I don’t know about you but advertisements bug me. It’s not so much the fact that they exist, but the methods used. I have often tried to corner my buddies studying Business Marketing into admitting that they specialize in deception, lightheartedly of course. But what particularly annoys me is when advertisements do not indicate anything about the product. From my analysis (merely as a consumer) I have begun to group various types of marketing strategies into three broad categories:
1) The Non-sequitur Style. This version of marketing tends to ignore the product, and seeks to make sales on the perceived merits of something unrelated. The best example of this comes from the exploitation of women. Carl’s Jr is a major culprit in this regard, given the way they flaunt the sex appeal of Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and others to sell their burgers (but what could be less sexy than a burger from Carl’s Jr?). Likewise, Abercrombrie & Fitch is notorious for advertising their clothing through half-naked models, like this gem, for which words cannot describe. Sex of course is the main non-sequitur in advertising, but it is not exclusively so. There is a major fad in marketing at the moment to sell products through random and non-sequitur forms of humor; largely inspired by the Old Spice commercials, which has been imitated by Dairy Queen and the got milk? campaign and others. Of course, nobody has crafted non-sequitur advertisements better than beer companies. Now, personally I interpret this trend to be an over-compensation for a lack in product (don’t get me started on American light lagers!). These range from the non-sequitur of the inane (the famous ‘Wassup’ commercials) to the non-sequitur of elegance (the Budweiser Clydesdales).
2) The Over-Promising Style. This style of marketing includes intentionally deceptive and exaggerated advertisements. From the main image of this post you can see how burgers are generally advertised and how their dilapidated colleagues are regularly made day in and day out. Advertisements for food often exaggerate proportions, some in more subtle ways. For instance, this advertisement for a ‘Whopper Jr’ places the burger in front of a black backdrop so as to obscure proportionality (because they’re tiny). To return to sex appeal again, I have in mind the many magazine covers filled with airbrushed and photoshopped images of women. The Dove Evolution commercials do a good job of highlighting the deception behind these methods (which is all the more sad because of how oppressive these images are to women). Throughout the years, several advertising campaigns have been put to the test in order to see if their advertising claims were genuine. Listerine is one classic example; advertizing that their product is equally as effective as flossing in preventing tooth decay and gum disease. This has been determined to be false. Famously the beverage company Sunny Delight once advertised itself as a healthy alternative drink. In a 1993 commercial their original tagline was “tastes like orange, and tangerine, and lime” with a hip 90’s line to follow: “some healthy junk too.” In 1994 a new version of Sunny Delight came out with a commercial comparing the two, which noted how “moms love the vitamins in both.” A 1995 commercial emphasized that Sunny Delight contained vitamins A, B1, and C. However, when these claims were put to the test after a young girl’s skin turned yellow, Sunny Delight changed its tone. Rather than emphasizing the nutritional benefits, their advertisements began to aim for being “cool.” In a 2003 commercial they started using taglines like “taste the power of the sun,” with a faint voice quickly admitting afterwards, “contains 5% juice.”
3) The Deep Void Style. This type exploits the deep sense of longing that we all have. It creates a tension within us that the advertisement affirms can only be satisfied by the product. These commercials generally bug me because they are simply unrealistic. The first thing that comes to mind in this regard are commercials for Disney Land. In these commercials families are typically portrayed as loving and close-knit, and as having the most amazing time of their lives. There are certainly more examples of this, which usually use as much nostalgic effect as possible.
One of the most intriguing advertisements I’ve ever seen is the ad ‘Take a Side’ by Miracle Whip. To be sure, there is an over-exaggerated element in the way that Miracle Whip is portrayed positively. However, the ad itself openly acknowledges that mayonnaise is polarizing. The opening segment begins with a woman declaring Miracle Whip to be a 22 on a scale of 1-10 for dreadfulness. Additionally, the Jersey Shore pop icon Pauly D says that Miracle Whip “is just wrong.” Now again, many people in the commercial praise Miracle Whip for non-sequitur reasons. But it’s the juxtaposition that I find intriguing, especially in the way that celebrities are used to represent both sides. It’s a bit daring, so I half-respect them for it (though I too find mayonnaise to be gross).
My conclusion to all of this is that advertisements rarely escape being manipulative and deceptive. This bothers me a great deal. But it got me thinking; what about the ways people advertise religion? Perhaps you’ve seen the recent ads put on by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If you have not, the basic grid for each commercial is this: a fairly normal person who is at least slightly intriguing describes their rather normal life and then at the end adds “and I’m a Mormon.” One of the most interesting ones that I’ve seen is by Las Vegas native, Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of the hit band The Killers. The intentions behind the marketing scheme as a whole, typified in the commercial with Brand Flowers, is quite clear. The Mormon church wants the broader public to realize that they aren’t weird; but rather quite the contrary: they’re just like you, or perhaps, they include people you admire and look up to. In light of my advertising categories above, the marketing ploy here is clearly a non-sequitur. It has nothing to do with the veracity of the Book of Mormon, or if Joseph Smith was the prophet of the Restoration, or if the mainstream LDS church is a better option than the multiple Mormon splinter groups that spawned since the death of Joseph Smith on June 27, 1844.
But! Lest we who are evangelicals neglect to see the log in our own eyes, how have we presented the Gospel in ways that have detracted from the Gospel? To use the analogy of marketing, have we lost sight of the actual ‘product’ itself? How should these lessons from the marketing world affect the way we present the Gospel to people? If your preferred Gospel presentation includes “the Four Spiritual Laws,” why does the final line of each law reverberate with “God has a wonderful plan for your life”? If your Gospel presentation includes an emphasis on the benefits of salvation either in an extreme form (the prosperity Gospel) or in less possession-oriented forms (“if you become a Christian you’ll be happy”) have you lost sight of the Gospel (i.e. the “product”)? Of course, there is a joy that comes through knowing Christ. But what about Christians like Charles Spurgeon who suffer depression? Similarly, how do we account for the story of Job, or the sufferings of Paul? Furthermore, how do we account for the great martyrs of our faith and the biblical call to endure suffering like Christ (Rom 8.17; 1 Thess 3.3-4; Phil 1.29; 1 Pet 4.12-19)? Does your Gospel presentation focus inordinately on scaring the Hell out of people? Or conversely, does your Gospel presentation focus exclusively on “going to Heaven”? In this regard NT Wright is fundamentally correct when he asserts that the Gospel is not about “going to Heaven when I die.” Rather it is that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus God has made himself known as King of the whole kosmos. Of course, the point here is not that there is one method of evangelism, or that certain doctrines should be avoided when evangelizing. We don’t want to run the risk of omitting important elements of the Gospel’s implications for our lives either. I can recall mission trips where I proclaimed (=advertized) a message that reduced the Gospel to a single conversion experience divorced from the context of the local church and often included a promise of happiness. The point I have in all of this is that our evangelism should not give in to modern marketing strategies. Our evangelism methodology should be focused on the product, the Gospel.