Seth Godin speaks again – more on Lying

Seth Godin is using his blog to market his book, dangling little teasers out there hoping we will buy it. In this post he discusses the placebo effect, the power of believing alone to effect healing and numerous other benefits on the believer. Marketers aim to produce this kind of effect by telling stories and creating environments so that consumers will buy their products, or, moving beyond the literal marketplace, so that what they are doing might be more effective. Godin says:

It would be surprising to meet a monk or a talmudic scholar or a minister who would say, “yes, we burn the incense or turn down the lights or ring these bells or light these candles as a way of creating a room where people are more likely to believe in their prayers,” but of course thatÂ’s exactly what theyÂ’re doing. (and you know what? there’s nothing wrong with that.)….

We donÂ’t like to admit that we tell stories, that weÂ’re in the placebo business. Instead, we tell ourselves about features and benefits as a way to rationalize our desire to help our customers by allowing them to lie to themselves.

The design of your blog or your package or your outfit is nothing but an affect designed to create the placebo effect. The sound Dasani water makes when you open the bottle is more of the same. ItÂ’s all storytelling. ItÂ’s all lies.

Not that thereÂ’s anything wrong with that.

If Godin is saying that communicators need to pay attention to their audiences enter their worlds to learn how to best help those audiences hear and understand their messages, then his points are truisms of ancient vintage. That’s what rhetoric is all about. As Christian communicators we spend to little effort helping our people get the message.

But is rhetoric – lying – all there is? What is the alternative to lying/marketing/storytelling? The bare facts of the matter? Again, as in my previous post on Godin’s book, I confess I have not read his book, only his commentary in his blog. Assuming he is representing his book fairly (though incompletely), it looks like he is at the end of modernity. One the one hand, we have bare facts – reality – the truth. On the other hand we have stories – lies – things that grab our attention. Is there a meeting place, an overlap, between stories and truth – or only a harsh dichotomy? His view sounds like the elimination not merely of meta-narratives but all narratives from moral consideration.

In the Bible’s story, we see the true story of Creation, Israel, Jesus and the church – the story of goodness, sin, faithfulness and redemption. My job as a disciple maker is not to manipulate people into buying Jesus – or having an experience. My job is to tell the story – which is a complex kind of telling, part word, part action, part simply being – being faithful to the story as it actually is and extending the love of God (as narrated in the story) to those around me. There is no reduction to will, desire, or power.

This is why I think the UM advertising campaign, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” is deceptive. First, when people in our culture hear that we’re open in each of these areas, they naturally take it in an absolute sense. “Jesus? Yeah, he’s a great guy. Buddha? Oh, he was a wise one. Don’t care for religious stuff? Well, We can understand where you’re coming from. Different strokes for different folks. We’re openminded, you know.”

Marketing of this sort (slogans) doesn’t really deal with stories but with implied stories. (How much of a story can one tell in 6 words?) The UM marketer may be thinking about the Christian story – a story rooted in God’s creation of people made in His image, people for whom Jesus died. Most of the audience isn’t. They’re thinking: “I want to be happy. I want to be in control of my life. I don’t want anyone to tell me I’m wrong (about anything).” Not much of a story, this modern American story of happiness and consumption, but 6 words fit in just fine. Only when we use more words – and actions – can we begin to tell the story of Jesus adequately.

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