Marketing Messages and the Ugly Truth(?)

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I’ve been having difficulty sitting down to write this post, probably because my day job involves sitting down to write all day, and my freelance job involves sitting down to write all evening, so by the time I reach the weekend, I’m just too tired of sitting down to write to sit down to write.

I’m struggling to put words to this thought process, and the only way to find the right ones is to muddle through until the thoughts untangle and the words appear:

In marketing, there is only the message. And the message, fed by an intrinsically held principle, feeds extrinsically held principles. Which are then internalized. And so on. The message becomes the machine, and the machine becomes the message.

As a marketer, my job is to take an intrinsically held belief and make it tangible (through words, images, etc.), to make people believe in my belief. Marketers help companies monetize beliefs. It’s not sinister. That’s just how it works.

But then there’s the other side of the coin. The side of the coin where those intrinsically held beliefs are dangerous beliefs. Are beliefs made up of false information, ugly biases,  and bad science. The messages made up of these beliefs are not meant to hurt, but they do. And they perpetuate myths, negativity, or harm (to self or others). A good example? Fitspo.

The people who write ads (and I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here) aren’t in it to make you starve yourself to death or diet yourself sick. They’re there to sell running shoes or protein shakes. They honestly believe that their products will help you get there. And they use their intrinsically held beliefs (a six pack is desirable, women must be strong to be sexy, extra cardio and limiting calories or fats will make you build muscle) to promote their message. And the message, becoming pervasive, invades our own perceptions of reality. The message, extrinsic to ourselves, becomes intrinsic, and suddenly we’re repinning pictures of Jamie Eason’s ass to our Pinterest vision boards.

The good women at Oxygen Magazine (and I’m only picking on them because they had such a disastrous affect on my own disordered relationship with food and exercise) honestly believe in the dream that they’re selling. Their intrinsically held beliefs make it easy for them to market their products, write articles about dieting, update their weekly email newsletter with before and after photos of women who didn’t just lose weight but also became obsessed with exercise and now only eat egg whites and protein powder so they can compete.

Tough Love Bob, may he rest in peace, didn’t tell women to stop bitching about how hard it is to work out and get their asses in the gym because he wanted women to develop negative self-images; he honestly believed in physique as a point of pride, and he believed that using “tough love” was a way to help women foster love for their muscles. (On that, however, external “tough love” was my way of condoning internal abuse by ED, so, unfortunately, that intrinsically held belief morphed into an extrinsically damaging message that led to an equally as damaging intrinsically held belief, etc.)

I don’t believe that all marketing messages are evil or are created and spread with bad intentions. If anything, we should know by now that these messages are done with the intent to sell something–a lifestyle, a product, a service, a dream. We’re naive if we don’t realize that.  (Although I realize that there are PLENTY of people out there who try to market/sell things to people who FULLY realize the damage they’re about to do–*cough* Monsanto *cough*, etc.)

I just wonder at what point we can separate the product from the message. I wonder at what point we can just start rewriting the message. How do we stop the fitspo machine from feeding itself, when the people who post the messages honestly hold the belief that the dream they’re selling is the truth–and the people who see/read the message then internalize those “truths” to the point where they can’t separate themselves from it?


I’m sure you’ve seen the Dove commercial in which an FBI sketch artist drew women as they described themselves and then again as others described them. (If you haven’t seen it, then you obviously don’t exist on the internet at all. But just in case, here’s the video.)

It’s a message. It’s a good message. And it’s also a message that’s going to sell a product. Is it done with good intent? Yes. Are people likely to associate Dove with a product that makes women feel good about themselves? Sure. But I wonder how many people are going to Pin or post links to this video on the same day they post a “fitspirational” quote about sweat being fat crying.

I think I’m struggling to find the thesis here, but I think the questions must be asked: how do we separate the message from the sale?

We know it’s wrong to sell a negative message, but is it okay to sell a positive message?

Why do we buy (literally, figuratively) the negative messages with just as must alacrity as we do the positive?

I don’t know. I’m so proud of all of my friends (women AND men) who shared and commented on that Dove commercial through their social media channels, because I think that it opens the conversation about body image and the surprising prevalence of disordered body image among women who don’t have clinically diagnosed Body Dysmorphic Disorder, but I’m still struggling with the fact that, at the end of the day, it’s a marketing message.

What does it take to get ourselves to believe the good messages? At what point does a message become an ugly truth?

Stay hungry,


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