Here during my second year in the School of Theology graduate program, I have split from the pack to pursue my specific master’s track: Business and Applied Theology. This year, I will be taking business courses focusing on the theological implications of work and the marketplace. One of my courses last quarter was Marketing for Managers with Marketing Professor Dr. Regina Schlee, and what follows is based on a paper I wrote for the class on the relationship between Christian ethics and marketing.
Marketing and the Gospel
Marketing from a Christian perspective creates ethical tensions not present in a classical stance of marketing. When a Christian marketer promotes a product or a company as “the best,” is he or she violating the call of the gospel for humility? Additionally, is it morally impermissible for a Christian to advertise toward human weakness, such as selling luxury cars by rousing a person into thinking that being classified as elite depends on owning a luxury car? Whether it is a prideful promoting of “the best” or a calculated pandering to elitism, these examples ought to raise concerns for Christian marketers attempting to live according to the gospel.
Scripture, however, uncovers the value of marketing for Christians. A careful look at the Bible gives the conclusion that some texts in Scripture carry an evangelistic aim which includes characteristics of marketing, such as persuasion. The authors of the four gospels chose specific stories from the life of Christ, they organized these stories in explicit ways, and they presented the stories to targeted communities. Similarly, marketing holds the potential for intrinsic value because it organizes truthful information in order for it to become persuasive to society.
Information is Persuasive
However, one major criticism of marketing surrounds the persuasive communication of information. The critic believes that if marketing were to strip advertisements of emotionally persuasive material, the resulting forms of marketing would be more ethically sound. It is not the presentation of the information, however, that is the root of persuasion; the root of the persuasion comes from the information itself — given that it is true. Minus inflection, catchy graphics, and compelling images, phrases and statements remain persuasive because they transfer truth statements from producer to consumer.
Marketing Facilitates Economic Exchange
Keeping in mind the implications of marketing in Scripture, and acknowledging the persuasiveness of truthful information, a broad definition of marketing from a Christian perspective must be developed. At its universal level, marketing exists to facilitate economic exchange between producer and consumer. In my opinion, this exchange exists as the starting point for all ethical concerns in marketing.
To begin, utilitarian calculations classify the value of economic exchange. Utilitarianism is an ethical system developed on the rubric of creating the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. This philosophy permeates the business world, and the marketing world in particular. When marketing successfully facilitates an economic exchange, it provides benefits to both producer and consumer. The producer gains monetarily from the transaction and the consumer gains by receiving what was promised, the desired good or service. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with mutual gain resulting from a transaction, the economic exchange model narrowly focuses on the economic benefits of producer and consumer.
This model supplies space for injustice to occur outside the singular transaction. For example, under a utilitarian lens, it is justifiably permissible to pay low wages and to provide poor working conditions to a small number of employees as long as the producers and a large number of consumers receive the greatest benefit. The narrowly defined terms of economic exchange dismiss the wellbeing of third parties such as laborers along the supply chain, the poor, and the limited resources that exist in the world.
Marketing that Promotes Human Flourishing
Exchanges between producer and consumer must account for inputs and consequences. A Christian marketer ought to question the promotion of products that either diminish the quality of life for certain individuals or plunder our natural resources. In a simplified society, transactions among people result from positive relationships. For example, if a small town contains one grocery store and one clothes supplier, the grocer needs to maintain a good rapport with the clothing supplier, because a bad relationship results in an inability to acquire clothing. In this basic example, producer and consumer rely on each other because the roles adjust as different transactions occur. Put differently, maintaining positive relationships within a community of people allows for human flourishing; each person specializes in the trade to which he or she is best suited.
The Christian marketer, therefore, needs to consider whether the products he or she promotes align with the qualifications of human flourishing. Does the good or service provide consumer, producer, society, and nature with at least a minimum amount of flourishing? (Note: This question does not promote an egalitarian system where each person receives an equal share of resources. I understand the value of dividing resources by talent and contribution to society. However, I disagree with allocating resources in such a way that some receive the lion’s share of the resources while others live in poverty.)
Illustrating this point in the tobacco industry would be a Christian marketer who was incapable of promoting cigarettes because the product kills the consumer, an attribute that does not contribute to human flourishing. On a more difficult level, perhaps the Christian marketer should question whether he or she can promote Coca-Cola because it is unhealthy. But what about in developing countries, where it can be an alternative to dirty water? The Christian marketer ought to wrestle with whether to promote a product like Coca-Cola. What relational quality exists in the promotion of the product in countries without clean water? Perhaps a minimal amount of flourishing exists when the consumer modifies his or her purchases to include soft drinks instead of unsanitary water. It would be even better, however, to develop a sanitary water “product.” Nevertheless, the Christian approaches marketing in an ethical manner when he or she promotes products using the relationship rubric, the one source not lacking in scarcity.
Since Scripture is partly used as a marketing tool, Christians proclaim the gospel. The same principle applies to sharing information because truth statements are persuasive. Therefore, marketing in principle is an ethically justifiable action. Marketing from a Christian worldview differs from other worldviews because Christians provide a distinct perspective on the value of exchange. Where a non-Christian considers exchanges between producer and consumer on an economic level, a Christian ought to account for the communal and relational aspect of marketing, elevating exchange from a dry monetary principle to a rubric for human flourishing. Therefore, Christians view all aspects of the marketing mix through an entirely different lens. The approach to product, price, promotion, and place varies significantly when marketing relationships facilitate exchange.