to find those "buttons to push," they want to predict exactly how those potential customers will jump -- But . . . . Well, I think marketing practitioners wish they really did have the power that their critics give them credit for wielding.

Twenty-five years ago, an interviewer asked noted advertising man George Lois how it felt to have so much power over consumers' minds. But his response is that advertising is not mind bending because "No one is that good." The fact is that no one can be that good. You can't stereotype; you generalize at your peril.

By recognizing that marketing people can't sell a product unless there is some underlying initial interest, marketing planners must assess how and why a people make various decisions. As the textbooks and the marketing trade associations say it, what they call the "modern marketing concept" combines all facets of the product design, price decisions, where the product is available for sale, personal selling and mass communications with an orientation to "satisfy consumer needs and wants." (That's their mantra: "satisfy consumer needs and wants.")

The noted caveat is that our best predictions are very difficult, weak and uncertain. But the perspective of making decisions based on consumer interests gives a way for viewing customer/firm relations.

Of course, the down side to this world-view of marketing theory and practice is that when U.S. started the modern wave of business criticisms thirty years ago, many business educators and practitioners did not understand how it had ramifications for their work. Many still don't. Marketing experts were heard to say, "The marketing concept says that we should 'satisfy consumer needs,' so 'consumerism' (as consumer protection was called in the 1970s) isn't really a problem for us."

Though saying "We are just providing a service that people want" sounds a bit like a drug dealer, a pimp or the gangster Al Capone.

Unfortunately, even the best reading of such a view presumes that all firms follow this marketing orientation. Many don't. Even if they all did, it would not necessarily also be true that many firms satisfying consumer needs would also serve the interests of society at large. And even if they did all satisfy consumer needs AND those of society, when some organizations do a good job of marketing their goods or service or ideas, many of business' critics wish that the marketing was not involved (because we do not want firms to do a good job of selling, say, cigarettes). What consumers "want" are not necessarily what they should be getting.

These criticisms might be voiced by people with limited knowledge or understanding of marketing theory and practice, but these criticisms are often generated by examples of what I have come to call misplaced marketing.

First, marketing can be misplaced in the sense of "lost." There exist many examples of products or services that do not follow the "marketing concept," but instead, they misplace it and provide features in terms of what designers or engineers say they can produce. When marketing remains just selling, the theory and perspective get "misplaced" because the planners or managers don't ask how the product or service could meet consumer needs.

Such examples are not hard to find. Some are bad service. Sometimes it is a manager seeing rules as more important than service, as when customers of retail stores test doors a few minutes before opening and walk away, while employees mill about inside the store waiting for the clock to chime on the hour for the posted time. Sometimes features are added to a product mix because an engineer thought it would be simple and inexpensive to do, not because anyone thought it made the product more desirable for consumers. And some examples are just plain corporate or engineering stupidity: expensive electronic items often have simple parts like batteries or lights that are expected to die but are nigh impossible to replace; service hotlines are often not so hot. And some offensive ads are just bad messages, the result of business stupidity or ethnocentrism.

Misplaced marketing does not mean a business will fail, especially if all competitors engage in the same activities. But when advertising is done without any idea or direction of what it can or should accomplish, the business is wasting money. And misplaced marketing makes for unusual perspectives of businesses toward their customers.

People from the U.S. are notoriously bad at this, as we try to ram our products down the rest of the world and claim "unfair" when it isn't bought. We misplaced marketing so we are more ethnocentric than international. U.S. companies often send products to other countries with features designed for satisfying customers in our domestic market without consideration of special concerns of consumers in other nations, as if what satisfies consumers in the U.S. provide the same values around the globe.

Marketing might also be misplaced in the sense that satisfying consumer needs might be contrary to those of the greater society. Over two decades ago when the first oil shortages forced car companies to offer more efficient products, the solution was to produce smaller and lighter vehicles. But one U.S. company tried to delay, offering a downsized version of its luxury car line but strongly promoting the still available "original" full-sized gas-guzzling version (clearly for the U.S. market, I often say, complete with rotating gun turret). The affluent consumers who cared not about rising gas costs might have been served, but not the social goal of oil conservation.

Yet the most vexing problem for marketing people comes from those instances that marketing is accused by pundits, activists and public policy makers of being misplaced when it is properly used and applied. Politicians, movie or music producers, cigarette companies, distillers, gun companies, pornographers or others often do a good job of following the dictates of thorough strategic marketing, while many people might wish that, at least for them, marketing was not used.

Instead of marketing, adapting themselves to a marketable image, politicians should be leaders, using marketing theory and practice to, at most, sell their ideas to the public. No "leader" should base policies on a marketing plan, or so we hope, since "leader" should not mean "good reader of public opinion polls." Cultural artifacts should grow from the populace, not be designed as per a marketing strategy, or so we are often told. In addition, to critics of the U.S. marketplace (and to critics of these products in New Zealand, too), guns, cigarettes, pornographic movies and gambling games should not be efficiently and profitably delivered to "satisfy consumer needs," no company should be allowed to maximize its profits with these products, and NEVER should these products even be imagined to be marketed with children as a target segment.

Of course, even if critics believe that marketing is misplaced does not necessarily mean it should be banned, but it could be a source of "problems" (or, at least, a basis for criticisms of various aspects of marketing practice). Calling the problem "misplaced marketing" gives a context for understanding mistakes or unintended consequences (though it does not account for events such as heads of American cigarette companies appearing before the U.S. Congress -- as they did a few years ago -- and swearing their belief that nicotine is not addictive and that there is no link between smoking and cancer).

And sometimes, what might be seen as good marketing could be harmful to both the "product" and society. The "product" should not be deformed just to serve the dictates of a marketing plan, especially if those changes reduce product quality while not better serving customers or society.

Yet this is happening with the marketing of education, the natural result of efforts to use free market forces and competition to improve the quality of public education in many countries, including the U.S. and New Zealand. Of course, I am not opposed to using marketing tools for education goals, but it is unfortunate that the Americans are exporting our destructive and harmful views of what and how education should be marketed. And, in many cases, marketing tools are just poorly used.

This marketing has become important because of changes in how people are starting to view all forms of education, not just that at universities.

Maybe I should back up for a second. Context is needed here.

When I was an undergraduate student, government actions were seen as necessary to correct inequities of the marketplace. Today, the market is the "solution" for problems with all past government activities. Since the schools are blamed for students who don't learn, competition between schools to offer quality programs is claimed as a way to encourage school improvement. This is what people in the U.S. have come to refer to as "School Choice" in which students and parents select which public school to attend or are given or vouchers for private schools. Some politicians see it as a solution to perceived problems of the quality of public education, since competition would encourage all schools to improve: the now-competing improved or innovative schools would attract more students while the poorer quality schools would lose them. Or so the theory goes.

This theory of school choice is already being put into practice in limited forms in the U.S. with "magnet" schools, in which public schools with special attractive programs can draw enrollments from across a school district. There are also some local experiments in my country with publicly funded vouchers which could be used toward tuition at private schools. School systems in various parts of the world are testing other forms school choice -- It is old news of the school districts in New Zealand that removed requirements for students to attend neighborhood schools -- And even without school choice, public school districts receive funding based on the number of bodies enrolled.

And as everyone here knows, inter-school competition for students already exists throughout the world in higher education.

Since this competition at the very least requires designing programs in a fashion akin to consumer products and selling them to parents or students to increase enrollments, educators around the world now attend special seminars and conferences to give them guidance in "selling" their schools. This is called "the marketing of education." In the U.S. and Europe, there are special seminars and conferences on the "Marketing of Higher Education."

In the U.S. as here, advertising is seen as a must-do solution, though often without a clear conception of how or what those ads are expected to accomplish. The result is usually a waste of money.

But lets just return to the basic issue of school competition.

When visiting this country last year, I read several newspaper stories reporting general surprise that, when Auckland removed requirements for students to attend their neighborhood public schools, the major short-run effect was not a drive for improvement of "weaker" schools. Instead, there was an increase in selectivity of those schools that were already attracting (and graduating) the best students. But they shouldn't have been surprised. At universities around the world, schools claim the top graduates in part because they were able to attract the top quality students. At any level of education, the better a school's reputation, the more selective it can be in who it accepts. That is the real reason why some private schools have better-performing graduates than their nearby public counterparts.

Those schools unable to attract top students from the outset must still seek ways to draw students from what is left. The temptation is strong to focus the attention on a school's "values" other than education, since their happiness as customers of the education product is not always tied to resulting education quality. These efforts to market the school instead of education, also encourages the students and parents to see themselves as customers of education degrees who will expect service with a smile.

This focus on having happy students and parents inexorably drifts drift into the conduct and evaluation of classes or teachers. Teachers' of small children are often judged by their control general abilities to control the room of children. Other teachers are directed to provide an environment for positive "self-esteem," whatever that means.

In The Journal of Mathematical Behavior, C.J. Chatterly and D.M. Peck described how teachers are, to use the article's title, "crippling our kids with kindness," providing too many hints to answers for all problems and not helping students develop abilities to conduct analysis and draw conclusions. Implied but unstated was the desire for the children (and parents) to say good things about the teachers. And getting the right answer by whatever means leads to higher self-esteem, or so I am told.

In the U.S., a demanding math teacher in Macon, Georgia has cars vandalized and eggs thrown at her house after final grades are released. (She used to receive threatening phone calls from parents till her number became unlisted.) In Delaware, a high school teacher who failed "too many" students and refused to change grades as directed by the administration was fired for insubordination. (Though, to the students' credit, many picketed the school in protest, carrying signs saying "I failed her class and I deserved it!")

Some parents focus on the available sports teams or other after-school activities, the teachers' abilities to control unruly teens and general enjoyment of life by the offspring.

And in the fierce competition for college students, all sorts of education-irrelevant "benefits" come to the fore with various marketing plans: a sports team's winning record, awards for the band, fraternity or sorority parties, or the popularity of local drinking establishments sometimes take precedence over quality of teaching. (Yes, surveys of some U.S. schools find that some students selected the school because of the local bar scene.)

Faculty are discussed with a focus on the presence of a nationally known researcher who never teaches, or the donations gathered for a new administration building, as if they were more important than providing a high-quality education.

At many universities, types of jobs some graduates might land are given focus instead of the classroom environment. It proclaims that 500 of Auburn University's graduates from the past two decades work for NASA, without mention of the others that graduate every year. (We have about 5000 graduates per year!) At any university, a prestigious intern program that enrolls a fraction of a percent of students is seen as a school-wide value for all students, even though any one student's chance of being accepted to participate can be quite slim.

This loss of focus on this real product is easy to understand once it is realized that parents send children to college because they are told that it increases a person's future earning potentials. But since no one tries to help them understand just what it is about college that makes it valuable, students want the degree and what they see as a valued credential without also wanting the underlying education that credential should symbolize.

This is the real misplaced marketing problem. As colleges aim to expand by attracting increasing percentages of the population to college, the focus has been on degrees awarded and jobs held by graduates, not on education. President Clinton has stated a desire that two years of college become as universal as high school graduation in my country, something that he only says will increase the earning power of the population (though it will also increase the applicant pool for White House internships).

We should be marketing the value of education. But instead it is misplaced. We market buildings, activities and credentials from degrees. We market the schools and programs as if they are commodities themselves. And the parents see school as an experience to be had, but they do not know or understand what it is that makes the experience valuable.

And our schools pander to this view instead of trying to correct it. In part, I blame the administrators who increasingly are in charge of U.S. universities. Fantasy novelist Robert E. Howard once had his most famous creation Conan the Barbarian say, "Being a King is easy, as long as you remember what life was like on the other side of the scepter." But too many modern college administrators were never faculty and some, I would assert, were never serious students, either. They evaluate education as a set of numbers generated: research articles published; grants funded; faculty scores on students' end of term evaluations; and enrollments.

One does not need a doctorate to be a scholar and I know many people with advanced degrees who exhibit the world view of a pet goldfish. But the administration needs to empathize with those ineffable qualities of education instead of just using numerical goals.

Fortunately, there are some efforts to fight these negative trends, but they encounter a different realm of resistance. Many school systems in the U.S. are now requiring students to meet specific reading, writing or math standards before being promoted to the next level. And as these tests or performance requirements are imposed, schools know that the real goal is to help weak students to improve. They offer special tutorials or Summer programs. We are now learning that the real block to improving the abilities of some future graduates often lies not with the school system or the teachers when, instead of embracing these programs, a loud and vocal rebellion is heard from the parents.

"There is time enough for school later," the parents complain. "Instead of Summer school, I'm taking my children to the beach." While some parents welcome the special programs, others see them as punishing the whole family, taking away from vacations or other social activities. It is the parents who are complaining about too much homework, or any homework at all, and then they apparently do not see the connection when they complain that their children can't read or write.

Seeing graduation as certification, not a mark of education, they want the diploma but not necessarily the abilities or experiences education should engender. The parents and children see school as a job, with set hours for work, credited vacation time and "paid" sick leave, telling teachers an excused absence means credit for that day, not make up assignments for missed work.

Many parents and students want the education to magically be conferred from the time served, education for many students is by contagion, if it occurs at all.

This not-uncommon loss of focus on the real product of education is easy to understand. Parents hear that education increases a person's future earning potential, but they are told this without also receiving an understanding just what it is that makes education valuable. They known school is something that is "done," but they do not seem to support what education "does."

In Mazel by Rebecca Goldstein, a brief story within the story tells of a traveling peasant who encounters a windstorm. As the peasant walked along the path afterwards, he discovered that he had gained an understanding of all mysteries of life. When he later took off his sandals to rest, the knowledge left him, only to return when he put the sandals back on. The peasant realized that his footwear was the source of his wisdom, but he did not know that the windstorm had blown a leaf from the Tree of Knowledge out of the Garden of Eden and it had become stuck to the bottom of one sandal.

As is the case with such stories, the King's daughter was ill and the peasant used his new wisdom to provide a cure which saved the princess' life. It was hard to later persuade the King that a pair of sandals enabled a peasant to possess such abilities, but once persuaded, the King exchanged half the kingdom for the sandals. But no King wants to wear dirty sandals and when cleaning the sandals, the King's servants scraped off the leaf from the Tree of Knowledge with the rest of the dirt. As a result, the footwear failed to make him a wiser or more insightful King.

He wanted the sandals, not realizing it was the dirt that carried the real value, for the leaf was buried in the dirt. Too many students or their parents, like the King, only want the sandals. 

In the marketing of education, faculty and administrators often are selling only the clean sandals. Admittedly, it is hard for schools to sell something as abstract as "learning," but schools often take the easy solution and present the "benefits" of a school as something totally irrelevant to education. And as a result, many students or their parents, like the King, only want the sandals and go to great lengths to avoid all dirt, never even taking a chance on acquiring the important leaf.

It has often been noted that the popularity of undergraduate business programs has been tied (and/or driven) by interests that students might have in marketing jobs. Students note their interest in what they think the field involves as a basis for selecting a major; department brochures often sell programs tying the degrees to types of jobs available in the economy. I teach business, and I believe that marketing is a valid academic discipline. But regret that I have many colleagues who do not understand what it means to be a scholar, and I dislike the new students I acquire because they are avoiding the liberal arts as "irrelevant" or "not job related."

Even worse, each academic program stays in business based on how many enrollments it generates, so some schools are cutting or scaling back liberal arts courses. An Auburn Board of Trustee member wants to abolish all of our degrees in Liberal Arts since the number of majors are dropping and he does not see how anyone "uses" it for a job. Not wanting to receive a similar fate, I have heard from business faculty at many universities that their programs have been weakened -- requirements reduced; programs shortened -- all in order to make it more desirable for students. As the Dean of the College of Communications at University of Illinois, Kim Rotzoll, once said to me, "The day that a program becomes student driven is the day that program loses any right to be considered as important to higher education."

Are universities to provide an education or job training? And if it is just training, why are business programs located on a university campus? The difference between teaching and training could be merely semantic. After all, a job trainer does teach his or her charges. However, the conflict is more basic than that and has inter-related implications for faculty credentials, graduate expectations and textbook or program content. Since the trainer/placement mentality has influenced (if not controlled) a great deal of undergraduate education in the U.S., it is clearest to see what this means for the prevalent activities & expectations.

The U.S. never had your fortunate distinction between universities and polytechnics. And unfortunately, this world view, of calling training education, is also another one of our massive exports, as schools around the world are hiring our graduates for faculty and administrators. I hear stories from both here and Europe of how the American model is making its way to your schools. Your polytechnics are claiming to offer university degrees; the universities are expanding into vocational programs.

First, lets look at faculty credentials.

Many business schools often state a desire for faculty to have business experience, and since they will spend time talking "about" business practices, such contacts are desirable. A cultural anthropologist must spend time among the natives. Yet this could be taken to undesirable extremes as when a department chair expresses a wish that faculty retention be based on consulting businesses, since (to him) having something to sell to business means the faculty member would have something important to teach. Faculty are encouraged to fill class time with practitioner-speakers whose credentials alone make them important for campus as long as students do not find them boring.

When job experience supplants education and scholarship as the job credential, faculty then define their work as training for the jobs they personally know. If a graduate seeks a different job, the materials learned from this trainer have little application. The "education" was wasted, or so it would seem.

Marketing is one of the few realms of "professional" education where practitioners, especially those who are financially successful, have greater credibility than anyone on campus. In law, medicine or engineering, scholars on campus are held in highest regard by the profession. Past Erskine visitor in management, J. Scott Armstrong, points out that business people tend to have low regard for our faculty and it often appears that a dim-witted professional drudge of a business manager is held in higher regard by students and faculty than some of our leading scholars.

Shifting from business to education can be a rewarding career move, yet because of business-experience credentials, even marketing people whose thinking activity ended when they entered campus life might be held in higher regard than solid scholars and educators.

And a focus on job training impacts student expectations.

Claims of training and certification does not motivate an inquiring mind, but instead, creates arrogance, ignorance and desires for the credentialed certificate for which the students paid.

Seeing the degree as job certification, not an education, the students are more concerned about credits they acquire than what they learn in the process. If they see value of the education at all, it is because a course imparted "useful information." This begs the question as to just what is useful, especially in this fast-changing world. In business, terms change, the contexts alter, so "useful information" is chimera. Faculty update their lectures and textbooks are revised, but no one contacts past students with corrections of what was conveyed in the past.

With this same mentality, a U.S. game show "jeopardy" -- a program akin to your "Tele Bingo" -- is touted by its fans as "intellectual," though it is just a variation of the board game "trivial pursuit." On our comedy channel, "Win Ben Stein's Money" is the host Stein saying it sees who is smarter, him or the contestant by seeing who can quickly spurt out more trivial facts. But memorizing trivia is not thinking.

As U.S. political reporter Bill Moyers has said, "The trend is not destiny." And yet, we keep putting up classes to meet trends. Forty years ago, all the programs were adding courses in television advertising, courses that quickly dropped from sight as unnecessary. Now we are adding course on "using the internet."

But then, when the students are just seeking job certification, they tend to care more about credit than content. As our catalogs tell students of the valuable careers that come from a marketing major, as we focus on job training, the students just want the degree, but not the education. Teachers who control courses credits and grades are no longer seen by students as resources to tap or mentors who can provide guidance, but rather, as obstacles to overcome. When called upon to think through a problem, some might just reply, "I don't know. Tell me the answer." Faculty tell answers; they memorize, pass exams, get credit, and move on. As I said, this makes learning a distraction instead of the goal.

So what does this mean for course and program content?

Our accrediting body requires U.S. business majors to take liberal arts and science courses, but these have become light entertainment for bored students, who drift through and quickly ignore or forget the experience. They don't grow from the courses because, in keeping with their desires for pragmatic training, to them the courses aren't relevant.

A lot has been said about the need for our students to be able to deliver a power point presentation and know the proper "form" for a business letter. But sometimes even the faculty forget that it is more important that they must also know how to compile and analyze information that would go into the presentations, group meetings and letters.

As a result, it should surprise no one that few U.S. students are desiring to read a book and answer questions unless they are first told what they need to know and what is important to remember. Students proudly show their high grades -- which in the U.S. are often from multiple-choice exams -- as if their future careers will all depend on knowing which choice to make instead of discerning which choices exist.

Yes, the real problem is that few people understand the value of education. The marketing of education should impel us to tell everyone the truth and to help sell the value of education itself. I have attended too many graduation ceremonies at which several speakers said "Now that your education has ended," meaning there are no more credits to earn. But a college degree is really the start of education, not the end, or so I hope.

It wasn't that long ago that schools were primarily concerned with developing students abilities to read, write and think, not with just the accumulation and bestowing of credit. In-class job training, high school graduation or a collection of college credits provide value only if it represents a developed ability to think. And this education, not credit, is what will serve students for the rest of their lives. The value of education is for society, not just businesses seeking employees with ready skills.

The marketing of education has lost track of education itself: administrators who have lost touch with the roles of students or teachers, want to take the easiest features to market; parents themselves who need an education of just what learning means and students who need to be repeatedly be told that the value of education to a job is not credit earned but learning and mental abilities acquired. These are all mistakes and dangers that Americans are exporting around the globe.

But the marketing of education needs to keep focused on the real "product" of a college degree. If they don't, the marketing effort gets misplaced and everyone loses.

I just have one parting note. Given the nature of my audience here, I must borrow from the U.S. comedian Mort Sahl and say that if there is anyone here today that I have not offended, I apologize.

About the author:
Currently a visiting Erskine Fellow and the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a Professor of Marketing at Auburn University in Alabama, U.S.A., HERBERT JACK ROTFELD has held faculty positions at the Pennsylvania State University, Bowling Green State University of Ohio, Boston College and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has also been a visitor and/or speaker at a variety of other schools, in recent years including Swinburne University Business School in Melbourne, Australia and Massey University in Palmerston North and Wellington, New Zealand. Since completing his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois Institute of Communications Research, he has become a recognized scholar of advertising regulation and self-regulation, with a special research focus on media vehicles' standards for acceptable advertising. He is also noted for research that addresses conventional wisdom and commonly held presumptions about business practices and related theories, assessing the validity of the perspectives frequently (but, as he finds, erroneously) repeated without question in many business texts.

For three years, Rotfeld was a regular columnist in Marketing News, discussing uses, abuses, criticisms and omissions of marketing with the term he coined, "misplaced marketing," and he is currently working on a book on that same topic under contract with Quorum Press. He claims that it is only by accident that his essays in that magazine, plus AMS Quarterly,Marketing Educator, Advertising Age and other newspapers and magazines have generated a degree of world-wide "fame" (or maybe "infamy"), from his discussions of the conventional wisdom of business education, his comments on contemporary societal views of marketing practices and his critical assessments of the nature of higher education activities, university life, and the nature of academic research. Some of the original manuscripts for these essays can be found linked to his web page at