RPM, Volume 11, Number 17, April 26 to May 2 2009


By Scott Schuleit

Scott Schuleit received the M.A. in Christianity and Culture (Summa Cum Laude) from Knox Theological Seminary. His poems have appeared in several publications, including: the Mars Hill Review, The Penwood Review, Spring Hill Review and Christianity and Literature. Also, a few of his book reviews have appeared in Tabletalk magazine and several of his articles in The Good Life Newsletter. Scott lives in the Atlanta area and enjoys walking, observing, reflecting and spending time with his dear wife Christina. He may be contacted at sschuleit@gmail.com
It can be strenuous living as a Christian in our culture due to the pressure placed upon us—primarily through the media—to live in conformity to the spirit of the age. One way in which the world attempts to conform us (or anyone for that matter) to its way of thinking, is through the formidable force of advertising. While watching TV or during the duration of one simple excursion to the grocery store and back, one is assaulted by the flash and dazzle of a vast array of advertisements. Hundreds could literally pass by your sight within the time frame of one simple errand. Are we aware of the power of advertising? Do we think much about it? My guess is probably not. Most of us were raised in America, a culture where extensive, gratuitous advertising is the norm. We live in a sensate, consumer-oriented culture where appeals are constantly being unfurled to entice us to satisfy ourselves, to spend lavishly to satiate our every whim. Ads are something we take for granted. We rarely, if ever think much about them, rather we often simply respond to them, for advertising has become deeply interwoven within the tapestry of our society.

Is there something sinister lurking behind these ads and the way they attempt to entice a buyer, or are they simply good old-fashioned appeals to reason, that we may acquire something beneficial to increase the quality of life? The short answer to this question is yes there is certainly something insidious going on. Whether the advertiser is conscious of it or not, the rationale, ideas and worldview expressed through advertising is often in extreme opposition to the Christian worldview. This does not mean that I'm speaking of every single individual, ad, company, or aspect within the advertising industry, but simply the general sway of it. There are organizations that are genuinely concerned for the well-being of their customers, but I strongly suspect that those within this category are in a minority.

To illustrate some of the subtle and crass sinister qualities often displayed in ads, allow me to utilize a fairly direct example. While driving one day, I noticed a beer ad on a billboard containing a picture of a couple (the man was lugging some beer with him) hiking out towards some beautiful, majestic, turquoise mountains in the distance. Their backs were turned to us, but they were obviously a handsome couple, and she happened to be wearing some rather provocative—shall we say, well-fitted shorts. The low, upward camera angle and composition of the visual was obviously orchestrated in such a way as to heighten our awareness of the woman's posterior. Now what exactly is this ad trying to say?

First of all, I think it is quite obvious here that a lurid appeal to sex is being utilized in order to draw the potential buyer into viewing the ad. (Obviously in my case it worked) In other words, this ad appeals to our flesh, or more specifically, it attempts to excite one sexually. This is probably the most common motivation technique used in advertising for men or women.

Most enticements to purchase a product include an appeal to pride—the foundation for all sin. Cigarette companies often utilize this coupled with an appeal to sex; real men you know, the handsome, free-spirited sort that women just simply adore, only smoke this brand of cigarettes etc. Cigarettes ads in magazines tend to show variations of only a few particular scenes, including that of a good-looking guy in a bar or some other place, with a cigarette between his fingers, while somewhere in the picture a beautiful woman gazes at him with a sly, provocative half-smile. This scenario is, of course, switched for cigarette ads directed towards women.

Most ads incorporate a combination of two or more fleshy provocations to acquire sales. Coveting and the pride of elitism are often used together, especially in commercials for luxury automobiles. First, we are enticed to covet the vehicle, then, after its astounding benefits are delineated, it is often expressed through various non-verbal means that this purchase will immediately usher us into the fashionable elite of society, the veritable cream of humanity.

Other ads incorporate the garish but effective appeal to gluttony, to indulge ourselves, to give in to the urge to visit this restaurant or consume this food product or other… I mean, after all, aren't you worth it? (As if our self-worth is dependent upon what we eat, drink, wear or drive) These ads often show a close-up of a mouth gorging into a hamburger or taco, cheese pulling away from the product as the camera pulls back to reveal an amazed, wide-eyed customer etc.

Still other ads, under the category of comedy, utilize clever gags, mascots and other devices, that through humor, the logic and reason of the viewer might be bypassed, and our flesh, imagination and emotions engaged. Most ads attempt to go straight for the flesh, to elicit an immediate response, for they know that half the battle's been won if they can divorce reason from the purchasing decision.

To be fair, there are some advertisers out there who attempt to appeal to reason—and in a proper fashion, engage our imagination and emotions, by enumerating in an imaginative way, the benefits of a worthwhile product.

I have digressed; now let us venture back to our handsome, jovial, beer-toting buddies in the mountains. As I stated earlier, the ad utilizes brute sex appeal in an attempt to divert our gaze towards the visual. Once this is achieved—now that our attention is procured, we then, in accordance with their intent, discover that the strapping, handsome young man she's with has a supply of a particular brand of beer in tow.

Advertisers labor over creating something of their own attractive little world that they might draw people down into it, for once engaged within the microcosm of the ad, individuals are far more open to the value system of that world, which of course, naturally includes the necessity of their product. The total composition of the ad itself is attempting to project an illusion, a deception, a spurious ideal in an effort to acquire the contents of your wallet or purse. I mean—along with power, that is what they really want. Let us think about it for a moment, do we really believe that their sincere purpose for this ad is to see you with this handsome woman/man traipsing towards the mountains? Do we really believe that purchasing their brand of beer—or any brand of beer for that matter, is somehow going to serve as the catalyst to not only attract some gorgeous mate, but to usher us into the fullness of the good life before us? Of course not! But they do not want you to think about that, only to imagine that it could happen, to feel and respond accordingly. Their success primarily depends upon the force of their illusion to bypass your reason and appeal directly to your flesh, imagination and emotions. (On a side note: our emotions are not intrinsically good or evil, but neutral, and will emerge as being either primarily good or primarily evil depending on the motivations. Our motivations will always be a complex and partly mysterious mixture with either good or evil as the predominant intention.) If an advertiser decided to be simply honest about the benefits—or deficits of their product, it's unlikely many people would purchase it. For some companies their sales depend upon their avoiding or diminishing the truth, or utilizing outright lies that they might project their product in a positive light. Could you imagine how different advertising might be if pure honesty was employed? One commercial might go something like this…. Our hamburgers are not the worlds best, they're not even close, as a matter of fact, surveys show that some people don't even care for them at all. By the way, consumption of our hamburgers is shockingly detrimental to the human system, it's so bad in fact, we would encourage you to eat only one or two of our hamburgers each month. Beyond all this, going to our restaurant and eating our hamburgers is certainly not going to make you more attractive, fashionable, nor is it likely to help you acquire any new friends. Also, to help you in your decision, please remember that our hamburgers are definitely overpriced for what you get, but they certainly taste delicious…. I'm obviously going to an extreme here to illustrate my point, but I think it's quite reasonable to assume that if more honest advertising tactics were employed, product sales would plummet or product quality would go up.

Though I am aware this is speculative, I would even venture to say that there might be a spiritual connotation to the ad. We see our vibrant, resolute couple hiking upwards towards some goal. The mountains, their summits straining towards the infinite, loom before them, great peaks rising to the heavens, unveiling a feeling of euphoria and mystical airy bliss…. I am not going to push hard concerning the possibility of this being conveyed through the ad, but an expression in advertising that some physical product to purchase can help one attain some kind of misty, spiritual ideal or enlightenment, seems to be increasing in our culture. It is that ancient lie, first heard by humans in the Garden of Eden. Eat this and you will be like God…. (See Gen. 3:1-7). The astonishingly rebellious desire of the creature to be on equal footing with their Creator is a temptation that appeals to mankind. This desire flows black through fallen mankind's root systems—through the very core of humanity's radically depraved nature.

Finally, notice how ads convey the notion that you shouldn't be content. Depending on the ad, advertisers attempt to stir up feelings of great discontentment concerning various aspects of our lives, including our physicality, financial status, and what we eat drink, wear or drive. Here we are driving (maybe in traffic) to work or wherever and this vision appears before us, unfolding a fantasy, a sudden, tempting diversion, a tasty little world of illusion, which can make our practical realities feel so mundane. Part of its effectiveness depends on making us feel discontent before they magically reveal to us what we're missing, what's really going to satisfy us, urging us to believe that the purchase of their product will produce contentment. They fashion an extremely high standard, and then tell us we have to purchase their product (or products) to fulfill it. By the way, that standard keeps on changing from generation to generation along with the items one is encouraged to purchase. They're working hard to make you perceive their product as being a need, for what in actuality is almost always only a want, and if not intrinsically, but by possible implication, the desire produced is sometimes even a detrimental one at that.

Now I know that beer is not inherently evil at all; it is the misuse or excessive use of it that's sinful, but the worldview within which the ad for beer is couched—the context, often condones the excessive use of their product. Their cute little moral qualifier at the bottom of the ad exhorting you to "Drink responsibly" becomes almost entirely meaningless—if not deceptive, if the worldview conveyed by the ad is hedonism or some other immoral or false worldview. Let us also keep in mind the huge drinking problem in our society and the fact that it has considered cool to get drunk in our culture. In a sense, they put a loaded gun in the hands of a suicidal society and say, remember not to point it at yourself and pull the trigger. For some strange reason their kind little qualifier fails to mention the statistics concerning the incalculable carnage produced by alcoholism and drunk driving each year. (Not to mention the fact that excessive drinking engenders promiscuity with its attendant tragedies of pre-marital sex, abortion, and venereal disease to name just a few) Instead, they make us feel that this little, carbonated, golden elixir is what we are missing; this is what is going to bring us peace, contentment, and even a mate, in short, the good life. We know better than that, or at least we should. True joy, peace and contentment, or true life, can only occur by abiding in Christ, which of course, first, naturally presupposes having been redeemed by Him.

Part of the strategy of advertisers, and I believe the mind of evil behind them, is the inundation method. By this, I mean the attempt by advertisers to immerse the mind of the consumer with a constant bombardment of advertising to the extent that our minds become jaded, leaving us dazed and senseless, and consequently, more susceptible towards influence. An incessant stream of advertising is so prevalent in our culture today that we have become hardened to its hazards. The flood of it, the ruthlessness of this continuous, advancing onslaught is difficult to fight. What makes it more difficult is that it pleases the flesh in a myriad of ways. Besides being sensual, ads are rarely thought provoking, encouraging us to be carnal, listless, lazy and indulgent. Having been engulfed by this attack since we were young, we have become de-sensitized to all the gross appeals made to our flesh to the extent that we now simply react with the desire to glut ourselves. ….That sandwich looks good…. Let's go there…. I'm hungry…. Nice body…. This car is getting kind of old…. I'm thirsty…. I wouldn't mind having one of those…. Hey, I could go for that…. Notice the focus on the idol of the self, this the most worshipped and adored false god among the world's panoply of idols. Ads often encourage us towards selfishness, to be concerned with merely satiating oneself, which is a posture that inflicts harm to not only oneself, but to others. The primary refrain in advertising, it's insidious universal voice, communicated through many means and in many different ways, is that it's your life, you're in charge, fulfill all your desires, do whatever you want when you want…. This is, of course, in direct contrast to the clear teachings of Scripture. Consider for example Matthew 10:34-39, and 16:24-27. In Matthew 16:24-25, Jesus states it quite emphatically: "If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it."

Once again, I am not advocating a view that the whole industry of advertising is in a concerted effort to undermine biblical values in society, but I do believe that a portion of the industry is intentionally antagonistic, and certainly the reality of the forces of spiritual darkness lying behind (much of) what is going on in advertising are united in their desire to destroy Christian values. Ephesians 6:12 could be used here to underscore the validity that our warfare is, in part, against the fallen angels. "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

Advertising can also be seen partly as an escape, an attempt by advertisers to fashion fig leaves over the nakedness of their shame, and to sell the façade of this escape to others. The unregenerate man passionately hates God and aggressively strives to rid himself (see John 3:18-21 and Rom. 1:18-32) of what is a torment to him, that of the convicting reality of God's Holy presence. The escapist nature of much of advertising appeals to the darkened mind of the world, which desperately desires to escape into illusions rather than embrace the truth. They try to fill their minds with an influx of more and more visuals/ information—and advertisers accommodate this through the inundation method, that they might drown various voices, including that of the conscience, and hide from God, but of course, they do so in vain, for any attempt to flee from the Lord—as Adam and Eve found out—will always be, without exception, a futile posture.

In the Sermon on the Mount—the greatest and most famous sermon ever, read and consider how diametrically opposed Christ's teachings are to what ads and what our culture in general is attempting to communicate to us. In particular, read Matthew 6:25-34. In this portion of scripture, we have a command from our Savior, of which, if followed, will bring us the true good life. Verses 31-34 states:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?' or ‘What shall we drink?' or ‘What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

Subscribe to RPM

RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. To subscribe to RPM, please select this link.