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Corporations won't save you, but they know that compassion sells
While there are a lot of lessons to be learned about leadership, perseverance, team work, and unity in an unlikely Super Bowl victory of Doug Pederson and Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles, I actually learned something from the advertisers that showed off their best stuff in between drives during the game. Super Bowl advertising is a well-known and expensive spectacle ($5 million for a 30-second spot). I think because of that expense and notoriety we learn a lot of what the big corporations think we value and what they think we’ll find receptive. The market research behind the commercials is also extensive and expensive.
My favorite ads were the Tide ads that peppered the evening. Tide, after possibly suffering backlash after December 2017’s “Tide POD Challenge” meme, resurged in a very clever way: it made every Super Bowl ad a Tide commercial. It's a Tide Ad. It's Another Tide Ad. It's Yet Another Tide Ad. It's Yet Another Tide Ad, Again.
Tide kept showing the ads throughout the game to reinforce its point that its product was necessary for all the commercials and all of our lives because it cleans our clothes. I was amused by how clever it was and by how unafraid the company was at being redundant. I think we can all learn something form that redundant communication: if you want to help someone learn something (hopefully something more meaningful than laundry detergent—let’s say the transformative power of Jesus Christ through the church), you gotta keep talking about it. I think our self-consciousness makes us nervous about sharing the Gospel redundantly, but I think we have to do it. I have to keep saying that Jesus transformed my life, that Circle of Hope was an elemental part of that, and that’s why I’m consistently extending the invitation to you and to others.
It is amazing, though, because some of you will think I’m cheapening the message by copying Tide. I actually think Tide is copying Jesus. Read the Gospels again—the first three are very redundant with regards to each other, and Jesus keeps talking about the Kingdom of God. In John, he is similarly redundant, giving us the same basic formula over and over again (seven signs, and seven “I Ams” notably). Even so, some might think that the Gospel shouldn’t treated like I’m advertising it, but we won’t ever ask Tide why it’s copying Jesus’ method for sharing? I think we’re trained to empathize with corporations like they’re people, nevertheless, and with how charming those ads were, I don’t blame us.
Keep watching and you’ll see that copying Jesus’ style isn’t all they copy.
Two other well-received ads were Hyundai’s ad that classically combines consumption with compassion. If one buys a Hyundai he or she also donates to kids with cancer. The heart-warming ad depicts families meeting victims of cancer. The victims thank their benefactors and it is touching. And of course, Hyundai gets the credit as the chief benefactor, the one whose compassion extends to all its consumers. Just imagine that? You don’t even have to enact compassion anymore, just buy a care and the corporation does the rest. When we combine our consumption and compassion, we feel fine about our purchase (instead of all that pesky guilt that has us consciously considering our choices).
Hyundai is wisely channeling the idea that people want do good, but they don’t want to be guilted about it and they simply want to be affirmed and praised for it. Doing the right thing saves us from our guilt!
With Jesus you are free to do good and fail, and in either event you are free to not be guilty because it isn’t what you’ve done that saves you, but rather who Jesus sees you to be. You don’t have to buy a Hyundai to be saved, and you don’t have to defend your consumer choice. But you are free to discern what good consumption might look like because you are invited into a life of goodness, not perfection and not guilt.
Budweiser continued its reputation as one of the best advertisers in the Super Bowl this year. In the wake of Trump’s FEMA cutting aid to Puerto Rico, Budweiser was here to represent the market as the chief social agent. They are still offering water to disaster sites all over the country. Another example of benevolence being carried out at the whim of the private sector. Budweiser made sure to brand its water too, so you know that the brewer, whose product has dubious value in general, does the right thing and gives away water to those who need it. They stand with us!
It seems to me like the marketers understood that Americans, and people in general, want to do the right thing. And they wanted to give them a chance to do the right thing, while consuming their product guilt-free. The NFL, a morally reprehensible entity on its own, benefits from providing its viewing audience a shot of morality, as we watch the players bludgeon each other and suffer brain trauma, and the rather gruesome display of wonton consumerism, unbridled patriotism, and military worship. And it profits majorly off of the entire event.
It’s a delicate cocktail. The NFL has a major image problem, and viewership has declined this year (and this Super Bowl was the least viewed since 2009 too). It is trying to alleviate it by making sure its audience knows that they are engaged with moral action and that the NFL cares. So? Buy a Hyundai and save a kid with cancer. Drink Budweiser and help Puerto Rico. Watch the NFL and feel perfectly morally justified. Turn a blind eye to evil because the NFL and its advertisers have atoned for your sins.
I may be overstating the insistence on these corporations to save you, but I don’t think I am. They are tapping into the basic desire and instinct we all have to need a savior (as was displayed in nearly all the movie trailers shown during the game too).
What took the cake, though, and probably in fact did sell its morality too hard, was Daimler-Chrysler’s Dodge RAM ad. It was an advertisement for Ram Trucks that tries to reappropriate the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to sell trucks. It’s an embarrassing display. It’s transparently evil.
It’s very interesting, though, that it got so much backlash, but Budweiser and Hyundai didn’t for pulling a similar trick. Granted, it is particularly egregious that MLK’s words should be reappropriated, but I also think that the “target audience” to be won over by the words of King is well-aware of the manipulative tactics and the painful sanitization and pacification that our beloved prophet has undergone through the American propaganda machine.
Politicians consistently gaslit Dr. Martin Luther King and tried to make him look crazy, unstable, and used his unfaithfulness against him because they were threatened by his power. Of course, after his death, the powers that be were quick to canonize him and make sure his hagiography focused on his “peaceful way” in order to further isolate those working for racial justice and inequality. So those of who would notice his voice in the Ram ad? Yeah, we’re not gonna go buy some trucks because of it.
I’ll leave you with my favorite response to the MLK ad. This is overlay of MLK’s speech (later on in the same speech).
The big idea I want you to leave with is less about condemnation of advertising (though all of these ads, for one reason or another, can and should be deconstructed), but learn something from them. The big take away I have? People want to be a part of world redemption, they want to express their compassion, and they are looking for a savior to lead them to do it. The church can play a part in that, and I believe Circle of Hope is. You can too.
P.S.: Congratulations, Philadelphia.