catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 23 :: 2005.12.16 — 2005.12.29


Prophetic advertising

I hear information. Then I feel responsibility. For example, I hear The ONE Campaign state, "ONE billion people live on less than ONE dollar a day." Then I see pictures of hungry kids, read gripping stories, and feel like I need to write a check. But I haven't yet.

The amount of information and number of sources from which similar information pours is overwhelming. Sometimes I respond in charity or volunteerism, but most often I squelch the guilty feeling and move on. I have to if I want to stay sane. Yet I know Martin Luther King Jr. was right: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." How can I not write a check, or volunteer, or…? The tension between information about my neighbors (near and far) and responsibility to care for them is great indeed.

Ironically, I've spent the bulk of my life feeling none of this tension regarding information I receive from consumer magazine ads and TV commercials. Ads for stuff like furniture and beer lack heartstring-tugging ability and rarely cause me to quote MLK, let alone Jesus.

Yet I'm beginning to discover something in the average ad worth both my attention and response. In fact, it's challenging my default media consumption habits. It's calling my Christian faith to attention by causing me to see human needs for which there are no charity organizations.

Before I cite a couple of examples, I should offer a stage-setting word about prophets. Throughout Scripture and all of human history, prophets have served as one part critic and one part visionary. The critic looks discerningly at the culture and points with uncanny precision at what is wrong and why. Then he or she serves as the visionary by looking ahead, painting a picture of hope, and pointing the broken people toward wholeness. (These two functions are equally important and must co-exist.)

I'd like to propose that popular advertising serves, at least in one function, like a prophet, who never really says anything we didn't already know but who publicly names our pain in order to awaken our need for hopeful solutions. That is, popular advertising serves as the critic. It points to aspects of you and me and says, with precision, "That's what is broken."

If we listen carefully, we just may learn something about our neighbor—something worthy of a caring response.

The first example is a magazine ad for Broyhill Furniture. A large Victorian style foyer, complete with chandelier, archways, Oriental rug and spiraled staircase is complemented by an elegant four-piece arrangement of furniture. It is a picture of wealth, perhaps similar to what you might find in a Governor's mansion. The ad is well-designed, aesthetically pleasing and clearly indicates the luxury standard of the furniture. A casual magazine reader would give it a respectful glance before turning the page.

However, a more careful look allows the ad to publicize something about our human condition. The printed description of the product tells all: "Antique-inspired interpretations of hand-tooled originals from 19th century American cabinetmakers Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Phyfe."

It is now clear. The ad describes, with precision, that we are dissatisfied with our status in life; that we will settle for counterfeit reproductions so long as they boost our socio-economic appearance and placate our inadequacy complex. The ad recognizes how subtly we use copies of the genuine article to perform the function of the genuine article (and here I am doubly referring to idolatry as a substitute for God).

Notice the string of cryptic elements in the ad's description: "antique-inspired," "interpretations of hand-tooled originals," and "from 19th century American cabinetmakers." Translating these elements unveils the furniture to be non-antiques, not hand-tooled, and not made over 100 years ago by famed cabinetmakers. The furniture is copied from something the ad assumes I truly desire but could hardly find and never afford. And again, I believe it shows how our deep hunger for God permits a willingness to settle for "interpretations" or substitutions of him.

Stuart Ewen, author of All Consuming Images, writes of this phenomenon as it began in the middle ages:

Fueled by their desire for franchise and status, the merchant class mimicked and appropriated consumption practices of the nobility…. Clocks, once the extravagantly tooled possessions of the few who could afford to own them, were mass produced…. For the members of an expanding middle class, the historically coded look of wealth was coming within their means (27, 33).

The ad, to the careful observer, serves the first prophetic function as critic. It reveals a human longing in this fallen world and essentially says, "That's one way people hurt." If we are listening, we may discern a way to respond to this insight with care. Unfortunately, the ad fails in serving the second prophetic role as visionary because, as most ads do, it offers no lasting solution.


Consider one more example (though we could fill pages). In a television commercial for Budweiser that first aired during the 2004 Super Bowl, a football coach screams incessantly at a referee on the sidelines. The game announcer comments surprisingly on how the coach is "beating him like a rented mule" and wonders where the referee learned to take such a beating. The camera moves to a living room, where the referee's wife is screaming into his ear about household chores and his lack of love for her.

As with the furniture example, it's important to ask what the commercial says, if anything, about our human condition—about how people are hurting.

One thing it clearly says is that couples struggle with communication. An acquaintance of mine applauded the referee for his strength and patience against such an onslaught. On the contrary, those are two items he lacks entirely. The last comment the referee's wife screams at him is, "Would it be too much to ask if you told me you loved me once in a while?!" She doesn't feel loved; he doesn't tell her. She asks for his love; it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. He escapes by tuning her out, presumably by opting for beer. (Note: the official name of this ad is "Tuning Out.")

Seeking and establishing peace in relationships is hard work. In a recent fellowship group activity, husbands and wives were asked to submit questions anonymously for a forum of counselors to address. A common female question was, "Why doesn't my husband make an effort to show his love to me?" Likewise, a common male question was, "How can I convince my wife that I love her?" The popularity of the questions revealed a quiet frustration in the group regarding the challenge of communication.

Nobody wants the kind of hostility displayed in the Budweiser ad, especially in a marriage relationship. So we try to find solutions that work. Escape happens to be the easiest. We drink, masturbate, smoke, binge, purge, shop, gamble and disappear in order to escape from difficult situations. In the ad, the referee has learned to escape his wife's needs by tuning her out and disappearing emotionally.

From a marketing standpoint, Budweiser's approach is effective. By following the model of the successful comedian who uses shared experiences to create connection between himself or herself and the audience, Budweiser connects with the male audience. It is no surprise that this ad was voted "6th Most Liked Ad of 2004" (Advertising Age and IAG Research). Men connected with it because they know the feeling. They can resonate with the referee.

From a spiritual standpoint, the ad does a splendid job as a critic, informing the careful observer about a common human longing. Yet there is no hopeful vision as Budweiser only offers beer as a solution.

What we do with ads and what we ought to do with ads are two very different realities. Ads are so pervasive and ignored that most of us neglect the valuable information they contain. We neglect to see how precisely ads for everyday items like furniture reveal our perceived inadequacies, discontentment, and hunger for God. Yet, when we choose to see them as prophetic—revealing cracks and fears and longings in people—we can take personal responsibility by serving the visionary function of the prophet. Informed by the insight of the ads, we can turn to our neighbors (as well as to ourselves!) with a vision of hope, offering solutions that are lasting and deep rather than temporary and superficial.

May we learn to recognize what ads say about us, for their makers devote endless amounts of money, research and time toward knowing exactly how we struggle. The problem is in the solutions and this is where the good news of Scripture is better than any check we can write.

Sam Van Eman is a Staff Resource Specialist with the Coalition for Christian Outreach. He has been involved in campus ministry since 1998 and speaks at Christian seminars, retreats, and camps. Sam is the author of On Earth as It Is in Advertising: Moving from Commercial Hype to Gospel Hope.

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