Salesmanship doesn’t have to be sleazy any more than art has to be modern. Being truthful when marketing your product or service comes down to prioritizing faithful leadership over telling a story, so you don’t get seduced by your own narrative.
Seth Godin famously gave one of his most popular books this title. All Marketers Are Liars. In it, he corrals a number of compelling examples to make his case. Wine tastes better when it costs more. Expensive shoes feel better than cheap ones. And so on.
The objective fact is that the wine is not tastier, and the shoes are not more comfortable. But marketing has us believing otherwise.
Godin justifies marketing this way by saying that it’s not really lying, it’s story-telling—and even if this kind of storytelling is a kind of lying, it’s not really lying anyway, because when your customers believe your story (the story they want to believe), then it becomes true.
Which for some reason reminds me of Genesis 3.
Godin draws the line between “fibs,” which he says all marketers tell, and “frauds,” which he says are those fibs told by marketers who are acting selfishly.
If you’re even passingly familiar with the history of ideas, or with how the Western mindset and worldview has changed over the past century, this approach to marketing won’t surprise you.
It’s just postmodern relativism dressed up in the jargon of salesmanship.
Truth and fiction become a matter of what your customers believe, rather than what corresponds to the world. It’s okay to make people believe “your” truth if your motivations are good. (Let’s not rabbit-trail on the recursive problem of how “good” itself is just a matter of what story you believe.)
But the fact that marketing today is largely being done like this doesn’t mean that marketing must be like this—any more than the fact that most “art” today is of negative aesthetic value means that all art must be. Marketing, like art, can be based on objective, normative truth standards, grounded in the being and character of God.
This should be obvious because businesses have been doing marketing—ie, reaching more people and turning them into customers—for longer than postmodernism has been around.
Indeed, while I’m no student of the history of marketing, I have noticed something quite interesting about the marketing books I’ve read: the old ones outline methods that are much more straightforward and ethically appealing than the new ones. If you read Hopkins, who pioneered the whole field of direct response marketing, or Ogilvy, who perfected it, or Bird, who learned from Ogilvy, there is a sort of conservatism to their approach—they use simple language grounded very much in the facts.
I’m not saying this way of doing things has been entirely forgotten, but around the time of Gene Schwartz I think there was a sea change. I doubt Schwartz was responsible for it, but he was certainly involved with it. Salesmanship had always been about creating a vision of your prospect’s future—but around the point he arrived on the scene, the relationship between that vision and the facts flipped in the mainstream.
Under the old way of doing things, the vision was driven by the facts; it was grounded in what was real, in what was true.
In the new way of doing things, the vision became the driving force—and the facts bent to serve it.
The meta-seduction of storytelling
As Christians who want to reach more people and turn them into customers, we need to have our eyes open to the often-subtle difference between these two ways of doing things.
The fact is, marketing as storytelling works very well. You should do it. All effective salesmanship necessarily involves a narrative of how your prospect’s life could be with your help, and there is nothing insidious about that. That is simply part of leading people to the solution they want. Marketing is a kind of leadership.
Provided your story is moored in reality, you are exercising faithful leadership that does both you and your customer good.
But here’s where Christians doing marketing run into trouble:
Because storytelling really does work for selling ideas, you become seduced by your own story
Once that happens, drift is almost inevitable. Once you are so invested that what you’re saying becomes about the story rather than about faithful leadership, you can convince yourself that all kinds of little embellishments and white lies are okay—because, after all, they advance the story.
This is especially dangerous because as people who value the truth, we tend to think we will never fall victim to lying in our marketing. But the kind of lying we think of is never where it starts. Cutting loose from the moorings of reality doesn’t happen all at once. It starts with a small drift. And we justify the drift by saying that if it lets us help more people with our product or solution, then what’s the harm?
For people who value the truth, the first victim to a drifting story is always the one telling it.
The apostle Paul warned us, in another context:
“I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment (Romans 12:3).
In verse 16 of that chapter, he quotes Proverbs 3:7, which cautions us to not be wise in our own eyes, but to fear Yahweh and turn away from evil.
I am often struck when reading Proverbs how frequently a similar refrain is made; God feels the need to remind us several times of our propensity for self-deception in the pursuit of expediting our goals. Even when our goals are good. Our ways, we think, are pure (Proverbs 16:2), right (Proverbs 14:12; 21:2), and wise (Proverbs 26:12)—but in fact, they are foolish and lead to death.
Guarding ourselves against this is simple—but hard
It is simple because I can summarize it in a single paragraph. And it is hard because…well, because it is hard:
We must seek after the way that leads to wisdom and life. As Proverbs 3:7 suggested, and Proverbs 9:10 confirms, this starts with a wholesome fear of God—a respect and awe for his greatness, his goodness, his truthfulness. And this in turn must provoke in us a dread at transgressing his standard by not doing what is good for others, through being untruthful with them. A dread that far outweighs our other goals, no matter how good they may be.
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