Holy day super mini-sermons

careerbuilder 731953There is an old media theory saying that effective advertisements are like small sermons. They show people struggling with a problem and then they claim to show a solution to that problem.

These mini-sermons end by showing the viewers how to make a leap of faith by doing whatever the ad tells them to do in order to solve the problem and, thus, improve their lives.

If you take this concept to its logical conclusion — as I did while teaching at Denver Seminary in the early ’90s — you can pay careful attention to advertising and, by doing so, learn a lot about the state of modern hearts, minds and souls. At the very least, you get a picture of what brilliant, high-paid advertising people think is wrong with our hearts, minds and, I would assume, souls.

Of course, I am talking about the old ads — modern ads, as opposed to postmodern ads that center almost totally on emotions and attitudes. Here is how I put this a few years ago, in an interview with Homiletics:

About half the ads on television today make no sense whatsoever in a linear fashion in terms of having anything remotely to do with the product. They’re getting across an attitude, a mood. They’re asking, “Do you want to be the kind of person who uses this product?” One ad theorist has said that “they presume the product has a soul.” If you think as a sacramental Christian, people are taking communion at the mall. They are consuming the product, the soul of the product, to become the essence of the product. It’s a liturgical experience. They’re taking communion at the mall. They are what they eat, which is the essence of the ancient church’s definition of communion.

As you would expect, I have a love/hate relationship with the ads shown during the Super Bowl, the economic lifeblood of this mega-secular holy day. (Click here for a collection.) Thus, I was glad when a reader sent me a link to report by WFAA in Dallas that focused on a pastor who was trying to get his congregation to pay more attention to the ads, not less.

Here is a chunk of the text by reporter Bob Greene:

GRAPEVINE – While a large amount of people anticipate the advertisements almost as much as the game during the Super Bowl, one North Texas pastor says when people search hard enough, they might also find a message. As he gave his sermon Sunday, Pastor Ken Diehm gave members of the First United Methodist Church of Grapevine an assignment — watch the Super Bowl.

“… Think about what messages you’re being sold,” he told the congregation.

Diehm said finding faith and life-messages in Super Bowl ads is something he has done for years. “One year I was watching the Super Bowl and I was watching the commercials and I thought, those are great messages. I ought to talk about those,” he said.

I’m sad to report that this story was about as deep as, well, a Super Bowl ad. Still, there is a subject in there worth exploring.

Like most critics, Diehm paid special attention to the Nationwide “life comes at you fast” ad featuring ex-Britney hubbie Kevin Federline. I thought the more interesting series was the latest offering from Careerbuilder.com and its hellish vision of what is, for millions of young Americans, their true home and spiritual sanctuary — the office.

The office. Heaven or hell? Is improving one’s pie charts a spiritual discipline? Perhaps workaholism is the subject hidden inside this sermon.

Hopefully there is some better coverage of this Super Bowl-related story out there, but I have not seen it. Did anyone else see coverage of this? Did anyone else see any mini-sermons in the ads this year?

Photo: Yes, this is an older Careerbuilder.com image. I am trying to find a way to link to the new jungle series.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    I’m glad you said this :”Of course, I am talking about the old ads…” When I was an ad man (’97-’03) we constantly tried to stimulate the lizard part of the viewers brain by constantly focusing on the four F’s. (In case you are wondering, fear was the most difficult. The other three were easy. Just look at any Addidas, Burger King, or CK ad.) I never would have thought of an ad being like a sermon. It seems antithetical.

    I’m surprised, given the terror instilled by sexual harrassment trainers that the careerbuilder story said that the office is where we “meet and marry our spouses”

  • http://www.spudlets.com Marc V

    Bell South has a commercial (I believe this may be a local ad) featuring happy people dancing in an idealized suburban setting. They are all singing about their love of money after receiving some type of rebate(?) check. I remarked to the people who were watching the telecast with me that it was the most American commercial I had ever seen. Who doesn’t love free money? It’s what keeps lotteries going in spite of their poor odds.

    For a mini-sermon in a commercial: a painful sacrifice offered, ripping out chest hair, as some type of absolution for two guys touching lips (eating a Snickers bar) semi-accidentally.

  • Luke


    I read the Snickers ad in exactly the opposite way: a parable that equates homophobia with self-hatred. A cautionary tale about the dangers of not toeing the line when it comes to “tolerance”. The mechanics are held up as objects of ridicule, not as examples to be emulated. The unstated premise is that only idiots worry about this kind of same-sex affection.

    Am I the only one who thinks that negative stereotypes about heterosexual men are just as (if not more) influential in the culture wars as positive portrayals of homosexuality?

  • http://www.spudlets.com Marc V


    That’s an interesting take on the commercial. Having thought about it some more, I view it to be more about greed for something sweet (worldly) causing the men to enter “forbidden territory” (sin). By both insisting that they do something, tearing chest hair out, they avoid assigning blame, find forgiveness for their indiscretion and go on to reaffirm their heterosexuality.

    There are many “idiotic” men who worry about same-sex “affection”. Men are first and foremost in control, or at least want to think they are, and homosexual behavior is considered out of control. At the same time we do have this over-the-top perspective of guilty until proven innocent when men show affection for each other.

    This type of behavior goes back to grade school, when a young boy is horrified to have “cooties” whenever a girl touches him or worse yet kisses him. Ads making fun of the white male heterosexual are prevalent since he is the easiest target in this PC age. Positive portrayals of homosexual men won’t sell deodorant (nose trimmers, candy bars or whatever) as well as negative portrayals of heterosexual men.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Trying to find meaning in that Snickers commercial is like trying to find a horse in a pile of…you know.

    Anyone have an opinion on whether or not there was a sermon within the Coke commercial that started off like the Vice City video game and then turned that premise on its head? It was my favorite, and I think that I’m too old to be in the target demographic.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Who else knows the movie that provided the sunny background song for that commercial?

    I mean, who knows other than me?

    CLUE: Very early Jodie Foster. Very.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I had to research it: “Bugsy Malone”. Frankly, I didn’t really hear the song when I watched the commercial during the Super Bowl. I was laughing too hard at how the Grand Theft Auto guy starting doing good deeds. Pulling an extinguisher out of nowhere to put out a trash can fire had me rolling on the floor. Makes me want to run out and buy a case of Coke!

  • http://www.spudlets.com Marc V

    I was trying to be a little tongue-in-(my own)-cheek about a sermon being in the Snickers commercial, but apparently we will not have to worry about it anymore since protests by GLAAD and others have resulted in the commercial being lifted. A spokesman for the company gave the usual excuses: the ad tested well and humor can be highly subjective.

    Was it really offensive enough to be lifted or is this another cave-in to gay-rights groups? Had it “… promoted anti-gay prejudice and condoned violence against gay Americans”? I think that’s a stretch but we all have our own viewpoints.

  • Luke

    Was it really offensive enough to be lifted or is this another cave-in to gay-rights groups? Had it “. . . promoted anti-gay prejudice and condoned violence against gay Americans”? I think that’s a stretch but we all have our own viewpoints.

    Apparently, the complaints by GLAAD and the Matthew Shepard Foundation center around the associated web campaign (now pulled also). One alternate version of the ad featured the men hitting each other after the “kiss”, and the website also featured (disgusted) reactions to the kiss by NFL players. On the one hand, I don’t like gay-rights groups telling me I can’t be disgusted by two men kissing. On the other hand, I can see why the “wrench” version would bother people – yeah, it’s just a commercial, but men really do get assaulted for not being ‘manly’ enough.