At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

The Soul in…Advertising?

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When Super Bowl Sunday comes around each year, there is almost as much anticipation about the commercials as there is about the game itself. As this clip reveals, there are many commercials that people love to talk about. Some take on an iconic status, such as Apple’s 1984 commercial, and some seem to keep us laughing, such as the Betty White/Abe Vigoda Snickers ad.

Ads or Cultural Artifacts?

It is interesting to observe that the excitement surrounding these commercials is not so much about viewers revving up for a mad dash to a store (virtual or otherwise), but because the best commercials strike a chord in us. In them, we encounter something beautiful, funny, inspiring, or bold.

To put it another way, what we see in these notable advertisements are cultural artifacts that make a contribution beyond the role of commerce. Part of my reason for writing about advertising, and specifically ads that are fifteen to forty-five-second film clips, is that the cultural contribution of ads seems to come with an asterisk attached to them.

As I thought about this post, I kept hearing the phrase, “I work in an industry without a soul,” words spoken by a former divinity student I know who worked full-time for a New York ad firm. What he suggested was that the goal of his company was to create ad campaigns that excelled at providing either that twinge of discomfort, or that new desire for products that people didn’t need. He did not seem to regard his work in advertising as an act of cultural contribution, but instead as the creation of phantom desires that led people to separate their money from their wallet.

Common Grace in the Advertising World

The tension between ads as wonderful cultural artifacts and tools that manufacture consumer cravings reveals one of the great realities about cultural engagement in business and other public domains.

I believe that we are observing the messiness that goes along with sowing the terrain of common grace. Common grace is that non-redemptive mercy that God shows to the world and makes possible our participation in things that we don’t usually regard as spiritual. It is an opportunity for showing the beauty that comes from all aspects of the created order.

The reason we may find ourselves full of appreciation for the best ads is because we are encountering some of the sweeter fruits of common grace. But along with this, we may also encounter fruit that is not so sweet. This is because the field of common activity does not guarantee that those who sow or harvest will have the best intentions. Despite this, I think the world of advertising may have a little more soul than my former student thought.

Culture, Commerce, & Creativity

Perhaps the larger question for readers of this blog is, “What do we make of the mixed legacy of the advertising world?”

Though advertising does indeed have a mixed legacy because all kinds of people with all kinds of motives are involved, there is great opportunity for cultural formation in the nexus of product and promotion. This need not be a bad thing at all.

A second question is, “How much do we as Christians think about ways that advertising can be a gift to our fellow humans, not only because of the presentation of products that can enhance our lives, but also because of the simple pleasures that many of us share when we encounter memorable ads?”

Advertising is actually one domain for us to consider how Christians can encourage creative types to infuse humanity into commerce, whether through humor, beauty, or some other form of creative expression. Ads provide information to consumers, and that information can be accurate and artistic.

And last, “If there is soul absence or soul decay in advertising, how can Christians in business bring light to the darkness?”

Bringing soul into advertising requires vision and boldness, along with the acknowledgment that advertising products can be a greater and more important task than we think. Though ads are often “of the moment,” the best ones stay with many of us.

There lies the prospect of value that is actually greater than what the ad is selling. Ads that linger have the potential to contribute to the shaping of culture and society.

How can Christians best contribute to the field of advertising? 

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