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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5 Comments

  1. Matt-what an excellent article and reminder to us all. It is clear that we can’t only speak to our fellow Catholics about our beautiful faith, but we are called to share it with all…even if that means being uncomfortable. One of the things that would attract people in droves to the Church (and help us keep young adults in the Church) would be for the majority of practicing Catholics to be joyful. If people saw the Light of Christ in us and approached us curious about what is making us joyful, would that not be desirable? This reminds me of the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”

    Thanks Matt and God bless-

    Randy

  2. Matt, very good article. It’s good to remember, as you reminded us, that what we have to share is a PERSON, not a “religion” per se. Just as I might introduce you to a good friend of mine, I should feel just that comfortable introducing anyone to Jesus, and to the Catholic Church. I’m a convert so I know all the questions and concerns. However, truth is why I became Catholic. THE TRUTH, the hierarchy, the magisterium, the catholicity, the one true, universal church that Jesus Himself started.

  3. Bravo! Mark,

    What a joy it was to read this article, this morning!

    I have long been a proponent of Friendship Evangelism, first as a Protestant and now as a
    Catholic (although now I suppose it should rightfully termed “Friendship Evangelization.”
    (grin) But whatever we call it the fact remains: “People don’t care how much you know,
    until they know how much you care.” (a quote I’ve seen attributed to several…couldn’t say
    who said it first.)

    Bottom line: unless we take the time to build bridges into the lives of others, we have no
    platform from which to speak. As a friend we can lead our friends to Jesus. It’s far less
    effective to drag strangers to the foot of His cross. I suspect that we are called as “friendly
    lights” to warm a darkened world, rather than harsh “search lights” to ferret out wayward
    wanders.

    Blessings in all that you put your hand to,
    Victoria Walters

  4. Looks like this has become the Official Combox of Converts 🙂

    If there was a latent frustration I was trying to express in this article, it was borne from my experience during my journey into the Church at the lack of straight answers I seemed to get from Catholics about the faith. In my few short years as a Catholic, I have seen a dramatic improvement in the ability, as well as the willingness of Catholics to articulate the faith to the many curious potential Catholics who are so often met either with distortions of Catholicism by the media or by the lack of enthusiasm of actual Catholics. New media such as ICL are doing a wonderful job of bringing an informed joy to the practice of the faith, and I commend Randy and the countless others who are continuing to make themselves available to people who have a genuine interest in learning about True Catholicism.

  5. “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence…” (1 Peter 3:15 RSV-CE)

    The example of our lives should radiate the faith, hope and love that is in us. Then when people inevitably ask us about our joy, we should be eager and able to tell them.

    Deacon Mike

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