A lot of recruiting for Teen Mania's income-generating programs goes on at Acquire The Fire events, but that's not the only way Teen Mania uses these Christian youth conventions to make money from kids. Ticket sales generally only cover a portion of the overall cost of producing an Acquire The Fire event, so the pressure is on to produce additional revenue at the event. One way Teen Mania does this is by agressively marketing books, CDs, clothing, and a wide variety of other items to teens attending the event. In 2007 (the last year for which tax records are currently available), Teen Mania Ministries brought in $1,633,631 by selling merchandise at live events, which represented 8.1% of their income for the entire year.
Having merchandise available for sale at an event isn't necessarily a bad thing, but some of the marketing techniques used at Acquire The Fire to sell merchandise are coercive and manipulative. Starting Friday evening and continuing throughout the weekend, Ron Luce reminds kids from stage to "check out the merchandise table." He talks about all the "great stuff" there is to buy, and mentions specific items he thinks will help you grow as a Christian. An on-going theme at ATF is encouraging kids to get rid of their secular music, but of course there's lots of wholesome Christian music CDs available to purchase at the merchandise table! Ron encourages kids to "pick up a few CDs that will build you up instead of tear you down" sometime during the weekend. Ron also highly encourages kids to buy t-shirts to help them start conversations about Christ with their peers. As more & more teens buy these t-shirts throughout the weekend and start wearing them, a strange sort of peer pressure develops in the arena, further driving Teen Mania's merchandise sales.
Perhaps the most manipulative marketing tactic of all, however, usually occurs during the third session of an Acquire The Fire event. From stage, Ron is talking about how daily quiet times are the key to becoming a strong & mature Christian. Then volunteer ushers walk around the entire arena and hand every last person a copy of Ron Luce's latest devotional "workbook," filled with Teen Mania teachings about the Bible along with study questions & activities for the reader to pursue. Ron talks about how this book is such a great resource, and he really wants to make sure every teen in the arena has what they need to continue growing as a Christian after the event, so he is giving the book away. BUT, the book does cost money, so there is going to be a "love offering" to help pay for it. He encourages teens to put in the $7-10 cost of the book if they have the money....and to put in more money if they can afford it, to help pay for the kids who can't afford to "donate" anything. Then the volunteer ushers make another sweep of the arena, passing around buckets to collect cash from the crowd.
I've attended several Acquire The Fire events, and I can tell you that a lot of teens I've spoken with feel great amounts of pressure to donate because they were just "given" a book...this guilt demonstrates just what a coercive marketing tactic the "free book" thing really is. Make no mistake about it: these "love offerings" are a key source of revenue for Teen Mania and they rely on collecting a certain amount of money from the crowd at each event. This free gift/love offering strategy allows Teen Mania to pedal hundreds of thousands more copies of their books than they would be able to if they simply had the books available at the merchandise table. Not to mention, every single one of Ron Luce's devotionals spends a fair amount of time encouraging kids to go on a short-term missions trip--which is a great way for Teen Mania to keep their marketing message front of mind months after the arena event has ended.
While Ron Luce claims to just be selling stuff that will "help kids," there's also plenty of items with no clear benefit....like radios, jackets, key chains, and more emblazoned with the Teen Mania or Acquire The Fire logos. How is a Teen Mania key chain supposed to help you grow as a Christian? Merchandise sales at Acquire The Fire represent just one of the many ways Teen Mania markets to teenagers to keep the cash flowing in. When you've built an empire, the money to run it has to come from somewhere, and in the case of Teen Mania, it's coming from the pockets of impressionable & vulnerable teenagers across the country.