Watching “The Persuaders” was like gaining access into a secret world, if only for a short while. We are all victims of advertising; when you open your phone or look at your computer or TV screen, you are bombarded with companies wanting you to buy their products.
Marketers try and persuade us in a variety of ways, but their primary focus is forming an emotional connection with the consumer. Ads promise that a product will enable us to become a better version of ourselves, avoid something we are afraid of, or embody a lifestyle we wish we had.
This Diet Coke commercial that I frequently see at the movies is a perfect example of a company trying to convince us that a product can change our life. Don’t like flying economy class? That’s okay, just take a sip of Diet Coke and you’ll feel like you’re living in the lap of luxury.
It sounds ridiculous, we all fall for it.
If you aren’t big on technology chances are you still see advertisements, perhaps more than you realize as you go about your day. They are all around us, and our favorite brands are like familiar friends. What I was shocked to discover was how familiar they are with us.
We've all heard people say, “The government is using our webcams to spy on us!” I’ll refrain from making any judgments on that, but I was in middle school when I first noticed something strange. I was checking my email when I noticed the advertisements on the side of the screen directly related to the products I had just been shopping for online.
I thought it was terrifying. I was on a completely different website! How could anyone (or anything) possibly know what I had been searching for?
I thought there was someone spying on me, and I immediately told my dad about the problem. All he did was look at me and say, “Creepy, isn’t it?” Since then, I have been very aware of the fact that the advertisements popping up on my screen relate to whatever I’ve been Googling.
This happens to all of us. In fact, you’ve probably noticed it yourself. Why does this happen?
The most memorable thing for me in “The Persuaders” was the information presented on market research and consumer profiling. Companies like Acxiom make money by selling consumer names to other businesses who want to narrow their target audience. A company wanting to target their product at someone like me might send a consumer profiling company criteria like this:
· College student
· Lives in Virginia
The company then purchases the generated names of people that fit into these categories. This list seems pretty harmless, but the scary thing to me is how detailed these lists can become. The above is very generic, but it can become much more specific, such as:
· Owns one dog
· Watched “Stranger Things” on Netflix
· Frequently shops on Amazon
Maybe this is harmless too, but it makes me nervous to think about all these companies having such specific information about me without my knowledge or consent. This kind of information can be used to filter what advertisements I see. I still think it’s creepy, but it’s what advertisers have to do in order to reach consumers that might actually be interested in what they have to sell.
How does it make you feel, though? It may be a necessary evil in today’s marketing world, but I’ll admit, it makes me uncomfortable.
Christians and Advertising
All of this brings an interesting question to light: is this kind of persuasion ethical? How does it fit in with a Christian worldview?
Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the advertising industry, but it does have some things to say about manipulation. There are a few verses in particular that highlight our responsibility to our fellow man:
· Ephesians 4:25, “…let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor…we are members of one another.”
· Matthew 24:4, “Jesus answered them, ‘See that no one leads you astray.’”
· Romans 16:18, “…such persons serve…their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve.”
Romans 16:18 stands out to me in particular. According to my own convictions, it is not necessarily evil to be a part of the marketing industry. However, there is a fine line between persuasion and manipulation when it comes to advertising, and that’s where Christians need to be careful not to cross an ethical boundary.
I would also argue that selling information about a person without their knowledge is unethical, but that’s for another time.
I enjoyed watching “The Persuaders.” While the consumer profiling segment of the documentary did reinforce the uncomfortable notion that my activity is being monitored, I find the industry extremely fascinating and look forward to learning more in the future.
For Christians, there are definitely some moral dilemmas that can occur from being a “persuader,” but as long as we know where to draw the line between persuasion and deceit, I don’t believe there is anything fundamentally wrong about marketing. Advertisers have to reach consumers somehow, and anymore it’s becoming increasingly difficult to break through the clutter of ads we see every day.
On my honor, I have watched “The Persuaders” in its entirety.