What do you think, Mara?

In February I read a book review which said this about the author:

“She likens the evangelical movement's success not to some historic spiritual awakening or God's hand at work, but to the use of secular marketing tactics.”
Because of my evangelical roots (and branches) and my professional interest in advertising, what else could I say but, Go on, tell me more.

And tell me more she did. For the third New Breed of Advertisers interview, I’d like to introduce you to Mara Einstein and her new book, Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age (Routledge, 2008).

Dr. Einstein has been working in or writing about the media industry for the past 20 years. She has enjoyed stints as an executive at NBC, MTV Networks, and at major advertising agencies working on such accounts as Miller Lite, Uncle Ben’s and Dole Foods. Her first book, Media Diversity: Economics, Ownership and the FCC (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004), was the cause for much debate when research from this work was used by the FCC as the basis for redefining the media ownership rules. In addition, Mara has written for Newsday and Broadcasting & Cable as well as having her work appear in academic journals.

Mara is an Associate Professor of media studies at Queens College as well as being an adjunct Associate Professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University. She has a doctorate in media ecology from New York University, she holds an MBA from the Kellogg School at Northwestern and a BFA from Boston University.

She is currently working on a new book about girls and the media as well as continuing her research on religion and media.

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NBoA: Why college students? I mean, you were a marketing executive for three publicly-traded companies.

Mara: If I understand your question correctly, I think you are asking why I walked away from a high-paying, "glamorous" career to work in the trenches of academia. Some of that was personal, but I also felt incredibly stunted professionally and intellectually. I was doing the same sort of work year after year and wanted to do something more interesting and more fulfilling. I also couldn't reconcile the idea that getting people to watch more television, which was my job, was the best use of my time. I found that I am better suited, as well as better qualified, to criticize the media. Who knows better about what goes on in the sausage factory than the person making the sausage?


NBoA: I've heard students say they'll work for a religious or public service organization because it's safer for them morally and ethically. Better sausage, if you will. How informed is this perspective when it comes to marketing?

Mara: It's a mixed bag, and it really does depend on the organization that you work for. Is it okay to "sell your soul" if the end justifies the means? That's a question people have to ask themselves every day. For example, my current research is about exploring the question, "What happens when you market service?" If you look at something like the RED campaign (Bono/Gap), you might say, "What a great idea” because it gets people to give to African charities through a painless, consumer-based methodology. But we have to question if that is a good thing. Is marketing a t-shirt the best way to raise money for AIDS in Africa? I don't know. I don't think so, but it will be those sorts of issues that your students will face.


NBoA: Speaking of what the students will face, I perused the comments about you at Rate My Professors. At first glance, there seemed to be a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth. But a second glance suggested that you are the professor even the whiners will appreciate most a decade down the professional road. What will they say about you then?

Mara: I never read the site myself. As with everything, you're not going to please everyone, and I teach upwards of 200 students per semester. I'm sure that there are plenty of them that don't like me. That said, I'm not a professor to be a student's friend. I'm there to make sure they learn what they need to know to be a critical thinker in an increasingly complex world.

For every student who doesn't like me (and let's face it, those are usually the students who don't do the work necessary to succeed in my classroom), there's another student who's sending me an email thanking me for everything they learned in my classes. My best students over the years now have successful jobs in the media and they return to talk to my current classes. Those are the ones that keep me coming back to work day after day.


NBoA: I find it interesting (and courageous) that you are an agnostic, genuinely seeking religious truth, and at the same time a scholar who couldn't miss the marketing and persuasion techniques of religion if you were blind-folded. How does this work itself out for you personally and spiritually, or does it?

Mara: I cover this issue extensively in the preface to the book, but I'll see if I can do justice in the short space here. I was a marketer for almost 20 years before becoming an academic over a decade ago. Seeing marketing in religion was, and is, obvious to me. While I am currently agnostic (much of that thinking I attribute to having done the work of writing this book), I have been a "seeker" for more than 30 years. My beliefs are in line with those of Sam Harris. He talks in his book, End of Faith, about the many mystical experiences that exist that we cannot explain. We should do what we can to foster those experiences, but established religious institutions may not be the best way to achieve this outcome.


NBoA: That last line may unsettle a few of my visitors (It certainly gets my attention), but I respect your perspective. It also raises a question about how to approach your book. Should readers see Brands of Faith as analysis, diagnosis, advice, or warning?

Mara: I wrote the book as a critique of the current religious marketplace. However, many people – particularly people involved with religious institutions – have read it as a sort of "how-to" of religious marketing. That's okay, but I think there are other books that do that better.

I would hope that people who read Brands of Faith will understand better why the sacred and the secular have merged. There isn't a culture war going on so much as a re-negotiation between these two spaces. Moreover, faith is not going away; it is being transformed and media has a lot to do with that. Brands of Faith is not meant as a warning. The need to believe in something bigger than ourselves is not disappearing. Rather, the work is a suggestion to re-evaluate established religious institutions as the means for imparting religious/spiritual information.

But, let me say here that I'm not advocating that we dissolve established religious institutions as many of the atheist writers of late have discussed. For many, many people these institutions are a source of strength and fellowship. That said, we should also be open to alternatives to these groups and not pooh-pooh them just because they appear new or different.


NBoA: I don’t think you’re alone on this re-evaluation piece. The significant growth of interest in spirituality outside of the Church confirms it. In fact, David Kinnaman, co-author of unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters, shows that
"outsiders' most common reaction to the faith [is that] they think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind, that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be."

How is this a marketing issue?

Mara: When I interviewed people for the book, one of the issues that came up was that people were too involved with having a personal relationship with Jesus while paying very little attention to what Jesus cared about – things like feeding the hungry and helping the needy. Many evangelical groups promote the feel-good relationship while never talking about traditional topics like salvation and sin. That's marketing – showing consumers what will get them in the door and obscuring the things that might deter them.


NBoA: On an NPR podcast, you hinted at the potential danger in this showing/obscuring bit. You said,

"Marketing is about understanding who your target audience is and then creating a product that is going to serve them. Well, that's fine if you're talking about a car, or you're talking about a computer. But with a faith practice or with a religion, at what point do you start changing the faith...?"

Great question. I'd love to hear your answer.

Mara: I try to stay away from answering this sort of question because I am a marketing and media scholar and not a theologian. What I would say is that it is possible to change the packaging of the faith (what most megachurches do) while not fundamentally changing the faith itself. What I mean by that is you can create more interesting church services and you can use podcasts and you can create magazine/Bibles like Revolve that will speak to today's religious "consumer" and still be true to the teachings of your faith.


NBoA: I agree that products like Revolve don’t fundamentally change the faith. But isn’t the obvious co-opting of popular marketing tactics, as seen in these two images, part of the Church’s branding problem?

Mara: No, I don't think so. I'm probably one of the few academics who would say that marketing religion isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's probably a necessity. The first rule of marketing is to get consumers where they already are. If that means magazines, TV, the Internet or rock concerts, I don't have a problem with that. The issue is what happens after the seeker comes through the door. (More on this below.)

Religious organizations should brand themselves. They need to understand who they are, and they need to communicate that to their congregation. Having a brand allows organizations to coalesce around a shared mission statement which becomes a vision for everything the institution does. This question is at the heart of my book and is, frankly, too complex to answer in this small space. I encourage your readers to pick up my book for a more thoughtful analysis.


NBoA: I have a link to your book below. For many American followers of Jesus, we’re so used to church marketing that we probably couldn’t pick it out of a line-up. From your perspective, what aspect is the most annoying? (Coincidentally, mine happens to be Revolve and the entire line of magazine/Bibles associated with it.)

Mara: The most irritating thing about religious marketing is when religious institutions are hypocritical. When they promote one thing and in reality are something else completely. Let's use an obvious example here: Ted Haggard. Here is someone who promoted contempt for gays and lesbians when in reality it turned out that "the lady doth protest too much." I won't even get into the hypocrisy of promoting love while condemning a whole group outright. This hypocrisy is not only true of churches. (I'm an equal opportunity critic.) I would put plenty of New Age organizations in this group as well, and I'm sure there are plenty more that I don't even know about.

The bottom line is that nothing will make a consumer angrier than believing a product is one thing only to find out after walking through the door that they’ve been bamboozled by slick marketing. Remember the old adage from David Ogilvy, "Your consumer isn't stupid. She's your wife."


NBoA: I just talked with a student who left the Church for that very reason. Nobody enjoys the bait and switch. Last question, Mara. My hope is to encourage a New Breed of Advertisers, which presumes there's an Old Breed whose ways are often misdirected. What is an important redirection for the advertising student who wants to love her neighbor and sell him something, too?

Mara: Don't walk away from your own ethics. For example, if an ad depicts women in a denigrating way in order to sell a fifth of vodka, that's just simply not okay. You know in your heart (and perhaps your soul) what's right and wrong. Never create advertising or marketing that you disagree with, even when a paycheck is at stake. And, if you do have to walk away, your walking away will be the loudest and possibly most effective statement you can make. Then, go out and create your own agency and start doing the work that will make this world a better place for all of us.

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Thank you, Mara, for taking the time to share with us. Your experience as a seeker and expertise as a marketer provide substance for me (and others) to chew on. Have a delightful semester raising a new breed of advertisers.

Readers, what do you think? Take a minute to post your comments and questions.

Links:
Mara Einstein’s book, Brands of Faith
Mara’s blog
Mara’s podcast interview with NPR
David Kinnaman’s book, unChristian
RED campaign
"The lady doth protest too much...." (Okay, so I needed to look it up. It's been a while since high school, and maybe it has been for you, too.)

6 comments:

Lindsay Kate,  September 5, 2008 at 3:12 PM  

Great post, I'm glad it was featured! Something to chew on. Hmm....

Sam Van Eman September 6, 2008 at 2:04 PM  

Thanks for stopping by, Lindsay.

Anonymous,  September 10, 2008 at 3:09 PM  

A really fascinating and compelling interview. It makes me want to read her book. Great job Sam. Very thought provoking.

phil

Sam Van Eman September 15, 2008 at 4:38 PM  

Thanks, Phil. She's thoughtful and the interview came together easily because of it.

Robin Saylor September 21, 2008 at 4:26 AM  

Good post Sam. We have thought a lot about this topic as we have been starting Connections. Two comments though:
1) Bible-zines - I have a friend who started reading the Bible (for the first time ever) because she picked up one of my Bible-zines. She since bought a standard leather bound Bible - but the zine got her into the Bible and eventually into church (also for the first time in her life).
2) A new church near us sent out fliers advertizing their new building. The grass was not yet sodded but on the flier they photoshopped the grass in. My neighbor (who is skeptical of church)commented to me, "They are so fake, that's not even real grass. They aren't what they say they are." It just showed me that if we "market" the church we need to be extremely cautious.
Tired thoughts - I'm off to bed. I enjoy reading your blog.

Sam Van Eman September 22, 2008 at 1:26 PM  

Thanks, Robin.

I'm glad about your friend. If it's true that the stuff we make is neither completely evil, nor completely good, then Bible-zines have something to offer. Perhaps a lot.

But since they fall in the category of Inspired Revelation with other Bibles, it's hard for me to get past the bright colors and side-margin trinkets and pop-culture mimicking. One Bible-zine reviewer wrote about the boy version of Revolve called Refuel, "Guys, please don't shortchange yourself by thinking you are too stupid to understand something as complex as a book without bright pictures of guitars and hot holy girls."

I wonder if/how my opinion would shift if Cosmopolitan or GQ began running a genuine Bible column as a monthly magazine feature. Would I criticize or celebrate? Not sure.

Regardless, blessings to your friend.

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