Voting with Your Wallet

Oct 03, 2002 |Todd Temple

You can vote for more than just political candidates. You can vote for consumer products — the ones that match what you believe in.

The campaign season is upon us. Candidates are conducting polls, putting together focus groups, and scrambling to raise cash for their colossal advertising efforts. At this very moment, some rich and powerful people are signing checks to ensure that their favorite candidates have the resources to win your vote.

You may think I'm talking about the November elections, but I've got another campaign in mind. This one's bigger.

The candidates I'm talking about are consumer products. The supporters of these candidates — the manufacturers, retailers and advertisers — are spending billions of dollars to win your vote. Those TV commercials, radio jingles, magazine ads, Web banners and billboards and logo-bearing basketball players are really just campaign spots. Every one of them shouts the same message: Buy this product.

Let's compare these two campaigns. Every couple years, each of us gets to cast just one vote for each candidate on the ballot. (And yet about half of those who can vote choose not to.) But in the consumer race, everyone votes — even those not yet 18 — and gets to vote hundreds or thousands or even millions of times. Indeed, in this free-market world of ours, the votes we cast from our wallets can sometimes have a far greater effect on our lives than whom we elect president, senator or governor.

This topic is especially important right now because at this moment, while you're flush with summer-job cash and beginning life in a new school year, you're doing a lot of voting: new clothes, books, CDs, toys, school supplies, computers — you get the idea. You're casting a vote in it with every dollar you spend.

Buying the Election

If every dollar spent amounts to a vote for something, what exactly is that something? Certainly, it's a vote for the thing itself. Buying a product tells the manufacturer to make more of them. If it's a good product, that's a good thing. If it's a bad product ... well, look for more of the same. That's simple enough. But our cash-voting determines more than the material value of our purchases — it promotes the moral values conveyed by these products.

This appears obvious, but most of us don't seem to get the connection. We complain about crime and violence, then turn around and buy tickets to the latest celluloid bloodfest. We decry the decadent materialism of our culture, then buy clothing emblazoned with brands that make us into walking billboards. We may be preaching against these candidates, but that doesn't stop most of us from voting for them at the ticket booth and checkout counter.

And that's why such cultural ills persist. We elect them with our own dollars. After all, marketers and film-makers and record producers and everyone else who makes and sells the stuff we buy are not in the moral-development business. They're in the money business. They make what sells. "Good" and "bad" matter, but on the bottom line they matter only insofar as they affect our vote. And the fact that there's so much bad stuff in the marketplace is proof that such moral issues don't pull a lot of weight at the cash-register voting booth.

I'm sad to say that this is where many Christians get stupid. We choose to limit our part in the cultural battle to a morality campaign. But the opposition isn't entered in this election. They're running a financial campaign. That's a different race altogether. Although some marketers of consumer products clearly have a moral agenda too, most really don't care that much about such things. They're after our wallets, not our morals. If good sold well, they'd sell more of it. It just so happens that bad sells better.

We can lament this fact, preach against it, write letters to our elected officials, and raise all sorts of other fusses, but none of this is going to change economic reality. And therein lies the solution. If this campaign is really all about money, then it can be bought. But unlike political elections, the purchase price of this campaign doesn't require great heaping stacks of cash. We can buy the results with money we're already spending in the consumer marketplace.

Good Votes

Look at it this way: If the message you're supporting with your dollars is inconsistent with your beliefs — and among those beliefs is that hypocrisy is bad too — then something's got to give. If the bad stuff loses, you'll be missing out on some popular consumer pastimes.

Unfortunately, lots of Christians give up the bad stuff ... then stop right there. They become known for what they don't read, drink, watch, wear or listen to. It's too bad because, as in any election, abstention is not enough. To truly influence the marketplace, you can't just abstain from buying bad stuff. You've got to cast your dollar-votes to the good.

Does it work? Let's take a look. For the past few years, as television shows have been scraping the bottom of the bad-message barrel, a few have chosen a rare path in presenting messages about good things. How have they managed to stay on the air? Have network executives suddenly found a conscience? (Maybe so, but that's not it.) They're on the air for a very simple reason: They sell. Advertisers sponsor them because the people who watch them go out and buy their stuff.

Another example is the Christian music industry. Why have so many Christian labels been bought out by mainstream record companies? Same answer: Because they sell. The music conglomerates are in the money business; they do things that make money, and for the past several years, Christian music has been making them lots of it. And every one of us who's bought a Christian music album lately has sent them the message: Make more.

So it seems that voting for good stuff can make a difference. It changes the marketplace, makes more good stuff available, and bonus, chases some of the bad stuff off the shelves.

One Small Voice

So what does all of this mean for you right now? Well, you're a consumer. You pretty much have to buy things to stay alive. So why not get the most out of every purchase? Not just in the value of the products themselves, but in the values they support.

As you stand at the starting line of another school year, wondering how your summer savings and family funds and minimum-wage job are going to carry you to next spring's finish line, maybe it's a good time to consider how many dollar-votes you're able to cast, and what you'd like to vote for.

I admit that many people view this kind of thinking as craziness. Spending money wisely is tough enough without having to consider that every purchase is a moral choice. And yet. As Christians, we know that the money we call our own really isn't ours at all. It's God's. So it seems to me that the management of His money is essentially a moral occupation. That's a big job, but a good one.

And fun. If the act of buying things really is a vote in an election, I'm all over it. I love to vote for things I believe in. The world may be filled with great issues in which I have no voice, but in this one little way, I can shout as loudly as my wallet is full. It feels like a Monopoly game, but with higher stakes. I don't pretend that my buying choices make that much of a difference in the world. I know they're tallied in a colossal economy that can get along just fine without me. But that's the case with every election I participate in. I know my ballot choices won't make or break an election. And for all I know, the person voting next to me is canceling out my vote line for line — or in this case, dollar for dollar.

But that doesn't stop me from voting. Because its my right, my privilege, my opportunity to have my small voice heard. And maybe, just maybe, others will see where my dollar-votes go, and vote along with me. What started as just me and my wallet with God's money in it might grow into a secret consumer group, and then an economic caucus, and then a purchasing party, and then a full-blown money movement. Or maybe it would just turn out to be the Church, putting God's money where its mouth is.

Meanwhile, let's rock the vote. Elect the good stuff. I promise, they'll make more.

Copyright 2002 Todd Temple. All rights reserved.

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