Adversarial Marketing


A door-to-door salesman knocks. You don’t answer. A telemarketer calls. You snarl at him and hang up. Advertisements pop up while you’re reading the daily news. You do everything in your power to hide, close, mute, or otherwise marginalizes these little affronts to your personal activity and space.

What’s the matter with marketing? Why do we consumers have such an adversarial relationship with this side of business? Because we’ve forgotten the beauty of voluntay exchange, both as consumers and businesspeople.

Forget the anticapitalist stigma that has been unfairly thrust upon the making of profit: business is amazing. At its core, it’s nothing but the voluntary exchange of goods and services, an exchange which always makes each party better off. Two or more people decide that they would rather have what the other person has than what they currently possess, so they trade. And the trade makes everyone happier. That’s all business is. Sharing and caring. Peace love and brown rice. Rainbows and unicorns. All that. But in order for this to work, exchange must be voluntary, not forced. If both parties don’t feel like they’re better off with the exchange, then no deal. There’s no point in trading unless everyone’s happy.

Advertising, then, is a purely good thing. All it should seek to do is reach, inform, and educate potential consumers as to the specifics of a product or service. To advertise is simply to see if a business relationship is mutually benefitial. If not, then further advertising is pointless. Move on. Find the happy customer you’ve been looking for. This approach to sales is touted by seasoned salespeople like Stephan Schiffman as “high-efficiency,” but in reality this shouldn’t be the best way to do business. It should be the only way.

Somewhere along the way, however, things got a little sidetracked. Sales became a hostile and competitive sport. Advertising became deceptive. Marketing efforts began to view consumers not as partners, but as prey. It’s natural to expect humans to want to cheat and try to nudge a voluntary exchange a little in their favor from time to time. But now this has become expected, and we have suffered as a result. Ignoring the “voluntary” part of “voluntary exchange” has had its consequences. Now people have their defenses up when salespeople come around because they expect to be lied to, manipulated, and coerced into a business relationship they don’t want.

French economist Frédéric Bastiat talked about what is seen and what is not seen in economic activity. In this case, what is seen is the sale or two that can be gained from adversarial marketing. What is not seen is the increased cost of advertising because of the adversarial relationship. Or the dissatisfied customers who would never have honestly done business in the first place. Worst of all, what is not seen is the vast potential of society to grow and prosper through happy and willing exchange, wasted because some of us just couldn’t take “no” for an answer.

Business is an incredible and transformative thing. Adversarial business is poison, a contradiction in terms. We would do well to return to truly voluntary exchange before any more human potential is wasted.

Joël Valenzuela
Joël Valenzuela
Joël Valenzuela is the editor of The Desert Lynx. He is also the founder of the Rights Brigade, a mover for the Free State Project, and a martial art instructor.
  • Agreed. Well said. One point: can unsolicited advertising be considered a theft (of time)? As Mill would say, in legal claims the onus lies on the active party; perhaps in the marketplace the onus should be on the passive party (the shopper). In voluntarism, I think the preference would be for shoppers to go TO the market, not vice versa…

    • I wouldn’t call unsolicited advertising a theft of time. CONTINUED unsolicited advertising, yes. Simply saying “Hey, I think we could both profit from a business relationship,” no.