Christianity and Advertising

Author Donald Miller looks at what the world of advertising might say about our faith—and comes up with some surprising insights.

The average American encounters 3,000 commercial messages each day. Whether this is a radio commercial, a magazine ad, a logo on the side of a coffee cup or a billboard you pass on the highway, these images and messages are designed to cause you to think of your life as incomplete, and desire the product they are selling to make your life complete again.

A standard formula used in many commercials is twofold: 1) To elicit a thought in the viewer that their life is not satisfactory and then 2) To convince the viewer their life could be made satisfactory with the introduction of said product. If you hear these messages 3,000 times per day, your brain becomes programmed to think in this pattern. Rather than being satisfied, a person begins to believe their life is lacking, whether it's actually lacking or not.

The idea is to convince you that you aren’t going to be happy unless you purchase something. And make no mistake, this is a powerful manipulative tool. Some experts have referred to advertising as the “relentless propaganda on behalf of goods in general.” In his breakthrough book Buyology, Martin Lindstrom talks about how marketers package their products within rituals, even going so far as to create rituals within which their products can be used. He notes there is no cultural tradition that would have us put a lime in a bottle of Corona, for instance, and how that ritual came about when a marketer placed a bet with a friend at a bar that he could make the masses put a lime in a bottle of beer.

The ritual

But rituals don’t exist because of marketers. Rituals exist because of a need in the human spirit for magical beliefs that their repeated actions are tied to good luck, fortune and security. To find the most ritualistic of people, one need look no further than the religious community. Some denominations take communion every week, some believe that unless you are baptized you cannot go to heaven, and wars have been fought over how these rituals should be acted out. And so the rituals advertisers sell us, whether it’s putting on makeup, using aftershave lotion, renting a tux for a wedding or being buried in a wooden coffin, are plays upon an innate human and even religious need.

But are rituals bad? Not from a biblical perspective. Christ asked us to remember Him through the breaking of bread and drinking of wine. Christ also asked that we be baptized, though it's theologically debatable whether this was symbolism for the true baptism we have in the likeness with Him and association with His death. We are also asked to pray and to fast, both rituals.

What if even the few rituals given to us in Scripture were supposed to be reminders of a relationship

That said, from nearly any perspective, we would agree some religious cultures take ritual too far. (Who could argue the handling of snakes by some churches is ritual taken too far?) Rituals do nothing magical for us. Perhaps it could be said the more insecure a person's faith, the more he might turn to religious ritual for security. The truth is in the motives, I suspect, and in the understanding that the rituals themselves have no magical powers.

So what if the power is not in the ritual, but what the ritual points to? Just as a wedding is a ritual, its power is not in the ritual, but the decision to be committed one to the other, and the ritual is a tool in aiding that commitment. What if even the few rituals given to us in Scripture were supposed to be reminders of a relationship, and that relationships were to be the power that redeems and guides us?

Loss aversion

Advertisers often play on something psychologists call loss aversion. Loss aversion suggests people are more motivated to avoid losing something than they are to acquire something new. For instance, in a study done on a street in Las Vegas, passersby were given a 20-dollar bill and then given the opportunity to double their money by betting on a single card. They could walk away with the 20, or double their money.

Most participants chose to walk away from the game, keeping the 20-dollar bill they had just been given. But when the game was changed and the participants were given 40 dollars, only to have 20 taken back a moment later and then given a chance to win back the 20 taken from them, nearly all participants decided to take the same risk and get back what they had lost. In other words, when they had something and lost it, they were more inclined to try to get it back.

It isn’t only advertisers who play on this psychological phenomenon, it’s politicians and talk-show hosts and nearly anybody trying to convince anybody of anything. How many times have you heard the phrase “take back our country,” or within the Church “take a stand for biblical theology” or this kind of language. The idea is to convince a group of people they are losing ground.

Loss aversion is the reason we keep the gym membership even though we don’t use it, it’s probably the reason you voted the way you did in the last election, it’s the reason people hoard material possessions and stay in bad relationships. The idea is that losing something costs you more happiness than gaining something gives you.

Where did the psychological phenomenon come from?

What if loss aversion comes from actual events in human history? What if there was once a paradise where man and woman, who were designed to interact with God, actually did interact with God, and that paradise has been lost. What if intuitively every human knows not only that life isn’t what it's supposed to be, but that it was actually once something completely different and great? What if this is where the psychological phenomenon of loss aversion comes from?

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So this begs certain questions. What are we really missing in life? And can politicians deliver that something to us? Are political ideas causing us to lose paradise? Are goods and services actually going to return us to paradise? What is it that will bring us internal paradise?

Our theology actually explains why it is that advertising and rituals are so effective. By that I mean Christian theology helps make sense of why we think and feel the way we do, and why we are all longing for something different and better, and why it is that a suggestion we are losing or have lost paradise, and must get back to it, is a powerful human sentiment that advertisers as well as leaders use, to sell products and ideas.

Donald Miller is the author of Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. This article is adapted from material on his blog.



docroc7 commented…

Television doesn't call itself "programming" for nothing.


ryanroberts311 commented…

Wow. I like the "loss aversion" parallels to Eden. I really had to think long and hard about how this is in my own life. How my actions our reactions to something bigger.

I think some of you are reading some great books, articles, etc. and some of it is coming out in your debate (which is healthy), but it does pull away from the article at hand.

I find it humorous to watch the arguing (which seems to respectful, and not personal) as another aspect of the "loss aversion".

There always is a sense of needing to go back to the truth, that the truth is lost in time, history, corruption, manipulation, etc. I don't see the loss of the truth in any of your points. You believe that humans determine truth through rituals, but the truths are not in the rights or wrongs. They (truths) are in the hearts of man.

We tend to dehumanize those that we don't agree with, making their search for an understanding of God and God's Will lesser than our own. Don's theology....who cares? An atheist can write down words that are as true about God and the world as much as a Christian can.

Your arguments can be "voided" with counter-arguments from a different source. Your are trying to quantify and qualify something that you can't. God is bigger than our brains, our emotions, our experiences, our education, and most definitely our sources.

Don was making an observation to bring a twinkle of understanding of why we act the way we do. Period.

Let that truth or pursuit of it....soak in....appreciate the complexity of what he is actually observing. Maybe your observation is different than his because God's plan needs you to see it a different way.

One of the devils best tricks is convincing you that it is other people that are the problem.

Rafee Jajou


Rafee Jajou commented…

Tim & Krempel, I can just picture Jesus holding the bread in one hand and the wine in the other, with this look of bewilderment and frustration....

Take a look at the bread. It is his "body broken for you."
Take a look at the wine. It is his "blood poured out for your sins."

His body- beaten to a bloody pulp, was for the physical healing and redemption of your body- The bread.
His blood- poured on altar of judgment, was payment for your life, cleansing your sin- The cup.



Krempel commented…

what on earth are you talking about? a discussion is a discussion. i don't get the passive aggressive judgement.


Julie V commented…

In regards to the Real Presence of God in the Eucharist....IT'S THE TRUTH.

Where in the Bread Of Life discourse does it say that Jesus was speaking "symbolically"? - no where. Unless God took it too far, that claim is far from being valid.

Simply put, in scripture, when Jesus spoke and was misunderstood he clarified. In John 6, He never clarified. He re-stated what He said. Over and over again. And some of the disciples left him BECAUSE they didn't believe what He said. Honestly, why not believe that God makes Himself present in the Eucharist? Jesus can do whatever He wants - He's God!! God makes Himself present in the Eucharist of his own choosing, because of His love for us. Why wouldn't we want to believe that? If God Himself humbles himself to a peice of bread, just to be with us always, why would we deny that? If God could humble himself to become human, he can do anything He wants - and He does, just to be with us. And why wouldn't we want to be with God NOW? I sure would love to be with Him now. And I can be. Granted, I don't deserve it - none of us do. But then again, none of us deserve God's love or His sacrifice on the Cross for us either - yet he does it anyway. The question isn't then "why believe?" but "why NOT believe?" I believe it.

John 6:46-69 RSV

46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? 53 So Jesus said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54 he who eat my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever. 59 This he said in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, This is a hard saying; who can listen to it? 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, Does you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you that do not believe. For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him. 65 And he said, This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father. 66 After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, Do you also wish to go away? 68 Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 And we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.

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