Last Saturday, Tristan, Gareth, Charity and I were sitting on the couch watching Saturday morning cartoons. As young children are want to do, our boys were up very early, and Charity and I were doing our best in the lull to fortify ourselves with coffee.
Well, as we were watching cartoons, a commercial started, and Tristan started to sing the theme song for the commercial—but then stopped himself. He looked at us and said that he really didn’t like commercials because the songs would get stuck in his head and he didn’t like that, because they wanted him to buy stuff he didn’t want.
Without realizing it, Tristan stumbled onto a pretty important truth—namely that there are some very smart people in advertising working to get us to consume. And in a culture that is already overwhelmed by media and advertising, the methods for getting our attention have become quite strategic.
In 2004, the PBS news show, Frontline, did a piece called “The Persuaders.” If you look online, you can still watch the entire program, and it’s eye-opening…
The point of this piece was to talk about this very interesting shift in advertising from a time when advertisers were trying to prove the efficacy and usefulness of their product—to suddenly working to create a culture, and a kind of spirituality around products. Advertising went from talking about how a product was tangibly better at what it did—to talking about what a product meant…
So, a car is no longer just a car, but it’s an expression of a culture—it’s something elemental—and, of course, they claim all of this while never actually showing the car. A random guy on a couch getting passersby to start crying is supposed to get us to buy a certain kind of tissue. Apparently impromptu emotional catharsis is somehow related to what I use to blow my nose.
All of this is done with the idea that advertisers could forge a kind of spiritual bond with a cynical consumer base. Brands do this by hiring consultants who sit around and try to “channel their inner brand.” So in the end, a product would become a kind of totem for expressing particular aspects of our lives.
At one point in the program we’re introduced to a man by the name of Clotaire Rapaille, a man who was a respected psycho-therapist in the 1970s who left his practice to work with advertisers.
In this work, funded by a number of these advertising groups, Rapaille did a long term study to figure out a consumer’s hidden desires. His belief was that to know these hidden desires was the key to making a deep connection with consumers in advertising. Of course, whatever those key components are, they weren’t revealed in the program. All the same, it shows to what lengths advertisers will go just to get us to buy.
The interesting thing is that it works… There was a similar article that I read a while back that talked about how the cigarette brand Lucky Strikes changed fashion and American culture at the same time. Apparently during the Second World War, as more women were entering the workforce; more women also began smoking. With this in mind, the advertising executives began trying to figure out how to capitalize on this shift—how to get more women smoking. At the time, Lucky Strikes sold in a green package. So, their solution was make the color green the fashionable color of the season.
Well, back then the center of fashion was really only Paris, France—there was no other place in the world where fashion trends were established. That is, until the ad executives at Lucky Strike decided to make New York City a center of fashion by holding a fashion show, and set the green trend that would eventually get more of their products sold.
Honestly, when I hear this kind of stuff; I get kind of frustrated. I don’t like to think or feel like I’ve been duped—because that’s how it feels. I don’t like the idea that my choice of fashion, or music, or even my politics could be the summation of some advertising think tank who had “channeled their inner brand.”
But then when we consider the amount of media that we’re exposed to: billboards, television and radio ads, fashionable clothes with corporate names and logos—it’s a surprise that we’ve not experienced overload. And for all of the constant barrage of advertising that we are hit with, there are only more salvos of advertising waiting to catch our attention and draw us in…
So in the midst of all of this white noise, how can we even begin to hear words that are spirit and are life? How are we supposed to understand the promise of eternal life given in Christ when we’re promised the same thing in products?
It might seem like an easy enough answer, because we’re intelligent people who can see through the glamour of advertising. Like Tristan, we know that advertisers are working hard to get us to buy stuff we don’t want. I think we know this (pointing to head), but I’m not sure if we know this (pointing to heart).
When Jesus comes to the end of his teaching about being the bread of life, inevitably he explains that eating his flesh and drinking his blood is the way in which we are to receive this life that he promises. Like us, these disciples who were listening knew that he wasn’t being literal—but we have to remember that they had followed him to get more fish and bread. While they didn’t confuse Jesus’ spiritual meaning in his teaching, they were however disconcerted to find out that his mission was about bringing salvation—not free miraculous food.
Their real issue then, was realizing that discipleship and the promise of eternal life would require a drastic change of life. And if they weren’t able to get past that, there was little hope that they would ever hear the words of life and of spirit.
The sad thing is that our culture tries to seduce us into the same trap. I mean, if I can buy a new car or a certain kind of tissue, couldn’t I have a more whole life without having to take in Jesus? Without all of the tough things that discipleship requires?
Sure, it seems like an easy choice, but it really isn’t. When I consider the things in my own life—the choices of how I use my time; I have to humbly admit that my selfish use of time often outweighs the selfless. I’m guilty of coveting cool technology, and cell phones that are better than mine. I admit to wishing I owned a car that had all of its wheel covers and doesn’t rattle. Not that these are terrible things, mind you, but they serve to distract me from attending to the words of life and spirit. They tempt me to lose my focus on my responsibilities to my relationship with Jesus and with others. And, like most of us, I confuse snake oil and placeboes for the true bread of life.
But then there are readings like today’s that help to sort me out. Unapologetically, Jesus asks these fair weather disciples “Did I offend you?”(In my head Jesus sounds like Samuel L. Jackson when he says this). And of course, those who couldn’t hear the words of life through the noise of their own lives went away.
Jesus then turns to the twelve and asks, “Do you also want to leave?” But with the sincerity and impetuousness that only Peter could muster, he says what I think all of us hope to say: “Where else can we go? You have the words of life…”
In our modern, busy lives we’re given every opportunity to neglect our faith. And as we can see there are any number of companies and advertisers who offer us excuses and alternatives to lives of discipleship in Jesus Christ.
It’s up to us, then, to be attentive to our relationship with Jesus in the midst of a world that does its best to grab our attention and sell us counterfeit. For all of their promises, however, what we know in our hearts is that in the end there is no other bread that nourishes the soul and gives eternal life—and there are no other words which are spirit and life. To understand this, I believe, is really our ‘hidden desire,’ because to be free and loved and accepted is the cry of all of humanity (perhaps even all of Creation). And where else can we go when the words of the spirit that we long for, and the meaning of life we hope to see are found in Jesus Christ, the true bread of life?