Out of all the industries in America, one of the most distrusted is the industry of marketing and advertising. Americans often think the field of advertising revolves around siphoning money out of naïve people’s pockets and overcharging for worthless products.
Unfortunately, Americans have good reasons for their negative perspective. Some salespeople market dishonestly, some companies market worthless products for ridiculous prices, and some advertising agencies resort to unethical methodology. So is marketing a viable career option for the Christian who wants to live ethically? Roger E. Olson, who refers to himself as an evangelical Armenian blogger, says in his blog, “I would like to suggest that marketing and advertising may be a field Christians must abandon if they cannot operate with total transparency and honesty in it. And I am doubtful that these days that [is] possible.” So here’s the million dollar question: Is the field of marketing too corrupt for Christians to participate in?
Thinking Through It
A Christian considering this industry must think through two big areas.
Number one: Valid concerns.
Number two: Misconceptions associated with marketing.
There are definitely potential problems in marketing that the wise Christian needs to address. First, Christians should avoid blatantly unethical strategies. Steph Lynette, a Christian marketer, lists two areas of marketing that Christians must carefully consider in her article “Let’s Air out Our Dirty Marketing Laundry.” First, she says Christians should avoid “manipulation at the expense of the consumer,” which is convincing people who do not need the product to buy it anyway. Christians must apply Philippians 2:3, which says “. . . but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves,” in their marketing approach.
Secondly, Lynette acknowledges that Christian marketers have to decide which products and services they are comfortable advertising. Some are clearer than others. For instance, if you’re asked to run a campaign promoting abortion, the choice is easy, since this is so clearly against Scripture. But if you’re asked to promote an event where alcohol would be served, the situation becomes trickier. This scenario could happen to any firm, and Christian marketers need to prayerfully consider where they stand on the grayer issues.
However, all of these issues can be addressed ethically and in a way that won’t offend your individual conscience. Every agency can choose their operating standards for themselves.
Misconceptions about Marketing
While there are valid concerns with marketing, there are also concerns that aren’t quite as valid. These misconceptions shouldn’t have to keep anyone from a career in advertising.
Misconception #1: Christians have to choose between doing their job well and doing it honestly.
This is simply not true; Christians can market honestly and successfully. Marketers can help people find real solutions to their real needs.
While false advertising is clearly unappealing to Christians, unabashedly marketing a product that will genuinely help someone is just the opposite. In fact, Christ commands Christians to lovingly help others, and marketing can meet that command. The key to honest marketing is choosing worthwhile products to market.
For example, one of the clients of the ad agency I work for is South Carolina’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. By marketing this chamber to Hispanic businesses, we are legitimately doing them a great service, because it will connect them to resources they need to sustain their business.
The Bible itself actually contains examples of authentic, ethical marketing. Acts 16:14 says that Lydia was a seller of purple. She was a New Testament entrepreneur and self-marketer. To be a present seller of purple as the verse implies, and not a future one, she would have already advertised what she could do beforehand.
Caleb Thomas, a network marketer, shows the parallels between network marketing and Jesus’ approach to spreading the gospel in his video “Christians Should Not Be a Part of Network Marketing Business.” Thomas explains, “Jesus was like the original network Marketer. He came to earth with His message, practiced it by His example, recruited His disciples, taught them how to teach His message, and then sent them out to network with everybody they met and duplicate the same process. . . Jesus used the power of networking to grow His ministry. [It is] the largest, fastest-growing, most invaluable, eternally profitable network there ever was and ever will be.” Both Jesus and current network marketers use the same strategies, because they are simple, advantageous, and efficient.
Misconception #2: Marketing is not a worthwhile career.
Marketing requires a particular skill set. One given by God. If someone’s talent is speaking, writing, designing, or developing websites, she should be seeking to use that God-given gift where she can reach her fullest potential with it. Christians are normally huge advocates of this idea and use it for within the church’s sake. Today’s churches all have designated greeters, welcoming crews, websites, and brochures—all of which serve as advertisements for the church. Those who fill these roles are usually chosen because they excel in that particular area. So why is it ok to use our gifts to promote a church or a faith, but not to promote a secular company? God commands us to use our talents, and we choose whether we use it for good or for evil.
Misconception #3: Marketing = using annoying tactics to sell unethical products or services
Some Christians may believe that marketers are just dishonest salespeople, pushing “evil” things. However, a marketer knows that the fault actually originates with the audience of the marketing. The audience, not the marketer, creates the demand. Inventors and entrepreneurs simply identify what the demand is and create products or services to fill it. Then marketers serve as the bridge between that product and the people who want it. Marketers cater to the culture that the American people, not advertising agencies, have created. And at the same time, American people run America’s advertising agencies. They contribute to creating the demand as well, and that is exactly the point. People in general, not the advertising industry, have caused so many of the faults people find in the marketing profession.
For example, women want to look beautiful, and if the current culture’s model of “beautiful” is tan and thin, Americans are giving tanning salons and dietary services instant access to their wallets.
The best evidence for the argument that people, not agencies, are inherently evil is the loss aversion theory. The loss aversion theory states that people would rather avoid losing something they already have than gain something new. Donald Miller, a marketer and the author of Searching for God Knows What, explains this theory in his article “Christianity and Advertising.” Miller says, “Loss aversion is the reason we keep the gym membership even though we [do not] use it, [it is] probably the reason you voted the way you did in the last election, [it is] the reason people hoard material possessions and stay in bad relationships. The idea is that losing something costs you more happiness than gaining something gives you.” When did humans become so afraid of losing what they have?
Perhaps Millers was onto something when he suggested that “loss aversion comes from actual events in human history.” Perhaps we became afraid, because we humans have indeed lost something very special. We were created in God’s image and blessed with a perfect relationship with Him. Then the Fall broke that perfect relationship, and we are seeking to mend what has been broken.
According to Miller, “Our theology actually explains why it is that advertising and rituals are so effective. . . Christian theology helps make sense of why we think and feel the way we do. . . and why [the idea that] we are losing . . . paradise, and must get back to it, is a powerful human sentiment that advertisers as well as leaders use, to sell products and ideas.”
Again, this knowledge how humans fundamentally operate can definitely be twisted and manipulated. Certain advertising methods (which Christians may or may not choose to implement) work well, because people are longing to regain what they have lost. Interestingly, this carries over to the Christian life too. When Christians witness, they are using the loss aversion theory. They’re marketing to a human’s innate desire to regain what he has lost.
Tying It All Together
Christian marketers, myself included, hold the unique position of knowing both that there is a need in everyone’s heart and that the products we are marketing cannot fill that need. Our duty is to avoid promoting our product as the answer to people’s life problems, when we know it isn’t. In contrast, our duty is not to ensure that people do not buy our products to satisfy their heart’s deepest needs, because we cannot control people’s motives or decisions. Our responsibility is to do our job honestly, in a loving way that connects others to services that will truly better their lives. As Acts 20:35 says, giving is far better than receiving. Christians can implement that mindset into their marketing career by marketing transparently, lovingly, and boldly.