Ask the average consumer about their ideas on business, and they’ll likely describe it as profit-oriented and self-serving, tainted by greed and excess. Marketing — the industry of persuasion — is often perceived as having no moral criteria, as taking advantage of people and encouraging destructive consumerism. Marketing carries heavy baggage.
There is a need to develop both a theology of marketing and a framework for teaching, researching and practicing it ethically. In other words: how can God’s shalom redeem the art of persuasion? Prof. Laurie Busuttil, assistant professor and chair of Redeemer’s Business department, examined how the purpose of marketing has gradually become misaligned with the practice in her tenure paper and presentation, Marketing: Exchanging What Is for What Should Be.
“How can God’s shalom redeem the art of persuasion?”
Marketing as an activity is uniquely human. The American Marketing Association defines marketing as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” This industry-standard definition gets at necessary activities that have occurred throughout history: persuasion, bartering and exchange. Today’s issues lie in the assumption that the exchange process is adversarial in nature — that the marketer is against the consumer and vice versa.
But Busuttil argues that “[Marketing] is balanced by the self-interest of each party.” Mutually beneficial exchanges, then, are possible. For instance, advertising is information packaged to empower consumers to make decisions about products and services. While advertising is just one piece of marketing, this idea raises big questions. “Does marketing create questionable social values, or does it reinforce already existing values?” asks Busuttil. “How can Christians ‘do’ marketing in ways that serve the common good of our communities, with goods and services that contribute to society in positive and affirming ways? Can Christians in marketing seek ways to shape culture?”
Busuttil suggests that marketing is a good and necessary part of God’s creation that has been skewed by sin and misdirected by culture. All work can be an act of reconciliation because Christians can actively move towards redemption through the circles in which they live and work. Using Al Wolter’s description of the biblical narrative — comprised of the three movements of creation, fall and redemption — as a foundation, Busuttil examined marketing through the lens of Christ’s redemption of the world — and how, without this lens, there cannot be a lasting impact for Christ in the industry. “A practical theology of marketing,” she says, “shapes our actions in such a way that we can provide solutions to practical issues of our society through the provision of appropriate products and services, and do so in ways that safeguard our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual environments while reflecting God’s good and creative nature.”
Christian marketers are vocationally called to differentiate what they do and how they do it. Redemptive marketing reflects God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself: he exchanged something undesirable (sin and separation) for something of great value (the righteousness of Christ and an eternal relationship). Therefore, following this model, products should be advertised honestly and sold for fair prices to build trust and nurture long-term relationships. Design should be sustainable and considerate of future generations. Resources can be used wisely and efficiently, enhancing stewardship. “We should strive to articulate the value of items being exchanged beyond just the price affixed to a product,” states Busuttil. Reconciliation in marketing mirrors God’s shalom, meeting the needs of both the buyer and the seller by fostering right relationship between them.
Students must have the ability to enter the industry with the tools to shape culture, grounded in a biblical framework. “As educators, we are called to challenge students to love God and their neighbours as they strive to meet the needs — not unlimited wants — of consumers now and in future generations,” says Busuttil. The reality embodied in Scripture — the redemption of humanity and God’s shalom — gives Christians a basis for education, research and their industry. Christians can reflect upon what should be rather than what is, bringing about flourishing, right relationship and a profound impact on the next generation of consumers and marketers.