Selling Christianity

I found the report of proceedings at last month’s Church Advisory Council for Local Broadcasting conference hilarious in parts.  The second half of the report contained a veritable treasure chest of quotations demonstrating just how incompatible real Christianity and unreflective advertising thought really are.


My favourite had to be the comment attributed to marketing consultant Jayne Ozanne: ‘Products meet needs. People have more emotional and spiritual needs than ever before. How do we communicate that our product, the Christian God, meets those needs?’  It’s a fine example of what happens to Christian belief when the media overpowers the message.


‘Products meet needs’? It used to be true I’m sure, but if we are to communicate Christian truth to our own age we will have to understand it a little better than this.  Much advertising philosophy is now based on creating needs to meet the demands of the product.


For instance, now the market is flooded with mobile phones, you have to create embarrassment about how out-dated your fully functional but two year-old phone has now become.  Then you can end your relationship with it, and move on to a more unnecessarily up-to-date model.  If you refuse, the adverts order you to be embarrassed.


‘People have more emotional and spiritual needs than ever before’? Are we to presume that in our day and age, we have evolved to become something more than the emotional and spiritual people that God first created? Okay, they may have had to sweat and toil and work long hours and have low life-expectancy and witnessed death all too frequently.  Okay ,people may once have known suffering, hardship and worry to an extent unimaginable to us – but alas, their needs can’t have been as pressing as ours! This whole line of thought is typical of a world that privileges the present over the past and the future.


After two grotesque mis-descriptions of the culture which the advertisers are trying to reach, the grand climax is hardly surprising: ‘our product, the Christian God’.


The kind of God produced by human hands is described in Scripture with a four-letter word! I can think of few greater disservices to the living God, than standing before his throne and offering to endow him with a media makeover that will boost his ratings in the opinion polls.


Of course, the advertisers mean well, and the report offered a glimpse of an interesting debate. But aren’t some Christian advertisers in danger of adopting a semi-priestly role as they re-present God to the people? Again and again, the question has to be asked about what kind of truth this kind of media is capable of offering.


The film Miracle Maker was a fair film in itself, but not really a significant cause for Christian rejoicing.  At the beginning of one of my son’s video’s, a trailer for Miracle Maker was narrated by the usual voice – so deep that it barely registers with the ear drums.


The advert concluded with the words, ‘witness the power, the glory and the majesty – of the son of God’, which were immediately followed by the opening words of the next advert: ‘Oh no! the chocolate eating monster’s back…’


How are we to distinguish between the type of good news offered by Jesus Christ, and the good news advertised by the chocolate eating monster? If God is presented as one product on the shelf, alongside other desirable products, then something of Christian proclamation has already been lost.  God cannot be contained in an advert any more than the wind can be contained in a box.


Sure, there may well be more lessons that the Church can learn from the advertisers.  However, if the church can be criticised for not listening to advertisers, it is not less true that the advertisers can be criticised for not listening to the church.  There is a lot of room in Christian advertising for serious theological reflection.


God is not our product! We are his.  And we invested as much time in being transformed by God as we do in transforming his image, the God of the advertisers would look a lot less like the chocolate eating monster.


(Published in Baptist Times, 4th July, 2002)