I work in marketing. How can I tell a story without manipulating people or creating idols?
“Marketer” often comes with slimy vibes, and no one feels this more acutely than those answering the question, “So, what do you do?”
I’ve been there, trying to explain away what I do with fervor. I had previously been able to answer “editor” or “curriculum writer,” which was often met with fanfare. But when God presented an opportunity to work on a team of marketers, helping readers discover books that might introduce them to Jesus for the first time or draw them closer to him in their walk, I was unsure of how people would react to my new career path.
At the heart of marketing is a goal that kept me feeling fulfilled—knowing people well enough to identify their needs and then serving them by meeting those needs. Whether you’re promoting a product, event, experience, person, organization, or even a church, your goal at its most basic is to connect products with those who need them most. Good marketers tell the truth with clarity, intention, and creativity, persuading people to action.
So when does persuasion toward a good solution to a problem cross over the ethical line into manipulation? Here are five questions to ask.
1. Is it true?
Do you believe in what you’re marketing? Would you recommend it to a friend? In our work as marketers, we’re to image God as truth-tellers. It can be easy to exaggerate the greatness of a product, but ethical marketing should include honesty in every ad and social post.
In addition, commit yourself to honest practices. Don’t buy email lists that were collected inappropriately or use gimmicks to get clicks and add more people to the top of your sales funnel. Earn attention, don’t steal it. And always tell the truth.
Earn attention, don’t steal it.
Ethical marketing seeks to create solutions that make the lives of others better, but it doesn’t imply that life is incomplete without that product. The promise of a new identity often leads to idolatry, while honesty and real solutions genuinely offer people good news. Humans are wired to be evangelists, quickly sharing whatever news or product we find to be best based on our own rubric of conditions. We want our marketing news to be good news—giving hope, joy, understanding, or help in pushing back against the thorns and thistles of life.
2. Is it beneficial?
Is what you’re marketing truly beneficial to the buyer? Does it bring ease, help, or joy? There are many good products in the world, from pithy printed T-shirts to organizers for everything you own to sparklers to bandages that keep you from getting blisters. These products seek to bring order out of chaos or healing to pain or straight-up joy.
If the product we’re working to market truly is beneficial, then it’s kind to share about it with others. If it’s simply extra stuff, we ask others to carry clutter instead of a good gift.
3. Is it beautiful?
Kingdom work is the work of cultivating fruit and bringing about beauty, making one corner of the world—or the internet—look more like heaven than it did before. Are you working to make the world better for others or are you just creating noise?
Noise is posting content just so you have content. Beauty is posting helpful, thoughtful, intentional content that serves readers. Noise is puffing up a brand with exaggerated reviews or promises. Beauty is matching the right graphics, words, and even fonts to bring attention to a product with real value. The world has enough noise. Make beauty.
4. Is it generous?
Marketing should be deeply generous work. When we approach marketing like we have something to get from others, we may lean toward manipulative tactics to get them to respond. When we approach it with generosity, we’re looking for opportunities to give. This might look like free content, promotional pricing, or other added value—not because there’s often reciprocity when we give but because we serve a generous God who provides for us lavishly.
5. Is it service?
Marketers are advocates, standing between the creators of products and those they serve. The primary work of marketing is deeply knowing an audience and their needs and communicating well. This communication includes being a translator of those needs to the creators and speaking the audience’s language fluently so you might best connect with them and serve them.
When we approach marketing with generosity, we’re looking for opportunities to give.
The goodness of God as our advocate and provider is seen in our work as we seek to love others as we love ourselves. Ethical marketing is an outpouring of love for others and an understanding of their needs. It’s good because there’s real care for real people.
Whether you are marking via television, social media, email, print, or the largest billboard in Times Square, your goal is service—meeting people where they are with products, services, or events that will truly help them. All work can be kingdom work, and marketing is no different. When the goal of marketing is to know and serve people well, then it’s work done well.
The Gospel Coalition