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Buying in, Selling out: Towards a Theology of Marketing

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Emily Hill is studying for a PhD in Theological Ethics at Aberdeen University and is also KLICE Research Associate in Environmental and Economic Ethics.

Several years ago I quit my career as an international marketing research consultant in order to re-enter academic life and pursue an MA in Social Justice. My earlier education was in economics, so as I began research for my thesis I hoped to look into the ways that capitalism could be made more just. While that is an important conversation, as often happens in research I came to a different conclusion than I expected—capitalism can’t just be judged for how it “works” in achieving a certain goal, and therefore simply made more ethical, but must be examined for how it forms us.

Daniel M. Bell, Jr. and William Cavanaugh are two theologians who have done work in this area. Bell characterises neoliberal capitalism as an economy of desire. He analyses the ways in which capitalism distorts our desires that should properly be directed toward God in worship—in short, how it forms our view of ourselves, others, and God in a way that conflicts with God’s intention for humanity. In Being Consumed William Cavanaugh makes similar points with regard to specific aspects of our current economic system. In one chapter he focuses on the formative power of consumerism, describing it as a “type of spirituality…a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people” that contrasts with how the Christian tradition teaches us to find meaning, identity, and connection.

One aspect of our formation yet to be fully examined in theology is the role of marketing. Cavanaugh and others use marketing as illustrations, but to the extent that our current economic system is dominated by consumerism, and marketing is a major driver of that system, then it is certainly an area that requires further theological analysis for the role it plays making us who we are.

No doubt we’re all aware of the increasing presence of advertising but my hunch is that in practice we view it as a neutral system, as something we can choose to engage with or not. A brief history of advertising reveals its messaging has progressed from making us aware of products and their benefits to endowing products with much deeper spiritual and psychological meaning. On one of the first days in my client’s office in the first week of my consulting career I overheard a colleague in conversation with someone about a focus group they were organising. I will never forget her direction toward whomever was on the other end of the phone: “Make sure you find out what makes her feel secure.”

In their quest to sell products and services, marketing plays on our deepest human needs and desires. It is designed to produce short term satisfaction before it moves on to the next thing. In this light, we cannot view marketing as neutral.

If Christ reveals what it means to be truly human then we must learn to see how marketing teaches us to be human according to a contradictory logic. Since advertising is the most visible aspect of marketing, I’ll use the example of Delta Air Lines’ current brand campaign, “Keep Climbing” to illustrate this.

Delta’s advertising agency describes the current TV commercial “4 AM” as embodying “the spirit of its customers and their determination to venture out into the world and take ownership of opportunities every day.” On the surface, this appears as simply a positive, motivational message: carpe diem. However, the intention of this messaging is to cause me to identify qualities in Delta with qualities I possess or wish to possess and to express myself by flying Delta. In this way, my identity is constructed based on my consumption. In addition, the imagery in the commercial, along with the message “Keep Climbing,” distinctly encourages the idea of upward mobility calling me to measure my success in life against this standard.

But my identity is not based on what I do, what I achieve, or what transportation I choose; it is in Christ alone. Paul writes “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…” (Phil 2:5-7).

Marketing tells me just keep trying to make yourself a little better. A little faster, a little richer. It encourages self-justification and transcendence in continual progress that never delivers. As followers of Christ we are called to bear witness to the reality that our identity and hope are secured and that our truest freedom and fullness of life is found in taking the form of Christ—to be for God and for our neighbors.

This example just scratches the surface. As a business function, marketing is broader than advertising encompassing product design, promotion, pricing, and distribution. It relies on detailed research of human desires and behaviours in order to meet business objectives. It’s within and across this entire spectrum that the full formative power of marketing occurs.

And so, my academic journey continues. I am now pursuing a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics at University of Aberdeen in order to further articulate the formative power of marketing in the light of Christ. I hope that my research can help Christians live more fully and freely in a consumer society saturated by marketing.

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