As a marketer I have to admit that I had a rather visceral reaction to the June 2008 article by Dan and Chip Heath called "Dirty Marketing Campaigns: How marketers create disgust and embarrassment -- and why we shouldn't put up with it." (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/126/a-dirty-shame.html)
First - I always love how perceptions of 'marketing' as an entire discipline are often wrapped up in advertizing messages people see on TV. There are a ton of great marketing strategies and tactics out there (especially in our networked world) that focus on building targeted relationships and delivering creative messages about products and services than pushing 'social stigma' messages and trying to grab attention through the boob tube. I implore those who complain about "marketing" to take a little time to grasp (and even complain about) the discipline as a whole.
Second - I think the article gives advertising messages and TV far to much credit for being all powerful in affecting our collective psyche. Most often marketing reflects trends in the market and society and capitalizes on them - it doesn't set them. The visa commercial is an updated version of someone getting stuck with 12 items in the "10 items or less" lane and wanting to write a check. We've all been on both sides so the tactic creates empathy for the victim and yes - a little fear of finding ourselves in the same position. Honestly, how much worse is Visa than any sitcom on TV in the last 50 years?
Visa didn't create the ‘10 items or less’ lane. They also aren't solely responsible for consumer confidence in electronic transactions or the technological advances that enable people to zip through check-out lanes using credit cards versus other forms of payment. They capitalized on social trends that support use of their service.
Last - the brothers Heath missed the mark on the "Wisk" example. "Ring around the collar" wasn't about capitalizing on stigma. Let me ask you this - - If you're male and paid attention to the Wisk commercial with the luscious yet disgusted girl who noticed the poor guy's smudgy collar - which were you more likely to walk away with: a) "Oh no! I must use Wisk and avoid ring around the collar because someone will assume I'm dirty, sweaty, and socially inept!" or b) "Clean shirt = sex"?
Yeah. I thought so...