Truth in Advertising

A few years ago while working in marketing, I found myself briefly and casually engaged in conversation with a young woman who worked as a “trend forecaster.” Suspicious of such an obviously Orwellian job title, I asked her about this mysterious career. She informed me that it was her duty to comment on what was “natural” to consumers; that is, what our default conscious and subconscious values are- things like safety, power and relationships. The companies to whom she provided this information would then go through a series of exercises that could help them discover what about their own products could appeal to these “natural” urges so as to market them in a profitable manner.

As someone who was shaking the dust from my heels in testimony against the marketing community at the time, I should not have been as invested in this conversation as I was. Being a bit removed from all of that now, I see this encounter in retrospect as a reminder that the ability to accurately predict consumer behavior virtually guarantees a successful product. In our current media-saturated society, the marketing process has shifted from trial and error to psychoanalysis. In one sense, this shift is frugal and good. If abused, however, it can become frighteningly manipulative.

Rupert Murdoch and company knew this when in the 1990’s his News Corp bought out Zondervan, the evangelical community’s largest publisher of Bibles. Shortly thereafter, the WWJD bracelet, a margin calculator’s dream come true, had become the top selling item in all of the Zondervan-owned Christian bookstores throughout the country, eclipsing even the Bible.  Murdoch’s think tankers, who themselves weren’t part of the evangelical publishing community, had done expert research, and, based on their attention to evangelical values and behavior, made their fortunes by cashing in on their very own Christian pyramid scheme.  And while much good came from the public witness that resulted from the WWJD phenomenon, there are more than a few among us who have received a one-finger salute in traffic from a hand sporting one of these bracelets at the wrist.  When it comes to witnessing, you get what you pay for.

So how does this apply to us as Catholics?  Aren’t we called to spread the Gospel using every tool available to us in order to win as many souls as possible?  Shouldn’t we take into account people’s thought processes, inclinations, and human tendencies when it comes to addressing the needs of those whom we are trying to reach with the Gospel?  The answer, of course, is yes, but we must employ prudence in the process.  Carpet-bomb evangelism that plays a numbers game is effective in the short run, but it treats people like scalps on a belt rather than members of the body of Christ, leaving many unfed and stagnant, and ripe for being culled from the flock.

So how should we market ourselves as Catholics?  If we are indeed the one true Church instituted by Christ, then we know we have the best product on the market.  However, if we think of evangelism as marketing a product rather than introducing people to the person of Jesus, than we will miss the target, and badly.  This kind of mentality has had a severe negative effect in Catholic communities who have strived only to Baptize and Confirm new Catholics just to get them in the door; this is why it has been said before, perhaps accurately, that the largest denomination in the United States is ex-Catholics.  If you don’t believe this, read the comment box on the next online mainstream media article you read about the Catholic Church.

The fact of the matter is, we do have the Truth, and it can be as much a stumbling block to us as it is to those outside the Church.  But it must be dealt with and presented in its fullness if we ever hope to build a strong Catholic community.  The peculiarities of Catholicism among other Christian expressions can actually be those things that give it unique appeal, but we can often be coyer about them than necessary.  So when it comes time to “market” the Gospel, we should take great care not to fall into the manipulative tendencies of the marketing community, nor strive for an acquisition plan that sets right the balance sheet; rather, we should present the faith in fullness with all possible robustness and joy, and those who hunger for it will breathe a sigh of relief at finally meeting someone who was willing to tell them the Truth.

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