That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:
…consider the general logic of labor substitution. Machines and software are often very good at “making stuff” and, increasingly, at delivering well-defined services, such as when Alexa arranges a package for you. But machines are not effective at persuading, at developing advertising campaigns, at branding products or corporations, or at greeting you at the door in a charming manner, as is done so often in restaurants, even if you order on an iPad. Those activities will remain the province of human beings for a long time to come.
How much is this shift of labor into marketing a step forward? To be sure, a lot of commercial persuasion is useful. Marketing informs consumers about new products and their properties, or convinces them that one product is better for them than another. It was marketing that got me to stop watching baseball and switch to the more exciting NBA. Sometimes the very existence of an ad — even apart from any direct informational value — makes a product more enjoyable. If a particular basketball sneaker is associated with LeBron James, through an endorsement and TV commercials, some people will enjoy wearing that sneaker more.
That all said, a lot of marketing is a zero- or negative-sum game. Each business tries to pull customers away from the other brands, and while the final matching of customers to products is usually closely attuned to what people want, more is spent on these business battles than is ideal for social efficiency. My bank might make me feel better about being a customer there, but its services just aren’t much superior to those of the nearest competitor, if at all. Maybe Coke really is better than Pepsi, or vice versa, but it’s not that much better — and billions are spent trying to persuade consumers to make one switch or the other.
I don’t take the Galbraithian view, but still consumers only enjoy extra marketing so much. I conclude with this:
Don’t be surprised if you see a lot of robots in daily life, and in news stories, but not huge productivity gains in the published statistics. That’s exactly the American economy right now.
Do read the whole thing.