Written for Discipleship Journal
On the TV screen, average Joes pop open their beers and ogle slinky women who welcome their stares.
It’s impossible to avoid seeing variations on this theme in TV commericals during professional sports events. Which means more Americans need to play a living room game called “Spot the Lie.”
Cultural analyst Os Guinness created the game when his son, Christopher, was five years old. The point is to recognize the temptation to uncritically soak up TV commercialism.
The rules are simple: Parents say “spot the lie” when an ad comes on TV. The kid has to pay attention and then find an implicit lie, non sequitur or totally irrational statement in the ad.
Perhaps it’s an ad that suggests that men don’t love their children unless they buy a particular car tire. Or that women lack self esteem if they don’t buy an expensive shampoo. Or that teens can be revolutionaries merely by watching music videos. Or that average Joes are sexy if their drink the right beer.
If the child “spots the lie,” the parent hands over a quarter. Parents judge whether the child has succeeded, since its mom or dad who has to pay up. Note: Parents have to “spot the lie,” as well as their children. Everyone has to think critically.
“My point is really quite simple. I think too many Christians view the challenge of TV merely in terms of its contents. They only worry about how much dirty language is in a particular show or whether it contains any explicit sex and so forth,” said Guinness, the author of books such as The Dust of Death, In Two Minds and The Gravedigger File. “They aren’t worrying enough about the kind of impact that the very act of watching TV is having in their lives, what kind of information their are accepting as true.”
This is more than a game. Christians are supposed to see life through the eyes of faith and teach their children discernment. Meanwhile, media images roll over us in waves.
Statistics vary on how much time American children spend watching or semi-watching television. The most common statistic is 24 to 30 hours per week. Other surveys indicate some children — perhaps a quarter of older children and teens — are parked in front of a tube for as many as 50 hours a week.
“The preschool child spends about five hours weekly watching television commercials — over a thousand advertisements each week,” writes Quentin Schultze of Calvin College, in his book Redeeming Television. “Before a child enters school, he will have been `instructed’ by the advertising industry in 24,000 commercials. By high school the figure is over a million.”
Did Guinness ever realize that, at the rate of a quarter per commercial, playing “Spot the Lie” could get expensive?
“Luckily for us, it worked the other way around,” said Guinness, laughing. “Before Christopher bankrupted me, he grew so disillusioned with what he was seeing on television. He’s 11, now, and he much prefers to read novels and do other things. Most of what’s on TV doesn’t measure up to his standards.”
Truth is, most Americans are blind to the values that undergird advertisements and other forms of popular culture.
Guinness is an Englishman and his doctorate is from Oxford University. Growing up in that culture, he became very aware of the style of politics and culture in Europe and in the nations of the old Soviet empire.
When the Soviet government praised a leader, he wasn’t just a good politician — he was portrayed in mythic language and turned into a national symbol. A new government program was more than an effort to raise productivity, it was a towering achievement of the human spirit and vital to the soul of Mother Russia.
Guinness recognized such pronouncements as signs of a secular brand of faith. After moving to the United States, he found it unnerving when very similar slogans poured out of his television set — in advertisements.
“Let’s put it this way,” said Guinness, who now lives in McLean, Va. “If Chevrolet is the Heartbeat of America, then we’re all in big trouble.”
Many Americans, Christians included, do not recognize the temptations that lurk in the worldview of consumerism. The overt and covert messages of advertising bleed into our lives.
As an act of faith, we need to learn to “Spot the Lie.” Or perhaps the situation could be summed up another way: Life is short. Pray hard.