Marketing as the Wrist of the Invisible Hand

In the past, I’ve told a handful of key stories to explain why I’ve complemented my main major of economics with marketing. This covers things from refining the skill of persuasive communication, learning to see from other perspectives, and understanding the incentives that drive economic exchanges. Truth is, it simply just happened. I fell in love with both marketing and economics courses– all thanks to the remarkable professors teaching them. I simply was obedient to the best advice I’ve ever heard: follow where the good people go.

It might be because the brains of economics majors are finely tuned to pick up on economic insights everywhere, or it might merely be narrative bias, but a recent class assignment has led me to appreciate yet another aspect of the relationship between marketing and economics.

In Econ 101, you may have learned that markets coordinate self-interested exchanges for the good of society, generally solving the economic problem of allocating scarce resources to their highest valued use. This is often referred to as the phenomena of the “invisible hand,” as explained by Adam Smith (link if you’re interested in remedying my poor simplification.) I say that marketing is the wrist of this invisible hand, as it directs the flow of information which usually provides the basis by which individuals and firms decide which things to exchange, how to price them, and where to next innovate.

In “Marketing’s Contributions to Society,” Wilkie and Moore summarize that:

“In a market-based system, consumers’ response to marketers’ offerings drive supply allocations and prices. Depending on society’s decisions on public versus private ownership, the aggregate marketing system plays a greater or lesser role in allocating national resources” (205).

In a sense, marketers act as the ambassadors between the individual and the firm. Goods and services will be provided as are communicated by the individual and interpreted by the marketer. The health of this essential relationship will determine the overall success of the economy, as if it were guided toward prosperity by a benevolent invisible hand. For me, the practical takeaway is this: if I don’t like how the “invisible hand” is functioning, maybe it’s time to assess the signals I give to marketing departments through my consumption choices.

In my studies, a sort of chicken-and-egg situation has been presented when it comes to determining whether marketing forms culture or whether culture forms marketing. Or even, if the individual has wants that marketers address or if marketers create those wants in the individual. This is nonsense. In my four years of courses and two years of work as the Director of Marketing for a local publisher, it is clear to me that marketing responds to signals from the consumer. The goal is to create value for the consumer; entrepreneurs introducing new products or services are still connecting it to some inherent desire on the part of the potential buyers. Thus, the consumption decisions that you and I engage in (or not) are what determine the commercials we see, billboards we drive by, and the products that are created. In our marketplace (not so much in government), individuals always have the power to say no.

The higher builds upon the lower, but the two must not be confused. The fulfillment of marketing’s promises, which is concrete and true in a sense, is obviously limited to the visible material world. While my wonderful little laptop has greatly augmented my search for knowledge and joy (hello Pinterest home decor ideas), it’s consequently my daily task to remember that I do not need it. Arthur Brooks explains this point well in Abundance Without Attachment. Finally, I’ve shared this before but it merits frequent repetition:

“It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than being”…It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments” (Centesimus Annus, John Paul II).

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In Between Guagua Rides

“Aw man, I really wish so-and-so could see me right now.”

Whether out of humor, glee, or smug pride, every fresh traveler knows the above sentiment well. There have been many instances recently during which that the thought has traversed the paths of my mind– the guiding theme has been humor. In fact, I would even venture to say that travel is the art of learning to laugh at yourself. And to laugh incredibly hard. Please see below:

The Guagua

Thirty-four. This week I rode in a twelve passenger van with thirty-four other passengers and it was great. In fact, it was one of those times you rush to dinner, excited to brag about your experience over the beans, rice and salad. For all who need a reality check, or just a little cuddling, please take the preferred Dominican public transportation- the gaugua. The name itself demands the attention it deserves. Additionally, my inner poet requests that I mention the lovely local scenes one can witness through the wide-open windows (ventilation is key), and my inner economist adds that the fee is only 25 pesos (roughly 50 cents.) What a deal!

The Service Hours

Few things are more enlivening than screaming the hokey pokey at the top of your lungs while jumping amidst a gaggle of happy, dancing children. For a moment, the hokey pokey was my favorite song in the entire world. The funny thing is that rewarding experiences like such are the exception, not the norm, during service but you keep coming back because that brief and intense joy so far makes up for the tedious and frustrating times. Two weeks ago, I was awfully reluctant to climb out from my mosquito-net canopy each morning and hop on a guagua to go to my service site.  But part of maturity is gaining the undeniable elegance and grace required when leaning into such discomfort. Part of maturity is understanding that teaching requires entertaining, and entertaining means screaming long-forgotten nursery rhymes at the top of your lungs and sillily dancing, well, like the gringa you are. Having a few more classes at the makeshift Haitian school in Pontezuela under my belt now, I can finally say that I know why I am doing this. Little-by-little, picture-by-picture and song-by-song, I am confident that Sarah and I will be able to do good. And as always, doing good feels good. I could not ask for more.

The Salsa Hours

Two Fridays past, the Comunidad Crew made an appearance at a local bar. We were led there by our maestras y advisoras, Margarita and Kat, who slyly knew what they were doing, since we soon discovered that this was the Friday date night hot spot for all the elderly couples of Santiago– though it was still just as lively and loud as one would the expect the scene of twenty-somethings to be. Looking back, for confidence’s sake, it was probably for the best that we were primarily spectators that night. In fact, we niñas were happily mesmerized by a darling old couple who didn’t even make it to the dance floor; the man intercepted his wife right after dinner and began to twirl her around right next to their table. We all search for what they have.

Then in Santo Domingo last Friday, we were led by the locals to the promised land, and by promised land, I mean the local hot spot for dancing (and with partners more our age-group.) For all who have never tried bachata, merengue, and salsa, they are worthy of addition to the bucket list– in ALL CAPS and permanent marker. There is truly nothing like letting the music move you. Like the bad tourist that I am, I only have two grainy photos to share from that night, a dance and our addition to the signature wall. Thankfully, there are times so gleeful that one forgets to take pictures.

And the next morning… the Comunidad got the grand tour of La Zona Colonial: Catedral de Santa María la Menor, Calle El Conde, Plaza de España, y Museo de las Casas Reales. It was all so beautiful, but still my primary takeaway was the reminder that deep in my heart, I still yearn to be a princess and live in a castle when I grow up. 😉

The Studious Hours

And in addition to the little daily lessons that emerge in the sneakiest places, our actual coursework has also been marvelous. My studies have been a lovely mingling of economics, theology, history, accounting, and literature– infused with zesty Spanish. Not only do we examine the tumultuous DR-Haitian relationship through texts, but we go forth to teach English in both Dominican and Haitian schools. We don’t just learn about free-trade zones; we spend Friday morning touring Alta Gracia (which deserves its own future post, I promise.) Not only can we conjugate comer in the future tense, but we throw around Dominican slang words and hum our new favorite songs: Las Cosas Pequeñas, Todo Cambió, Niña De Mi Corazón y Darte Un Beso (honorable mention, always: Heroe.) Let us now take a moment to appreciate how endearingly over the top these music videos are.

There are also the universal lessons. The clash of cultures and countries is only a supersize version of the clash between individual personalities and minds. At best, it involves the beautiful mutual exchange of knowledge, best practices, and wider-encompassing interpretations of the world in which we live and thrive. Thus it turns out that travel is about the root of laughter: delighting in and learning from one another. Emerson is quoted as saying,

 “In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.”

I cannot think of a better way to describe my days here in La República Dominicana.

2: The Morning After

Last night’s elections shambled on into the wee hours of the morning, as ties were loosened and un-heeled feet were stretched, but this morning has been unfolding slowly with the sweet savor of success.  Though, the celebration will not progress past the consummation of a piece of red velvet cake for breakfast, as it is time to capitalize on the fresh energy. But first, a complex poem to stimulate the mind:

Pathedy of Manners

by: Ellen Kay

At twenty she was brilliant and adored,
Phi Beta Kappa, sought for every dance;
Captured symbolic logic and the glance
Of men whose interest was their sole reward.
She learned the cultured jargon of those bred
To antique crystal and authentic pearls,
Scorned Wagner, praised the Degas dancing girls,
And when she might have thought, conversed instead.
She hung up her diploma, went abroad,
Saw catalogues of domes and tapestry,
Rejected an impoverished marquis,
And learned to tell real Wedgwood from a fraud.
Back home her breeding led her to espouse
A bright young man whose pearl cufflinks were real.
They had an ideal marriage, and ideal
But lonely children in an ideal house.
I saw her yesterday at forty-three,
Her children gone, her husband one year dead,
Toying with plots to kill time and re-wed
Illusions of lost opportunity.
But afraid to wonder what she might have know,
With all that wealth and mind had offered her,
She shuns conviction, choosing to infer
Tenets of every mind except her own.
A hundred people call, though not one friend,
To parry a hundred doubts with nimble talk.
Her meanings lost in manners, she will walk

Alone in brilliant circles to the end.

Poetry, and all language for that matter, requires interpretation. The careful reading and understanding of a poem is a silent conversation between the poet and the reader, transcending time itself. “Pathedy of Manners” is a modern twist on the relatable and classic “what might have been” story; it even serves as a cautionary tale. The language is pregnant with connotation and double meaning thus more effectively painting the linguistic portrait. The overarching meaning of the poem is to demonstrate that lack of personal conviction, simply going through the motions of your given life, makes for a long trip alone.

The title itself, “Pathedy of Manners”, is loaded with meaning. With the Greek parents of a dramatic form “comedy of manners and the prefix “path-” (think pathetic, sympathetic), the title draws upon the comical yet pitiful storyline of the poem. It sets the stage for the tone of the author, which is one of hilarity yet also empathy as the subject of the poem falls into the trap of society. The subject seems to do everything ideally in the eyes of the culture, yet “she shuns conviction,” and therefore the ending is unhappy, and we are pulled in to pity her.

There is a spring of the subject’s life story which occurs from line 1-16. One instantaneously gathers that the subject is an “it girl” or social butterfly, “brilliant and adored,/Phi Beta Kappa, sought for every dance” (2-3). “She learned the cultured jargon of those bred/To antique crystal and authentic pearls”; she was privileged with a remarkably good education and really lived for the worldly things of this life. But following the classic blueprint, we catch hints of foreboding folly: “and when she might have thought, conversed instead.” Finally, she comes back home from her international outing, and settles down for “a bright young man whose pearl cufflinks were real” who was most definitely approved of by her well-to-do parents. The second appearance of “pearl” is significant. Not only does it call to mind the previously mentioned well-breeding of her company, but additionally the pearl may act as a symbol for the bride and groom themselves who are glossed over and polished up but whose souls are naught but a humble grain of sand. Ideal, ideal, ideal and then the reader notices the “lonely children in an ideal house” (16). Not only are the parents caught up with their own social life, but the cycle of going through the motions and loneliness is passed down. The innocent children will undoubtedly be affected by their parents’ emptiness.

And then, when the perfect little showcase family is stripped away, the reader gets a first-hand account of the sad subject, “toying with plots to kill time and re-wed/ Illusions of lost opportunity.” In short, she chose the easy way. She chose to life the life that was handed to her; now “she shuns conviction”, as her meaning and purpose were lost in her manners. All that she lived for, the dances, the childish things, are long gone, making old age a burden rather than a blessing. She put all her efforts into ephemeral appearances and failed to find meaning in them. “Her meanings lost in manners, she will walk/ Alone in brilliant circles to the end,” the last part of the poem follows when all the pretty little building blocks fade away and our poor friend is left with fake, fluffy surroundings.

The poem is not about radical change, but rather about building up nice things and then peeling them away. How familiar we are with this pattern! The ironic, circular aspect of the poem is emphasized by the repetition of the word “brilliant” in the first and last lines. And yet there lives on hope in this pathetic comedy, as she may escape from her self-imposed prison yet and live to pursue a deeper life.