Robert D. Decker is professor of New Testament and Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
In that well-known passage, Ephesians 6:10-16, the Scriptures admonish us to put on the armour of God in order to be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. The devil is subtle, tricky, and will use every means at his disposal to deceive the Christian. I was reminded of this when I read a Guest editorial on the subject of TV advertising in the September 20, 1985 issue of Christianity Today. The editorial was written by Gregg Lewis, Senior Editor of Campus Lifemagazine, under the title, “TV Advertising’s Double Threat, How to be a better materialist in 60 seconds.”
TV ads can be amusing, cleverly done, even downright funny. But what is the message behind them? What do they really sell? Here is what Mr. Lewis had to say: (We do not endorse the Arminianism of the last paragraph.)
I recently heard about a father who critiques (and sometimes ridicules) the commercials his family watches on T.V. He often asks his kids: “Can this product really do that?” “Is that really true?” “What emotional need are they appealing to there?”
This dad’s got a good idea.
Many people—not just conservative Christians—complain loud and long about sex and violence on television. But most of us just accept the commercials.
Our modern, sophisticated lack of concern stands in stark contrast to the attitudes of the ancients. About 2250 B.C., the Code of Hammurabi made selling something to a child or buying something from a child without power of attorney a crime punishable by death. Today, we hardly seem to notice that our children are exposed to 350,000 television commercials by the time they reach the age of 18.
The commercial exploitation of our children should be reason enough for resistance. But TV advertising carries yet more dangerous perils. Thirty years ago, Vance Packard explained that advertisements weren’t just selling a product, they were marketing answers for hidden human needs. He catalogued a number of those needs, including a reassurance of worth, ego gratification, and a sense of power.
The electronic packaging and many of the products have changed since then, but today’s TV ads aim at those same basic human needs. A commercial that tells viewers, “You deserve a break today,” reassures them of their worth as persons just as surely as “Have it your own way” offers them decision-making power. And the ad that comments, “You never looked so good,” tries to gratify the ego even as it attempts to sell cosmetics to make viewers look even better.
Hardly any felt need or human problem escapes the attention or use of some television commercial. If trouble is brewing at home, Mrs. Olson’s coffee is guaranteed to perk up the marriage. One sip of her terrific brand and everyone’s smiling again.
Next time you spend on evening with the tube, conduct your own personal survey. Jot down product names and the promised benefits—stated or implied. You’ll discover that in selling salvation for everything from heartburn to social insecurity, TV commercials promise love, happiness, personal fulfillment, and nearly every other human desire. Never mind the price: a $2.00 greeting card or a $12,000 car will bring bliss.
What do TV commercials preach? The gospel of materialism: Products solve our problems.
God’s gospel says, “Deny yourself,” “Die to self,” and “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” But the 60-second signals we receive at every station break encourage us to indulge: “You, you’re the one,” and “You only go around once in life, so you have to grab all the gusto you can get.”
The basic appeal of the materialistic gospel works so well, but it’s hardly a new technique. It is the oldest temptation in the Book. Satan himself could easily have built his first advertising campaign around the slogan, “Try it, you’ll like it.”
Today’s television commercials have merely embellished and glamorized the age-old appeal, according to educator Roy Truby. Testifying before a PTA hearing on television’s impact, Truby, then Idaho’s superintendent of public instruction, said, “There is what we might call a ‘theology of television’ developing as a prevailing influence on American society. The ads constantly tell us to seek greater pleasure through more consumption. Philosophers down through the ages, since Aristotle, have rejected this theology as a way of life. But somehow the ads make us feel that to have anything less than too much is non-American.”
That effect is intentional. People in the advertising industry know just how to motivate and manipulate. In a CHRISTIANITY TODAY article on TV’s impact on viewers [Feb. 16, 1973), D.G. Kehl quoted Ernest Dichter, president of the Institute of Motivational Research: “One of the main jobs of the advertiser is not so much to sell the product as to give moral permission to have fun without guilt.”
That is merely the first punch of a dangerous one-two combination: At the same time the gospel of materialism allays all guilt over selfish indulgence, it creates new false guilts and anxieties.
Ring around the collar, bitter coffee, and dingy kitchen floors replace sloth, envy, and gluttony on the list of cardinal sins. Water-spotted crystal, baggy pantyhose, and the threat of embarrassing foot odor produce fear and trembling among TV’s true believers. The danger for viewers, especially Christian viewers who know the Truth, is that our emotional and spiritual concern can be channeled away from pressing human needs and problems.
Beware TV advertising’s dual threat: If it doesn’t lure us into accepting the false values of materialism, it may convince us actually to care whether or not we can see our reflections in our everyday china.
I’m not sure which would be worse.
In either case, the world’s most important message—God’s gospel—may go unheard. The most sensational offer of all time may be lost in the commercial clutter.
Well may we take to heart the exhortation of God’s Word: “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (Ephesians 6:10-13)