Is it Un-Christian for Advertisers to Make Consumers?

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109 Building, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan.

“Advertising aims to teach people that they have wants—which they did not recognize before—and where such wants can be best be supplied.”  That’s according to The Thompson Red Book on Advertising.  It was published in 1901.  (Advertising has been around for a while.)

What about this idea of cultivating people’s otherwise unformed wants, or desires?  Arguably, it runs directly counter to an important aspect of Christian growth.  Paul tells us in Philippians 4:11 that he has “learned to be content.”  Contentment is an important mark of Christian maturity, allowing us to rest in God’s will for our lives.  And, following Paul, there’s no doubt that contentment is something we all have to learn.

What works against contentment is some form of dissatisfaction.  Does the advertising practice of “cultivating desires” end up being the same thing as “cultivating dissatisfaction” in us?  Consider the following argument.

A “desire” is the feeling we experience of wanting the world to be a certain way.  Our desires are “unrealized” or “frustrated” when the world doesn’t align with our desires.  Now, in cultivating new desires in us, advertisers leave us in the position of needing to change more and more things about the world—specifically, of needing to buy more and more things—so that the world does align with our desires.  And this is just another way of saying that advertisers leave us more and more dissatisfied with what the world is currently offering us.  So we end up being led backwards in our quest to be contented with the way things are.

Maybe there is room for some pushback against this line of argument.  But it’s beyond question that Christians have sometimes actively engaged in the practice of stirring up desires, where none existed before.

An interesting example is Henry Crowell, founder of Quaker Oats.  During the early 20th century he was a major financial contributor to the Moody Bible Institute, also serving as chair of their Board of Trustees for 40 years.  Apparently, in the late 1800s most Americans ate meat and potatoes for breakfast.  Not good news for Crowell’s fledgling cereal company.

Here’s how Crowell later described his own role in helping shape the breakfast eating habits of Americans: “My aim in advertising was to do educational and constructive work so as to awaken an interest in, and create a demand for, cereals where none existed.”

Now, this kind of cultivation of desire doesn’t seem to be a bad thing; it doesn’t work against the Christian goal of contentment.  (After all, people have to eat something at breakfast.)  Further, some kinds of cultivation of consumers’ desires is unquestionably a good thing.  As Rodney Clapp points out, Colgate had to teach people who had never heard of toothpaste that they should brush their teeth daily.

So where do we draw the line?  It seems clear that helping people uncover needs they have (like toothpaste) is a good thing.  But it seems equally clear that helping cultivate all kinds of new wants in people’s lives (for a continually newer gadget, for the most exclusive designer shoe, for a car that will make you the envy of the neighborhood) works against the Christian goal of contentment.

I don’t know where that line is in other people’s lives.  I’m working on where the line between “need” and “want” is in my own life.  It’s part of the larger discussion about “How Much Is Enough?”  But contentment is a big part of that discussion.  And so I think it’s worth reflecting—hopefully within an accountability group—on which of the things constantly marketed around us  are consistent with a life of contentment, and which things seem to leave us continually dissatisfied.

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Kevin Kinghorn serves as editor of the Faith and Work Collective blog. He is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. His undergraduate work (Emory) was in economics and political science. His graduate work (Asbury; Yale; Oxford) and current teaching has focused on topics within philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. He lives in Mt. Sterling, KY, where he and his wife Barbara work toward community transformation, providing music and art opportunities for children.

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