Souls for Sale

"A car that can help save your soul." Would that commercial entice you to buy a Volvo? Or how about this: A young woman sits in church, "confessing" her miserly ways. "It’s not a sin to be frugal," the preacher reassures her. And the woman is released from guilt to enjoy her sporty new Chevy Cavalier. Madison Avenue, it seems, has discovered spiritual chic. It’s become profitable to exploit Americans’ growing spiritual hunger. In an IBM commercial, Catholic nuns walking to vespers talk about surfing the Net. A Snickers commercial shows a football team inviting a Catholic priest to bless the team, followed by a rabbi, a Native American, a Buddhist, and a long line of other spiritual leaders. The tag line: "Not going anywhere for a while? Grab a Snickers." In one sense, ads have always had quasi-religious overtones. According to sociologist James Twitchell in his book, Adcult USA, the people who developed the art of modern advertising in the early part of this century were largely Christians, influenced by the methods of religious revivalism. The spiritual sequence of sin-guilt-redemption was transposed into the psychological sequence of problem-anxiety-resolution. Thus the typical television commercial is, in Twitchell’s words, "a morality play for our time." We see a man or woman in distress. He has a cold; she has ring-around-the-collar. A second figure appears on the screen giving witness to the power of the featured product. The person steps out in faith and tries the product. Hallelujah, the problem is solved. Finally, the disembodied voice of a male announcer—like a voice from on high—presses home the product’s advantages. "The powerful allure of religion and advertising is the same," Twitchell concludes. Both reassure us: "We will be rescued." But today’s commercials go even further, exploiting spiritual themes in their actual context as well. Ad makers spend fortunes probing our psyches to tap into our deepest longings. The latest crop of spiritual themes in ads reflects the fact that Americans are experiencing a surge of interest in religion. And yet, it is profoundly disturbing to see religion reduced to one more handle for manipulating our acquisitive desires. When our kids hum the catchy jingle of the latest commercial, is their spiritual impulse being diverted into consumerism? Are they absorbing Madison Avenue’s false values? Christians need to critique all parts of culture—and even call ad makers to account. For example, Saab’s "Find your own road" campaign featured characters who fantasize about leaving work, about "flying in the face of convention," and driving off into the sunset. In other words, Saab wasn’t just selling cars; it was also selling a philosophy: the theme of autonomy, of breaking the rules, of rebelling against the constraints of civilized society. After I criticized the ad last year on BreakPoint, the president of the company called to say I would not be seeing those ads anymore. The company’s new ads stress product and performance. Three cheers for Saab. When ads like these appear on the screen, make a point of discussing them with your children. Help them to identify the underlying themes. And let companies know why you object. After all, a good ad should sell a product—not a philosophy.


Chuck Colson


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