PR – “Making the Sell”
Written by: 
Joe Morris Doss

Americans feel that we, as individual citizens, lack agency – a sense that we have too little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

Scene: a bar in Chelsea, New York City
Date: Spring, 1970
Event: A Seminary Class on Issues of Moral Theology in American Society
Guest: CEO of a major Madison Avenue PR Firm

Student Question: What is the strength of modern advertising?
CEO: The ability to sell anything, anything at all.

Student Question: What is the weakness of modern advertising?
CEO: The ability to sell anything, anything at all.

Student Question: What is the most vexing moral issue in the field of advertising?
CEO: The ability to sell anything, anything at all.

Student Question: Please explain.
CEO: Let me put it this way. Our firm refuses to advertise for the sale of cigarettes, because we know enough to know that they kill. They cause cancer. Someday that will become accepted public knowledge, and in that day we so not wish to find ourselves explaining to our children why we chose to convince people to kill themselves. That’s the deal. We have a moral responsibility to choose what to sell, because we can convince people to buy anything.

Student Question: You are saying that you can convince people to kill themselves.
CEO: Oh yes. We can make people want what is dangerous enough to kill them – probably even if they know it will. So we don’t advertise cigarettes.

Student Question: What else do you avoid selling?
CEO: God help our democracy, which may not survive our ability to sell candidates.

Americans know they are being manipulated by advertising, and except for those who use it, most people claim to hate it. But they embrace it.

Americans claim that they are sick and tired of the way campaigns come down to raising money for TV, sound bites, and negative campaign spots. But watching them over and over is how they make up their mind.

Americans claim to hate the way candidates are “handled,” the way they rely on an invented persona instead of genuine individuality, the way they “stay on message” instead of opening up to offer honest and creative ideas, the way they say what is safe and contrived instead of stating personal beliefs. But these are the very campaign techniques that work to convince American votes.

We claim to hate the selling of our political leaders, yet we force our candidates into the “PR product-for-sell” roles because advertising sells. We just keep making the empty content of PR work, for buying commodities and for the democratic election of political leadership.

In so many ways, while lamenting our lack of agency due to the manipulative ability of PR to sell us, we choose to go along with the shaping of the political market and the marketing process. We not only go along, we rely on it.

No single group has been worse about all of this than the parts of the church that have entered into the process of elective politics. Ever since Reagan gave an important role to the moral majority, churches Catholic and Protestant and non-denominational Christians have bowed to PR marketing and jumped into “the game.” The result is that the church has been wounded and weakened, in sharp decline institutionally in membership and moral authority. It is time for this to cease.

Masses have turned to the candidacy of Donald Trump as a reaction against “the sell,” seeming to overlook how this, in so many ways, is the very climax of political salesmanship – using every technique, going from old standard theories like the “big lie” to new lessons learned with reality TV. He has been sufficiently discovered and cannot be elected, but we know there are creatures lurking in the background darkness, taking notes and learning.

On the other hand, surely there must be smart and well intentioned people who see new opportunities for the political process, new ways to offer themselves or to find and bring forward candidates in whom they can believe and offer them to an American public that is genuinely at rope’s end with “the sell.”

One of the leading “mad men” of the 60’s, a Madison Avenue PR giant who saw what was developing raised the issue: God help our democracy, which may not survive our ability to sell candidates.

The question seems wildly radical and the negative answer seems unimaginable. But in fact the question remains an open one. Pray sisters and brothers of the church, pray and prayerfully decide to do something about it.

(Disclaimer: Your reporter was not present at the class, but the accuracy of what was communicated is certainly verifiable.)


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