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.
For 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: FreeImages.com/Joanna Vidad, Pat Herman