Hilary Blake’s recent article was an inspiration to us all, particularly to Christian parents on how we can inoculate our children against the virus of consumerism. Extreme loads of this virus can have devastating consequences for the affected individuals and families, as well as for the earth’s resources.
One of the aims of Plenty! is to educate ourselves so that we, and our children in particular, are less vulnerable to the wiles of the marketing men and women. Another is to engage our church leaders in lobbying for legal changes in how the marketing sector is allowed to operate.
But both for education and lobbying processes we have to be informed ourselves about how the modern marketing process actually works. They’re very different to the adverts of the 1960s or 70s, when it was said that only 50% of adverts work – but nobody knows which 50%! Advertisers came up with clever catchy phrases and appealing images. But the targeting of specific niches was very much hit and miss.
Recently I had a very good lesson on the deviousness of some modern marketers from a rather unlikely source. This message from AVG, my antivirus software provider, arrived on my screen earlier this year:
“Online trackers get into your PC when you visit a website. They’re sticky and very hard to get rid of.
They aggressively record what you do online, grabbing more than 3,000 pieces of personal information. They create a very detailed personal file on you, and sell it to different companies.
Advertisers can now recognise you with targeted ads, even raise their prices for you – invading your privacy and anonymity. “
I’m least worried about their last phrase. We’ve seen in recent times all the harm that can be done by anonymous contributors to social media. But I’m very concerned by the processes used to target specific groups of people and then design adverting or other messages tailored to these specific groups. In this way they endeavour to create insatiable appetites for consumer goodies. Once you’ve bought the latest smart phone or electric scooter you’ll be subject to messages telling you these models are so last year – you have to get the latest super-duper models. The environmental consequences of such consumerist pressures in industries such as fashion and car manufacturing are very serious indeed.
Now Hilary’s article tells us a number of things. Firstly that the best inoculation against this virus is giving children (and all of us) the message that we are worthwhile in ourselves. We as Christians believe that Jesus has unconditional love for us all, and we have the sacrament of Baptism to make that message explicit. Jesus does not place bodyguards at church doors turning people away for not wearing the correct trendy gear. (Just as well in my case …)
But, in relation to our work in Plenty, some of us may be fairly immune to these messages – virulent messages? – and the market researchers tend to give up on us. The same probably applies to many Christians. We enjoy the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the camaraderie of other church goers in the narthex after church services and elsewhere. Also, according to Putnam’s research on social capital, Christians punch above our weight in our contributions to voluntary organisations in wider society. Perhaps we’re too busy to be plugged into screens all the time.
For those in the slow lane of mainstream consumerism in that way, there is a challenging implication for us, if we are trying to influence people and policy through programmes like Plenty! Living with these virulent messages may not our lived experience, if the marketers largely give up on us. We may be quite ignorant of how the invisible hand of the marketing man (or woman) is working.
We have to be humble, admit our ignorance and educate ourselves. But humility is a Christian virtue, is it not?
So readers are invited to share their knowledge of websites, articles, books or other sources about how this consumer marketing process works in this digital age, and what we can best do about it. To be part of an Oxford/AstraZeneca-like team developing a vaccine for a virus that is as harmful in it’s own way as Covid-19.