Benjamin McNutt: In defense of marketing

Marketing is not the capitalist manifestation of Lucifer himself.

Editor’s note: This is the last post in a series on marketing. Read Melissa Wiginton’s and James Howell’s posts from last week.

This is asking for a theological beating, but it needs saying: marketing is not the capitalist manifestation of Lucifer himself.

Here are three reasons why.

1) That assumption takes the narrowest, least charitable view of what marketing is. All marketing doesn’t consist in pressuring 14-year-old girls into buying Juicy Couture (and distorting notions of femininity) or making men feel like “real men” for drinking Bud Light (ditto, for masculinity). Marketing doesn’t just happen on Madison Avenue a la Don Draper, and it isn’t about turning your church or organization into a consumer product or the people you serve into spiritual shoppers. It’s about communicating clearly who you are and what you do, and understanding who you serve.

It’s remarkable how easily we can lose sight of this, particularly in large institutions. Marketers force you to clarify the mission and goals of your institution, do real homework about who you serve (rather than make assumptions about them) and ask effective questions about how best to serve them. Tim Radford, a veteran editor at “The Guardian,” has a writing rule that applies here: “No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.” That’s what marketers do.

2) Marketers know how to ask fundamental questions about human identity, questions that at their root are theological. They ask about human desire and identify human need. As one character from “Mad Men” puts it: “We help people make choices between what’s expected of them and what they want.”

The church, we Christians say, isn’t about giving people what they want, or making Christianity palatable, but about making disciples.

True, but that doesn’t give us permission to table the question of desire, mostly because it’s a theological one Christians have asked at least since Augustine. Jamie Smith, in Augustinian fashion, says it this way: “If I really want to know who you are, I'm not going to ask what you know. I'm not even going to ask what you believe. If I really want to know what you're about, the question I will ask is: ‘What do you want? What do you love?’” Smith puts a finer point on this in “Desiring the Kingdom:” “Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn't actually touch my desire...and at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?” If current Christian thought and practice doesn’t “touch” desire, other entities will gain our loves and, ultimately, the commitments of the people we seek to serve.

3) Marketers don’t simply ask what people want, they ask what generates commitment or “brand loyalty.” We want disciples in church, and to my knowledge, disciples -- whatever else they may be -- are committed. In a time when leaders worry over the decline in commitment to Christian institutions, understanding what generates commitment in people seems to be of vital significance.

We’re wonderfully equipped to deconstruct all the ways marketers distort moral life, but too often our own arguments get in the way of what marketers can actually teach us. You need not arrive at the same conclusions as marketers to ask the same questions.

With their help we can be clearer, better theologians and makers of disciples. Nothing seems particularly demonic about that.

Benjamin McNutt is the editor of Call & Response. You can follow him on Twitter at @benjaminmcnutt.