Theological Reflection – what are the ethical considerations of marketing?

Theological Reflection – what are the ethical considerations of marketing?

Introduction

This theological reflection explores ethical marketing, inspired by personal reflections around leaving Facebook and becoming more of a ‘country parson’, like George Herbert. I want to reflect on my marketing and business ethics for my business, Joy Factory, in the light of learning more about ethical frameworks and where we find them in the bible. I will be using Laurie Green’s model of Experience, Explore, Respond and Reflect.

Experience

My reflections have raised questions around how to live life more by spiritual discipline and being present, rather than by the social media algorithm and my phone. Lush (inventor of the very picturesque bath bombs) have left Instagram to deliver on their mission and aim to help their customers relax: “Social media platforms have become the antithesis of this aim, with algorithms designed to keep people scrolling and stop them from switching off and relaxing.”

Smartphones are a big part of this problem. Philosopher, Ian Bogestin described our smartphones as the ‘cigarette of this century’. Psychiatrist Gloria Mark and gambling studies professor Mark Griffiths described our phones as our appendages, almost being part of our bodies.

Consumerism has changed the way we spend our time as well as our money, as Kathryn Wheeler from the ‘School of Life’ writes: 

We meet friends at restaurants and bars which automatically includes spending money; we are told that we will create a special bond with people, including our family, thanks to expensive holidays.

This control via clever marketing and sales is completely at odds with God’s idea of being a merchant for the common good in the marketplace. I want to serve customers in my business, with ethical and godly marketing, networking and customer service. 

I want to be Christ-like in my business dealings; rejecting competition and ambition that doesn’t come from God. Ken Costa writes about good and bad ambition in the book, ‘God at Work’’: ‘When our ambition becomes divorced from the context of extending God’s kingdom, it risks destroying us.’

Explore

The idea of forwarding God’s Kingdom and purposes in marketing and business points towards the Deontological and Virtue ethical frameworks. The Deontological framework considers fixed ideas of what is right and wrong and is informed by God’s righteousness; Google’s mission statement, ‘Do the right thing’ addresses this idea.

The idea of love and service links to the Virtue Ethic, which asks what is the most loving and Christ-like thing to do. It also concerns goodness, which Paul writes about: ‘For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.’ (Phillipians 2: 13) Willard examines the writings of John Ruskin and Louis Brandeis, suggesting ways to be a good merchant (i.e. operating your business in the marketplace): we are to provide for the nation products and services men and women care about, and he summarises his point by saying, ‘Serving really involves giving people what is good for them, not merely pursuing their approval and granting their desires.’

The description of markets in the bible can inform my practice. Christopher J.H Wright says, ‘Israel was reminded repeatedly that God calls for justice “in the gate,” which is, in contemporary terms, the marketplace.’ This shows that God cares and is watching what goes on in the marketplace. He goes on to say, ‘Christians should be among those who bring the greatest public good to the marketplace and who thereby commend the biblical gospel.’ Merchants in the marketplace must not make the market the idol, but God, and in modern terms this is using online and face-to-face marketing appropriately and considering what is a Godly way to market our offering and indeed how to network.

John Lee, writing for ‘Christianity Today’, suggests that Paul was an effective networker. Lee talks about Mark Granovetter’s networking theory of weak and strong ties. Paul is able to spread the gospel more quickly by using ‘weak ties’: talking with people he didn’t know so well, reaching the other people within that person’s network. This is a principle I can use in my own networking.

The concept of ‘reaping and sowing’ from 2 Corinthians 9: 6 – 8 is also relevant: ‘Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.’ This suggests that we need to be servant-hearted first and aim to help people and we will likely get more back in return. In terms of the marketplace, this would be: clearly laying out the offer, being able to identify customers who might be interested, telling them about how it will help them solve their problem and giving them more of what they care about.

John Mark Comer, in ‘Live no Lies’ talks about the importance of cultivating the right things in our hearts and minds in our business practice, using the metaphor of a garden:

 ‘The Christian tradition has understood the human vocation to be to take chaos and make order. To “make order” is to take the chaos of the planet and turn it into a garden-like city in which human beings can flourish and thrive in relationship to each other’

The idea of agriculture and cultivating led me to Ecclesiastes 11, where the writer extols the virtue of having a range of endeavours and being generous and also to trust God in the process, not in our own strength. This gave me a framework for considering what I should reap and sow and how I might cultivate my spiritual disciplines to ensure I serve and love people in my business practice.

Reflect

In order to live by Jesus’ greatest commandment to firstly love God and then to love one another like we love ourselves (Matthew 22: 34 – 40), I need to treat my customers in the way I want to be treated. I want to strengthen my spiritual disciplines to ensure I am constantly coming back to God and seeking his guidance, rather than falling foul of the world, the algorithm and the temptation to please people. Comer describes this as the rule of life; ‘A schedule and set of practices and relational rhythms that organise our lives around Jesus’s invitation to abide in the vine. It is how we live in alignment with our deepest desires for life with God in his kingdom.’ 

This vocabulary of cultivation is reminiscent of the idea of reaping and sowing: that we will get back what we put in. A good ‘rule of life’ that I have developed includes daily bible study, spiritual direction, journaling, retreats and also my study. These practices ensure I stay focused on God’s calling on my life. 

The study of growing wheat provided some useful metaphors for cultivating the ‘garden’ or land God has given me and planting my ‘endeavours’ (such as projects, campaigns or clients’ work) mentioned in Ecclesiastes 11. Firstly the ground is turned over, which is a good metaphor for research and reflection. Next the seed is scattered; this would be an endeavour (such as a marketing campaign, a project or an event). The farmer then looks after the plants and protects them from weeds as they germinate; this could be project management, being agile and flexible, being on guard for un-Christ-like influences and allowing the truth to set me free (John 8: 31 – 32). Next the grain is harvested, winnowed and stored, which is reminiscent of discernment and deciding what is important to God and what isn’t. Then the wheat would be milled and sold at the marketplace. This represents the promotional, marketing and networking side of my work.

The marketplace, the birthplace of marketing, was intended to be a meeting place, where people knew each other and the merchants were accountable. People would share ideas, socialise and and find the common ground, as Avi Friedman states: ‘Citizens and governments defined the shared values of the community.’ This is the kind of marketing I want to do. The marketplace is somewhere you visit, share ideas, meet people and be accountable, ultimately to God, as Willard points out: ‘We actually live as if God creates, audits, governs, and redeems the marketplace.’

Respond

These reflections have led me to a theology that fits my business. The antithesis of competing with others and being pushy like the rest of the world is to become a servant, to listen and to help. A good merchant at a market knows when to speak and when to listen and can describe to the buyer what they are selling. Also, the merchant goes home when the market is finished. I want to carry out my marketing in the market place and then be able to rest, away from it, as God commands us to. This also encourages me to not be anxious about my endeavours and to trust God to provide rather than doing it all myself. 

I will treat each digital platform, such as LinkedIn, email and WhatsApp, like a stall in the actual marketplace where people come to share ideas and merchants aim to do good. I will use Instagram as a platform to declare God’s kingdom, rather than marketing. In networking I will think of others, not myself and will aim to find clients in real-life situations. I will communicate with my customers in ways I would appreciate myself; within working hours, by being clear and simple and not adding more noise and stress to people’s busy lives and I will advocate they do the same with their own clients.

Conclusion

Johann Hari writes in the Guardian about the French legal law of ‘The right to disconnect’, where an employer is fined for contacting an employee outside of the agreed hours. I want this right for myself and my customers. ‘Disconnecting’ links with the idea of the ‘rule of life’, which I address with my ‘Joy Diary’, where I plot in diary appointments that are important to God, my calling and my soul, such as holidays with my family, time to be inspired by nature and art and also lectures to further my business and spiritual formation. I want to provide services and products for my customers that make space for their own ‘Joy Diaries’ and to reduce stress in their work and rest. Jesus has come to set us free from the world in our work and rest, as Willard writes: 

‘‘The only place we can stand is in the teachings of Jesus Christ. He is the only one who can give us the guidance we need in order to serve others, whatever our line of work may be.’

I aim to go forward with a stronger ‘rule of life’ as an antithesis to the modern digital marketing methods of being available 24-7 and fighting for attention. I want to always abide in Jesus’ vine.

Citations:

1 George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple or the Country Parson: With Selected Poems (London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2014)

2  Laurie Green, 2009. Let’s Do Theology, 2nd edn (Bloomsbury Publishing) <https://www.perlego.com/book/392442/lets-do-theology-pdf&gt; [accessed 2 February 2022]

3  Nike Levin, This is why Lush Just Quit TikTok, Instagram & Other Social Media Platforms (2021) <https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/why-lush-quit-social-media&gt; [accessed 05.02.22].

4  Io Dodds, ‘Addicted’, The Telegraph Magazine, 8th January, 2022, pg. 20.

5 Ibid pg. 18.

6  Kathryn Wheeler, The Truth about work-life balance (2021) https://happiful.com/the-truth-about-work-life-balance/ [accessed 5th February, 2022]

7  Ken Costa, God at Work (London, Continuum, 2007) pg. 65.

8 David Mayer,‘Why Google was smart to drop its “Don’t Be Evil” motto (2016) <https://www.fastcompany.com/3056389/why-google-was-smart-to-drop-its-dont-be-evil-motto&gt; [accessed 5th February, 2022]

9  Willard, pg. 29.

10 Ibid. pg. 3

11 Ibid pg. 17

12 Christopher J.H Wright, Saints in the Marketplace: a biblical perspective on the world of work (2010) <https://theotherjournal.com/2010/09/29/saints-in-the-marketplace-a-biblical-perspective-on-the-world-of-work/&gt; [accessed 5th February, 2022]

13  Ibid Footnote 12

14  John Lee, Learning from Paul to Leverage Networking for Missions (2017) <https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/august-web-only/learning-from-paul-networking-evangelism.html&gt; [accessed 5th February, 2022]

15  Comer, pg. 33. 

16  Ibid pg. 235.

17 Karen Bertelsen, How to grow & harvest wheat on a small scale (2021) <https://www.theartofdoingstuff.com/im-growing-wheat-this-year-and-you-can-too/&gt; [accessed 5th February, 2020]

18  Avi Fredman, The history of markets reveals a lot about the state of the economy and society (2017) <https://qz.com/895122/the-history-of-markets-reveals-a-lot-about-the-state-of-the-economy-and-society/&gt; [accessed 5th February, 2022]

19 <https://theotherjournal.com/2010/09/29/saints-in-the-marketplace-a-biblical-perspective-on-the-world-of-work/&gt;

20 Johann Hari, Your attention didn’t collapse. It was stolen. (2022) <https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/jan/02/attention-span-focus-screens-apps-smartphones-social-media/&gt; {accessed 5th February, 2022]

21 Willard, pg. 15.

Published by Katie Moritz

I'm Katie Moritz and I founded the Joy Factory in 2013. I'm here to help people build their brand and to find the right customers. I help clients with marketing and content plans. I also create brand identities, illustrations and printed materials. I run bespoke training for individuals and teams. I hold a women's network space, 'Breakthrough'. I write about my journey in theology and Christian pioneering as well as my thoughts about rest, mental health and parenting. I'm also an artist.