Manipulable is Disposable

Genesis 1:26 gives a foundational characteristic of all people – we are made in the image of God: “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  It is this status as made in the image of God, the imago dei, that gives dignity to every human being, whether the poorest of the poor or the richest of the rich, the migrant or the government leader.

new-york-city-1446704 - Joanna VidadFor a good part of my life, I’ve pursued a vocation in marketing.  Here’s what you need to know about marketers: our job is to make you WANT something.  And we’re REALLY good at it.  You may think that you suddenly had a hankering for some McDonald’s fries while you were driving down the road, and maybe you did, but it’s pretty likely we had a hand in it, even though you don’t realize it.  Marketers use a variety of methods and techniques to inspire a response in you.

Consider this: much of modern marketing works by manipulating you, your image of yourself, and the shared cultural imagery and icons we have stored in our brains.  There’s a fascinating ad for a kitchen remodeling company that I’ve used for years when I speak.  It shows a professional woman who has just walked in the door and into her perfect kitchen where her husband, apron affixed, is preparing a wonderful meal.  He clearly arrived home before her, is attentive, and fixed her dinner…and if you have a kitchen like this, that could be your life.  Or consider another ad from LL Bean.  It shows a bucolic lake scene with mountains in the distance. In the foreground, there is a man chopping wood wearking LL Bean clothes. This guy lives an idyllic, uncomplicated, outdoorsman’s life.  The only problem with this ad is that 70-80% of LL Bean’s sales are to people in urban and suburban areas.  These ads represent something that is not real for very many people. The promise is that the kitchen or the clothes will enable you to have that life, the life you truly want.

Modern marketing, especially the area of branding, is about getting you to have a deep, personal, identity-level relationship with products. These marketing techniques are incredibly effective. We all own clothes we don’t really need. Many of us will actually argue with our closest friends about one brand over another. We love some brands and hate others, often defending our brand preferences by the very ideals established by the brands themselves, like quality, safety, or status.

In the end, good marketing and brand work results in higher sales and higher profits. But should I, as a Christian, look at this type of work? Is it deception? I know that marketing and branding appeals to our inner idols. Should I do it anyway just to drive sales? I know I can.  Marketing works.  But should I?

No Pollyanna answers here.  My bonus depends on this ad campaign working, and my children don’t go to school if I can’t do these things well.  So how do I honor the Lord in this?  Let’s get past the ideas of “Well, do your marketing for Christian organizations.”  There aren’t enough of them out there.  And let’s get past the ideas of “Well, only work for clients who are socially responsible.”  That’s great, and I wish every company were.  But there’s got to be more to be said, at least this: it comes down to how you view the person on the other end – if that person is made in the image of God, what do I owe him? Shouldn’t the terms of my relationship with that person be defined by the character of the one who formed both of us (i.e. truth, love, goodness, etc.)? The relationship the business has with the customer says everything, and marketing is a huge part of that relationship.  Manipulable is disposable.  I don’t need YOU, just your cash, and I’ll happily use you and then move on.

Biblically, it can’t be that. Biblically, being in the image of God is what makes us free to be everything we can be, what God would have us be.  The challenge for me as a marketing professional, then, is to ask myself: What would marketing look like that honors the image of God in those to whom we market, that frees them instead of enslaving them, that honors God’s purposes in making them?  What would marketing look like that honors the customer as being in the image of God?

John Kyle is the Chief Operations Officer for the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.  He has had a long career in various technology, marketing and consulting roles across a range of industries.


Photos: Vidad, Pat Herman 

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  • Kayla Burgess

    I appreciated you coming and speaking about this in our class on Friday with Bill. I was a PR major, so I have often struggled with similar thoughts that you have in terms of working on PR campaigns and the like. Just like you said, I have thought to myself, “Well I’ll only work (in the future) for clients/companies that are working toward a good cause and/or Christian organizations,” but that is difficult and also cuts out a large portion of the world we live in and the people in it as well.

    I am just being introduced to this idea of honoring the Lord through treating others in our workplace as co-image bearers of Christ, but I am very excited to see how this viewpoint continues to develop throughout the rest of this semester and how I will continue to expand this idea of looking through the lens of honoring the image of God to how we treat our co-workers, our clients/customers and our work in general.

  • Andrew Cone

    Christians should seek honoring the image of God at their vocation. We benefit from this transcendent perspective which gives a real sense of humanity’s higher calling, in any occupation. John’s blog post surfaces his desire to navigate marketing with Christian duties and values. I can only imagine the difficulty he faces, particularly with marketing appealing to people’s identity and money. Furthermore, there is pressure that the occupation provides services to his family. At best, I believe what Christians can do is saturate their mind and heart with Scripture that will be used by the Spirit to guide hearts to the right decisions at the right times. Though Scripture can be applied to occupations in general, I believe there are Scriptures which could be especially important for anyone in marketing, because of its focus on people’s hearts, identity, and money. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Reciprocality comes to my mind as a guiding principle. If I switched positions and received my own product or service, would I feel respected? Benefited? If I showed my customer my process, work, and thoughts in finishing my job, would they feel loved? I wish Christians to be involved in each sector of society, from homeless to executives, for the sake of exposure to Christ. For any person who knows Christ, we must ask: based upon what we know of Jesus, is he pleased, joyful, and encouraged from the small and big decisions at work? Do we think he rejoices in how we market, engineer, or wash bathrooms? May we continue doing whatever it takes for us to be most filled with Jesus – to maximize benefit to the world, our friends and families, and ourselves.

  • Andy Pitts

    This post really hit home for me. I majored in journalism with a specification in PR/Marketing so I can definitely relate to some of the thoughts you proposed here. I’ve always looked at this field as two-sided. On one hand, there is an aspect of deception and manipulation that many marketers/advertisers use to get us to covet things we don’t need; however at the same time, without people marketing products how would we find out about items that would improve our quality of life (i.e. cleaning supplies, medicine, etc..)? There’s definitely a fine line that needs to be balance, but if someone is fully transparent and honest about there product then I don’t see how that would conflict with Christian values.

    One other thought I had when reading this post is this idea of redemption. If we as humans are part of God’s plan to redeem the earth does that not include the marketing industry? Maybe it doesn’t? But if I wasn’t a christian and all people who were Christian’s declined to go into my industry then in a sense I would feel as though the church abandoned me or gave up hope. Is that really treating a brother like you want to be treated? Just something to think about!

  • Hannah Kincaid

    I like what you said Andy about there being two sides. It’s a great point and I think there are really two sides to every vocation. Living in a broken world as broken people, there is always going to be an evil, manipulating side but there is also a redeemed good side. It’s our job as christians in the vocational world to support and develop that good redeemed side and be a light to this broken world.

    To answer the question in the last line of this article, Biblical, freeing marketing that honors God would be truthful and ultimately seek to help people and improve their lives. Like Andy said, if a company is being transparent and honest about their product then I don’t see the problem.