Spirituality’s Toxic Marketing Problem

Spirituality – spiritual businesses in particular – has a business ethics problem.

The crux of the issue lies here: capitalism is fundamentally out of alignment with spiritual principles, so any marketing and business tactic that is considered standard practice is also inherently harmful, both to the individual client and to those who inevitably cannot afford to pay for services.

Now that spirituality itself has been commoditized, everyone and their dog is trying to incorporate it into their business. West Elm is selling Lemurian seed crystals for Christ’s sake.

The most insidious thing, in my opinion, is the number of elite coaches using words like “manifesting” and “alignment” in their marketing copy while charging exorbitant amounts of money – literally, I have seen coaches charging $20,000 to help people find their “soulmate”– who have absolutely no real experience outside of their own personal journey. It’s happening in all sectors: dating, business, marketing, healing, and people are being harmed, both financially and emotionally, and in some instances even physically.

Read more on my feelings about commoditized spirituality.

I’ve had people message me with stories about being in very desperate and vulnerable situations being pressured into taking out loans and credit cards to afford thousand dollar coaching programs, and being refused refunds when they weren’t satisfied. They’re paying ridiculous amounts of money to be “coached” by people who have no real skills to share, and who don’t actually teach them anything.

The problems aren’t just in the business models and the practices themselves, it’s also in the messaging. Traditional marketing messaging is literally built around triggering trauma to manipulate someone into making a purchase, which is tantamount to exploitation. The entire industry is rotten to its very core – and that’s the way it was designed to be.

Anyone claiming to be a healer and still operating in the current marketing and business paradigm cannot claim “alignment” when the entire system they are operating within is out of alignment.

Learn more about materialistic spirituality.

Marketing, Messaging, and Mental Manipulation

All of this goes much deeper than just the words being used. For instance, someone who is a manifestation/relationship coach might say something in all of their marketing messaging like “How can you expect anyone to love you if you can’t love yourself?”

That is a trauma trigger for anyone who has a history of parental or narcissistic abuse. Their parents literally made them feel as though the reason they weren’t receiving love is because they are unworthy. It actually reinforces their worst fears about themselves! And here’s this coach saying, “I can help make you worthy. Pay me $1,000 a month.”

Traditional marketing tells businesses to study a person’s needs/problems and then tell them how their product solves that problem, and there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but we are literally talking about someone’s problem being their self worth (and it’s not their fault), and the way this copy is written is actually meant to socially engineer an exaggerated awareness of issues that may have been minor to begin with. This is a major ethics issue for any and all coaches.

There’s more positive ways to frame that messaging that doesn’t intentionally/unintentionally place blame on the trauma victim.

Trauma and Advertising

Everyone in our society carries trauma to varying degrees, whether it’s the result of systemic racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, or interpersonal trauma like child abuse, narcissistic abuse, sexual abuse, sexual assault, physical abuse, etc.

The coping mechanisms we develop to deal with that trauma and to try to make ourselves feel safe are what drive many of our reactions and behaviors. The nervous system also produces an ingrained trauma response any time we are put in a situation that triggers that trauma, which then puts us in fight, flight, freeze/collapse, or fawn mode.

When you’re in these survival modes, you’re incredibly vulnerable to propaganda because the part of your brain that governs rational thinking shuts down. The entire way we do marketing right now is built upon the psychology behind that response.

You have to understand that marketing, advertising, and PR was born out of mind control techniques.

Edward Bernays is considered to be the “father” of public relations:

His best-known campaigns include a 1929 effort to promote female smoking by branding cigarettes as feminist “Torches of Freedom”, and his work for the United Fruit Company in the 1950s, connected with the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government in 1954.

 

Of his many books, Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928) gained special attention as early efforts to define and theorize the field of public relations. Citing works of writers such as Gustave Le Bon, Wilfred Trotter, Walter Lippmann, and Sigmund Freud (his own double uncle), he described the masses as irrational and subject to herd instinct—and outlined how skilled practitioners could use crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to control them in desirable ways.[5][6]

 

Bernays later synthesized many of these ideas in his postwar book, Public Relations (1945), which outlines the science of managing information released to the public by an organization, in a manner most advantageous to the organization. He does this by first providing an overview of the history of public relations, and then provides insight into its application. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Bernays

One of Bernays jobs, prior to starting the world’s first public relations firm, was working for the US government during WWI as part of their war propaganda office. His job was to get Americans on board with going to war.

After the US entered the war, the Committee on Public Information (CPI) hired Bernays to work for its Bureau of Latin-American Affairs, based in an office in New York. Bernays, along with Lieutenant F. E. Ackerman, focused on building support for war, domestically and abroad, focusing especially on businesses operating in Latin America.[19][20] Bernays referred to this work as “psychological warfare” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Bernays

This is the foundation of modern marketing, advertising, public relations, and sales.

Multi-Level Marketing Businesses are Cults

Every tactic that cults and terrorist organizations use to recruit and indoctrinate vulnerable targets are the same tactics we use in a sales and marketing funnel to drive purchases –– and coaches employ them, too.

I’m not just being dramatic here: Harvard-trained cult expert Steve Hassan has written multiple articles on his website outlining exactly how MLMs meet his model’s criteria for what constitutes a cult.

Most MLMs use tactics of recruitment, financial manipulation, and the promise of large profits. But they also work the same as other cults, with thought control, magical thinking, thought-stopping, and self-blame. Failures are blamed directly on the consultants, for lack of hard work or competence. The authority of the group has no accountability and the leaders do not allow for questions or criticism.

 

They use deception in all its forms (withholding vital information, distorting information and outright lying) to ensnare people who have not learned about cult mind control techniques. There is none of this cultish recruiting in a regular sale.

-– Multilevel Marketing and Consumer Protection – Freedomofmind.org

I beg to differ with his last point. Hard sales absolutely employ all of these techniques, and they are more directly employed in the coaching industry, specifically. Just take a look at the sort of messaging he describes and tell me you haven’t seen a coach touting some form of the same:

In the panel presentations, I described my doctoral research and development of the BITE Model. This model was heartily received as a valuable tool for assessing an organization’s use of deceptive recruitment and retention tactics.

 

Unrealistic Financial Promises and Binding Obligations
Would you like to:

  • Earn millions of dollars?
  • Make more money than you ever dreamed of?
  • Quit your job?
  • Be set for life?

 

Social & Psychological Incentives and Control
Do you dream of:

  • Freedom, flexibility, fun?
  • Being part of a worldwide community?
  • Helping your friends feel more beautiful?
  • Having meaningful, long-lasting relationships?

-– Multilevel Marketing and Consumer Protection – Freedomofmind.org

I highly recommend reading the entire piece, because he goes into even more detail with additional MLM recruitment tactics which are also used regularly in marketing and advertising, but specifically by the coaching industry, like group workshops/seminars, using meditations and mantras, rags-to-riches testimonials, positive affirmations and visualizations, blaming failure on the individual, toxic positivity (thought-stopping techniques), and more.

In yet another article, he tackles self-help gurus and how they employ the same techniques.

This is why a lot of spiritual people I meet with businesses hate marketing themselves, and it’s precisely why I don’t trust the ones who are good at it –– and neither should you.

One of the most disgusting things I’ve heard so far was about an astrologer who charges $1,000 per reading and opens her group sales pitch with a meditation to visualize manifesting success, which ultimately calms your nervous system and primes you psychologically so that you are less resistant to persuasion. This is tantamount to grooming and it is exactly what was described in the articles I linked to above.

What’s the solution?

From an ethical standpoint, if we’re trying to create a new world, we can’t continue to operate using the systems of the old one. When trauma is being used to manipulate or trigger people, it only compounds that individual’s trauma, and has detrimental psychological effects. Mostly everyone already deals with some form of anxiety or depression, and these practices make it worse, solely for the sake of profit. Everyone is trying to mind fuck you in every abusive way possible to fork over your cash. This is what we are working with.

When 2020 came along, it rocked the spiritual community by bringing to light the white-washing of spirituality, the economic inequality of the coaching hierarchy, the gate-keeping, and the spiritual bypassing, revealing the shadow of the spiritual community itself and it’s fundamental reliance on a system that capitalizes on human trauma.

To be clear, I’m not saying that spiritual practitioners shouldn’t make money. I’m saying that charging $5,000 per person for an entry-level workshop when that’s more than most people make in a month, and using messaging that intentionally trigger’s someone’s trauma as a way to get them to make a purchase is excessive, socially irresponsible, and more about getting rich than about helping people.

This elitist form of business–especially among spiritual practitioners–will no longer viable in the New Paradigm we are building. As I stated in a previous instagram post:

The new model of self-promotion barely involves self at all. It’s community-based and purpose-driven. Like-minded entrepreneurs collaborate and cross-promote to lift each other up–together. We recognize that there’s enough to go around for everyone and that by working with one another, we can all benefit and make a difference for the people we help.

It’s very easy to how it’s rotten at the core, but it’s also not that difficult to fix if we simply shift whose’ interest is of the utmost priority and bring some integrity into how we operate.

That said, I’m launching a new project to help spiritually-based businesses unlearn toxic business practices and help them transition away from the worst aspects capitalism.

We’re rewriting all of the rules, and this time, it’s going to be built on a foundation of service to the greater good instead of service to one’s own ego –– the way it’s supposed to be if you truly are spiritual.

If you’re a spiritual business owner or entrepreneur –– or you’re thinking about becoming one –– and you feel completely disgusted by modern business and marketing practices, this is for you. We’re going to be developing a trauma-informed, client-centric, socially responsible, and entirely authentic approach to running a spiritually-based business. In other words, it’s going to be truly conscious business, not just the same old capitalism slathered in spiritual buzzwords.

If you want to be a part of this, you can start by updating your email subscription preferences to receive posts like this one that are specifically geared toward conscious business absent of toxic spirituality and toxic marketing. I’d also recommend it if you want to learn how to evaluate service providers and spot red flags before someone takes advantage of you.

UNLEARN TOXIC BUSINESS

We’re building a new paradigm, and it doesn’t look like anything a business coach has taught you before.

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Xo,

Ash

 

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