Marketing theology and philosophy

Catholic theologians and philosophers have spent at least 50 years worrying over whether their theology speaks to modern people. A clear instance would be Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, though one could read the whole of Vatican II in a similar way. Protestantism had a 200-year head start in worrying over this, making it either the vanguard or the canary in the mine, depending on what thinks about the problem.

One factor to take into account in evaluating this is that “to speak to someone” is just a synonym of “to persuade someone”, and for the last 50 years the overwhelming number of persuasion-acts that have affected us are from advertising. Advertising is our paradigm for persuasion simply because of its sheer ubiquity. Chances are that there are at least five logos within reach of anywhere you are: sitting at my desk I see one on the phone, one on each Kleenex box, two on the pencil sharpener, three on the computer, one on the dry erase marker… and this is before I count any that are on my clothes, my glasses, my zipper… as an artist friend tells me, we are surrounded by art, but most of it is invisible – though not in the sense that it is forgotten but in the sense that, as T.S. Eliot put it, it makes the music that is heard so deeply that it is not heard at all.

All of these logos make a largely unconscious language of persuasion. All things efficient or powerful have clear, angular, and dynamic looking logos, and are made with the “motion color” materials like silver, grey, black or deeper blue (sometimes white) all things appetizing draw from another palate with yellows, red, oranges, green etc. and have rounded-type logos. Make a hammer as sturdy as you please – no one is going to buy it if your advertising aesthetic is used by Burger King or My Little Pony. Make the tastiest burger in town – no one will buy it if it’s in a black wrapper with silver and blue angular writing.

All this is a roundabout way to show that the desire to update theology is not a cry for new theology but for new marketing. The Vatican II buzzword of “pastoral” theology is itself marketing. It’s pointless to try to swap out, say a Thomistic approach for a Kierkegaardian approach, or to swap out historical perspectives for more logical ones. Changing the content does nothing, it’s the form that needs updating. There are at least three elements to this updated form:

1.) Be brief and bullet-like. Advertising has conditioned us to expect that persuasion must be more or less instantaneous. No one can follow a paragraph as long as Locke or Newman anymore. I don’t mean Newman was verbose – he never used a wasted word. But Wittgenstein is the new model. Philosophy like a programming language or a soundbite. (A return of the disputed question might be an improvement.)

2.) Seek out the image, story, or example over an argument. The brevity we have become accustomed to in advertising makes us mant to see something immediately as true as opposed to having to reason laboriously for it. Everyone knows the Chinese room, the trolley problem, zombies, possible worlds, etc. Few Analytic philosophers can get from one end of a thought to another withotu using some far-fetched and wildly improbable illustration. The success of Dan Dennett (or, on the opposite extreme, Chesterton) seems in large part that he is an interesting storyteller. Raymond Ruyer could write whole books that moved from one masterstroke image to another, although little of his work has been translated out of French.

Giving examples is, of course, nothing new, but the centrality of the story over the argument is something distinctively post-modern. Our insistence on “evidence” means as evidence as opposed to argument. We want to just see the truth. We are skeptical of any multi-stage process of reasoning.

Methodologically, this supports the use of abductive and/or analogous reasoning over either deductive or inductive reasoning, that is, we should start with tentative ideas and point to some facts that make one hypothesis more probable. Scientific mythology makes us (irrationally) more convinced by evidence than by self evidence; more certain of the probable than the certain. We’ll repeat a single scientific test as though it’s gospel while being suspicious of the Pythagorean theorem.

3.) Emphasize ambiguities where possible. Advertising accustoms us to see persuasion as coming in a morass of competing and conflicting acts, and so ambiguities are essential to establish ones bona fides. Even the most strident dogmatist can find many to bring forward. Pure consistency and clarity is understood to be ideological and therefore a sort of rationalization. This is particularly the case in the Anglosphere, which tends to express itself tentatively even without the post-modern love of uncertainty making an additional contribution.

This is makes exception to rule 1. If you are giving a lengthy description of how ambiguous are difficult a problem is, people can follow it and believe it. If you insist on one dogmatic point at the end of this, or at some point during the flow, people will accept it as gospel.


  1. thenyssan said,

    February 20, 2014 at 11:42 am

    Which one are you sneaking in as gospel? 🙂

    At the start of this post, I was sure you were going to jump from logos (tangent: a seriously weird word for philosophically-minded types to read, since I keep seeing a Greek word Logos) to iconography. If we want to rebrand the faith, why don’t we make more Catholic art and make it EVERYWHERE?

    • February 20, 2014 at 11:55 am

      I did some ambiguities in paragraph 1, in putting Dennett and Chesterton together, and in mentioning Burger KIng, My Little Pony, and the colors of the Oakland Raiders all in two sentences.

      The “gospel” point was the claim that what is called for is a change in marketing and not content. The secret desire is to undermine the idea that certain theologies cannot speak to modern people.

      Two reactions are equally valid: 1.) disgust over the idea of branding theology, and thus the rejection of any of this stuff and 2.) a recognition that casting about for new theologies is pointless and that all we need to do is find a new rhetoric.

      • thenyssan said,

        February 21, 2014 at 12:13 pm

        Let me attempt to concretize this a little. I have a fair amount of success teaching on “fanciful topics” (Trinity, angels and demons, possession, Jesus Loves You) to young teenagers in a Catholic school. These are all boys who are hyper-intelligent and hyper-critical, who chew up and spit out some other teachers. The only thing I do to make these ideas palatable, to be considered seriously, and frequently appreciated, is pretty simple.

        I acknowledge the way society views these things, and I make fun of it.

        I teach to-the-letter Catholic dogma, the things “everyone knows are ridiculous,” and as long as I am sarcastic and make fun of how stupidly the media (and their lousy CCD) portrays these things, boys think them through and sometimes even feel a lot better about believing them. I often feel guilt that I am the parent giving sugar to his kids–I know what will buy their affection and I’m willing to do it most of the time–but it’s crazily effective. You do that for a few months, and when you try to teach them that Jesus Loves Them or that all human lives have dignity, they actually listen. And (perhaps wishful thinking), I don’t think they are falling for the glitz and ignoring the substance. I think (hope) that it’s just successful marketing that makes it possible for the intellect and will to kick in and work on these things.

      • February 21, 2014 at 12:43 pm

        I’ve been interested in a long time by the use of sarcasm and mockery in the early Church Fathers – there’s a fascinating literature on this either waiting to be developed or already written (either way, I don’t know of it). There is good Scriptural warrant for it too – one thinks of Elijah mocking the priests of Baal or the irreverent dismissals of idolatry in the Psalms “they have eyes but see not” or in the Wisdom books: “the idols of silver and gold are the work of men’s hands” (notice how this is almost scientific in spirit – it’s the voice of one debunking or mythbusting).

        All this suggests that the rhetoric of the faith is one of confidence even unto dismissal of what competes with it. All that competes with it, so far as it does, is a superstition that no intellectually serious person would be caught dead in. Their idols are the work of men’s hands, but our God is the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

      • thenyssan said,

        February 21, 2014 at 2:18 pm

        It’s funny that you mention those Scripture passages…I wildly overplay the sarcasm of Elijah. For that matter, a considerable swath of the OT plays that way. When parents ask what I do to make the Old Testament interesting, I laugh (politely) in their faces.

        There’s definitely a big chunk of specialist literature in the rhetoric of many individual Fathers. I’m not too interested in hunting through it for treatments of sarcasm, but I wouldn’t mind making it a Lenten project to go through, say, St. Leo on my own. Could be interesting.

      • February 21, 2014 at 2:39 pm

        There’s something of sarcasm even in the foundational revelation at the burning bush. Moses wants God’s name, and presumably he wanted it as just another entry into the pantheon – perhaps a name proving God is better than the Egyptian gods, or at least interested in the Hebrews. But God’s response is to say, in effect, “I’m the god who, y’know, exists“.

      • thenyssan said,

        February 21, 2014 at 5:28 pm

        I’m a little worried that finding sarcasm on every page of the OT (which I certainly do) says more about you and me than it does about theology…

  2. February 20, 2014 at 11:49 am

    What would you say to the dictum: “the medium is the message”? While I think that this can be abused, there is some truth to the idea that saying the same thing differently is actually saying something different.

    Additionally, while core points of theology did not dramatically change, there seems to me some pretty undeniable discontinuity between Vatican II and the Syllabus of Errors, for example. If this can happen regarding social/moral issues, can it happen with regards to theological issues?

    • February 20, 2014 at 12:22 pm

      To the extent that the example is right, so much the worse for the Syllabus, I suppose. An Ecumenical Council is at the zenith of authority.

      There are points to argue over in Vat II, and reading the commentaries on it make it clear that some very radical changes were integral to it. That said, I had its documents in mind when I set down rule 3.

  3. PG said,

    February 20, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    I am nearly overwhelmed by the fragments of thoughts this brings out of me, I’ll try to organize them a bit.

    My immediate reaction is, as you say above, disgust. It’s akin to marketing marriage or friendship, which is impossible, not because we do not try, but because the thing being marketed is necessarily a very poor imitation (or inversion, or perversion) of the real thing. Sculpting and painting a stone to look like bread does not make it any more edible. I look around and see a culture that is determined to sustain itself on gravel, and I feel like we are saying that we should make our bread more stone-like in order to make it more palatable to the rock-eaters around us.

    That initial reaction out of the way, I cannot really argue with your bullet points (ha!) above. I might say they were all a result of the television and what we have come to think of as news and information. What we really want from the box is entertainment, and news and learning is no exception. Even the written word has had to keep up, as evidenced by nearly every newspaper story beginning with some variation of “It was a dark and stormy night…”, hence Rule 2. I lament this, but like it or not, it is the very air we breathe.

    Rule 3 is a very interesting observation. One must display one’s skepticism before others will accept anything else of what is said as being in good faith. To do otherwise is to either be dogmatic and therefore bad, possibly even “fascist” (which is just a stronger word for “bad” in our culture), or else naive. Either way, you can be dismissed out of hand as not worth speaking to.

    And to me, there’s the rub. You can market our “brand” all day long, but most people don’t think they want what we’re selling. They’ve been counter-marketed to their whole lives that “religion” is stupid, hateful, and sinister, that our bread is poison. Better not to even talk to those people and stick with good old stones. No poison in those!

    I am not sure the church can muster the resources to fight that particular PR battle, especially on the opposition’s terms. There is a vested financial and political interest in defining the good life in a certain way, and as long as the church is at odds with that, the counter-marketing will only get more savage.

  4. February 22, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    “Not without reason has antiquity allowed the stories of saints to be painted in holy places. And we indeed entirely praise thee for not allowing them to be adored, but we blame thee for breaking them. For it is one thing to adore an image, it is quite another thing to learn from the appearance of a picture what we must adore. What books are to those who can read, that is a picture to the ignorant who look at it; in a picture even the unlearned may see what example they should follow; in a picture they who know no letters may vet read. Hence, for barbarians especially a picture takes the place of a book.”

    Pope St. Gregory the Great in the 8th century.

    The pictures move now.

  5. February 22, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    Also, to sharpen the objection: one could plausibly make the case that advertising has caused the average person to think *more* critically about “marketing,” no? Much like children, those who have not been exposed to advertising are often taken in by it rather completely, almost immediately. Whereas those who are used to it, although no doubt still influenced, are often consciously aware of its power and failings. Much like the country bumpkin being taken in by the urban bum’s story about running out of gas the first time or two.

    (The same goes for social networking: the decrier shouts that friendship is devalued, when in point of fact millions of young people now think consciously about what they ought to say when they WRITE thoughts in front of various circles of people they know, and thus think critically about who is a friend and who and what their relationships actually consist in on a daily basis. Young people write more to communicate than they ever have, and are very conscious of how their words will reflect on them. Heh.)

    No doubt that the more uneducated we are, the less we rely on reason. But is this a failure of education, or advertising? We live in a world in which all men are trying to influence our opinion, ceaselessly, for the sake of money, power, or ideas. Is this bad? The alternative is set authority – and argument thereby. The alternative is to take out the “mass” and put in the small group (we are not foolish enough to fantastically call the one or the few “wise”).

    And yet, given this reality, we do not systematically teach our kids how to critically evaluate rhetoric in terms of the media/advertising they daily experience, nor even what logic is. So we get what we pay for. Imagine – likely one of the top things the man from mars would want his son growing up in this country to learn would be to evaluate advertising/media, and yet we do not systematically teach this – anywhere, at any level.

    I think the average man in other times and places would, however, like a child or a recent immigrant from a third world nation, or anyone inexperienced with our images, be much more likely to be led by the nose by modern advertising, no? Further, how were any of THEM taught en masse? What rooted THEIR theological learning? Depends and differs, but certainly argument by way of authority along with the image was a large part of the root for long periods of time when the Church was established. If you want to present real arguments en masse, you will have to use bullet points or use images.

    Perhaps it is a false alternative, but it sure seems plausible to say: “Yes, we need bullet points and all the rest, but that is because most of us are able to READ and demand some form of internal proof and regard our own consent as important rather than accepting the most important truths on the basis of authority from those who can read, etc. It is not as if people before the age of advertising all read the Summa. In fact, even on a per capita basis it is likely that a greater percentage of human society reads the Summa now than did in the first few centuries of its publication. So the net movement is towards more argument and reason, and not less.”

    Advertising no doubt has a profound affect, but even if it is ultimately more of a negative cause than an effect (I’m not convinced), it is at root reactive – it merely seeks to sell, and will do whatever it see is necessary to sell. It seems plausible, at least, that advertising would indeed change if education changed. One sees this in the differences between advertising geared towards various markets.

    I think what we see today is an increasingly ignorant public in a society that still yearns to know and decide based on argument and deliberation and not via authority. These two factors pull apart from one another, and we are stretched.

  6. February 22, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    Last thought – the post above is helpful in that it brings the reader to the brink of the question: what is right and wrong with these commonly used methods? When are they out of bounds, and when are they legitimate? This sort of question about means of persuasion seems to me to be one of the great unasked questions of our time. There is little in the news or in “entertainment” that isn’t trying to persuade us, all the time, and all the content is generally bought and paid for by people who know full well they are trying to influence opinion. So, given we agree with a specific side in question that seeks to persuade people of something we think salutary, what are the means that one can use justifiably, and what means are to be avoided, and why?

  7. February 22, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    All of the above, to put it simply, amounts to this suggestion: we now have both the opportunity and the duty to speak to many people at the same time, and we now hold that we must persuade them internally as much as possible rather than forcing them to accept arguments on the basis of authority. And really, there is no other practical choice – since many are in need of persuasion, and the Church does not have direct political power anymore, and most within it don’t think the possession of such power is a good thing anyhow.

    This situation re speaking to many at once is partly due to new technology that allows us to communicate to many people at once. This is partly due to a notion of the human person the Church has come to accept and promulgate. This is partly due to the fact that many people have left the faith or have serious questions about it, and thus many are in need of persuasion

    What is the alternative? Communication en masse is what it is, and James hits on some of this in the post, I think. It seems a bit ridiculous to say it is inherently immoral, and being what it is there are limits to what it can accomplish. Arguments about how illogical and stupid it is are a bit ridiculous to me because of how abstract they are. In historical context, the mass media is made possible on account of mass education, mass literacy, mass leisure time, mass material needs being taken care of, relatively speaking, etc. What magical realm existed in which the majority of people learned theology via syllogism and Summa, etc.? The majority of people in most ages couldn’t even read, for God’s sake. If anything, we have moved CLOSER to this magical realm, not farther away.

    Let’s not presuppose fantastical, a-historical abstract worlds in which masses of people somehow were all literate Thomist philosophers. All we’ve EVER wanted from the box, the stage, the pictures, etc., is entertainment.

    *And that is what Christ himself gave us*: short, pithy stories. Bullet point sayings. #1 and #2 are plausibly understood as what Christ himself did, and this is why those parables and sayings have “legs,” as we say, and have reached the masses ever since, even if via so many mediums / filters lay between us and the time and place in which he said the words. But then, he was trying to reach the “masses,” one supposes, throughout all history.

    Hell, even part of #3 above could be seen as a part of what Jesus did, since he often did *not* directly answer questions, often answering a question with a question, and often asking unresolved questions that hung in the air. He sure as hell never came off as a dogmatic know-it-all with a ready syllogism for everything, unaware of the complexity of the issues and the complexity of human life — all of which is a large part of what ticks us “moderns’ off and makes us respond with warm fuzzies to acknowledgements of ambiguity. We generally have a much clearer knowledge of the history of the human race – certainly relatively recent history (so much more is increasingly recorded in various ways, and what little we have of the past is also recorded and available to more and more people everyday, and so many people formally study large scale history as part of their schooling) – than those who lived in the past, and this makes us understandably or at least plausibly leery of those who scorn ambiguity.

    • February 24, 2014 at 11:25 am

      Someone has to be doing the marketing, and the Church might either want to look into this or not. But it seems to be a natural progression and development of rhetoric. Aristotle filled his own rhetoric heavily with what is now called “demographic information”, i.e. tables of the diverse responses of old, young and middle aged people to the same stimuli. This sort of information has been sharpened to a gleaming point by research – though here again advertising led the way. I think it was Daniel Kahneman who spoke about being shocked that all the principles and conclusions reached by decision theorists and motivational psychologists were reached twenty years previously by tobacco companies and other advertising firms. What Socrates called a knack in the Gorgias was, in fact, data that a science could take up wholesale.

      But it has often been the case that a plea to change what is, in effect, rhetorical strategy is just a trojan horse for a large-scale logical attack. When Ratzinger was lamenting back in the sixties that theology no longer spoke to modern persons, what he really meant was that Thomism was false and in need of a replacement. If you pointed out that “speaking to someone” was a matter of rhetoric and not content, you at least cut through the pretense that all one is trying to do is update something that is past its shelf life.

      TO recognize the difference between content and marketing will free up a good number of people who don’t care about updating anything and just like laboring away on theology no matter what any one thinks of it, and will give more focus to those who actually want and have to speak to their peers more effectively. There are probably few people who are only one or the other of these extremes, and so all are going to need some measure of both. Even the extreme introverts who could care less about persuading anyone are still performing an essentially social tak when they reason, and so cannot help working within a context where patterns and symbols are already given as persuasive.

      The Church, of course, is not a consumer product, but neither is feminism or racial equality or a million other things that are promoted, protected, and patrolled for strict compliance and orthodoxy. These all move in the context of persuasion too, though I’m ambivalent about the extent to which the gospel can be patrolled in the same way. I wrote a post a while back that got (by my standards) and extraordinary amount of play one this.

      ON some level this sort of marketing and sub-rational level of persuasion is essential to the faith. I grew up Catholic, and so for me Jesus just is a statue, the stations of the cross, Latin epigrams, pale-faced Christs with soft hands fanned out next to a pink sacred heart. I suppose for Protestants Christ is more of a story or a book one reads. This fundamental orientation makes a difference – a Protestant is more bothered, I suppose, by finding possible inconsistencies in the Scripture while for me, scripture is a series of short readings that are read in all sorts of strange different senses. Jonah and the whale, Adam and Eve, Christ’s three falls, the crucifixion, St. Agnes holding a lamb, Paul holding a giant sword are all a piece for someone growing up Catholic. This isn’t all good, and it has it characteristic perversions and upsides, but it definitely structures a different Christianity than one finds in Protestantism.

      • thenyssan said,

        February 24, 2014 at 11:33 am

        I find the general direction of this discussion fascinating, since you also inveigh against social mechanism and taboo as a means of propagating the gospel. Doesn’t this marketing/rhetoric just take us to the same place eventually?

      • February 24, 2014 at 12:24 pm

        Yes. I contradict myself. I’m vast and contain multitudes. Or something like that.

        (Something like “I’m totally confused and have no clear idea what to say about it”)

      • February 24, 2014 at 12:53 pm

        That book is a modern classic, and provocative (and influential, since this was one of the first dudes to usher in the new age of advertising).

        I’ve no idea what to make of all of this myself, but on the one hand cobwebs and confusion need to be cut away and on the other hand there is this looming question as to what constitutes legitimate marketing/persuasion/rhetoric and what ought to be considered out of bounds. No idea how to sort that out, but crusty rationalism is brittle on the one hand and trojan horses are common on the other…we need to consider or settle some questions about human nature and reason and coming to know first, I think, before we can really answer the question.

        I’m partial to Bernays argument FOR propaganda considered as a morally neutral term and process that can be beneficial. At least, the structure he describes is a part of everyday life know, and the battle over propaganda (a form of the rule of the few over the many) is ceaselessly being waged. But obviously, again, there must be limits and standards as to what is morally OK and what is not.

        Your focus on advertising is always helpful, and long may many work to bring people to conscious awareness of this facet of our lives.

  8. February 22, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    Nyssann: I would suggest that mocking what deserves to be mocked is not giving sugar to your kids, but simply pulling back a veil and allowing them to see what truly is.

    Often this is a far better approach than trying to reason about causes via syllogism precisely because of how weak our powers are in that respect, even at their best. Whereas, as we know now, we are incredibly good at various kinds of insight – without thinking “consciously”/syllogistically – and thank God for that, as without these alternatives we are dead in the water. In fact, without instinct we would find it hard to literally live, of course. But beyond this we discover truths via conscious syllogizing only rarely. And this isn’t necessarily “cheating” – HAH! Far from it! Just as syllogizing clumsily/wrongly (which happens often, usually in false or muddy application/terms, and makes the audience rightly suspect it in general) doesn’t negate all syllogizing, so manipulation of insight ought not negate all the means that unveil and reveal the truth.

    A big part of the problem here is that none of us have a clear idea of what is or is not appropriate in order to persuade. We need to rethink rhetoric in terms of our circumstances, which is difficult when we really don’t think of rhetoric in any respect.

    Digging up the old liberal arts, however, is not enough. We need a real and true rhetoric that deals in the reality we live in, not some sort of fetishizing of old books and ideas in the abstract in order to castigate the present. It seems that the few who dig up the old thoughts on these matters (myself included) tend to set up some rational ideal that seems to me to be terribly unrealistic, unhelpful, and in many ways false to reality, human nature, and the truth itself.

    In any event, these two tasks go hand in hand – to actually get at the truth, we need to deal in our reality in combination with the best of human thought. If what approach is licit and what ought to be avoided when it comes to mass communication today is unclear, this reveals our own confusion as regards what rhetoric is and ought to be. And our quest for the truth of the matter will necessarily involve wrestling with the reality we find ourselves in, as the post above does in spades.

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