“The devil keeps advertising,” says a character in William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel The Exorcist; “the devil does lots of commercials.” Advertising as a profession is relatively young, but as a force, as a method of persuasion, it is as old as the world. Like any other form of propaganda, it can be used for good or ill. Used for ill, it finds its charter in the Serpent’s soft-sell appeal to Eve: “Ye shall not surely die …; ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4, 5). Satan has been similarly advertising ever since, producing what J. B. Priestley in another context has called “Admass—a consumer’s race with donkeys chasing an electric carrot.”
For centuries Satan has used the old donkey-carrot trick. Except for electrifying his carrot to adjust to the technological age, he has kept his techniques virtually unchanged. He remains the inveterate huckster, peddling his tawdry goods in this world’s Vanity Fair. “At this Fair,” Bunyan wrote in Pilgrim’s Progress, “are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.” Even the Prince of Princes himself, when he was here, was solicited by the lord of the fair to buy of its vanities. Those stern words of warning, Caveat emptor, “Let the buyer beware,” are as applicable to the present-day Christian as they were to the pagan Romans who uttered them in the fifth century B.C.
Basic to both Satanic and commercial solicitation is the appeal to self-indulgence. The sales-pitch Eve fell for was “Try it; you’ll like it.” Our progenitors were literally dying to try it. Adam and Eve bought the notion that “you only go around once in life, so you have to grab for all the gusto you can get,” and the grabbing has continued to this day. The rich farmer in Luke 12 spoke to his soul in the language of modern advertising copy, “Take thine ease—eat, drink, and be merry”; but in God’s sight he was a fool ripe for judgment. The devil’s appeal has always been “Indulge yourself”; God’s is “Deny yourself” (Matt. 16:24). The devil says “Live a little”; God says “Die a little” (John 12:24).
According to Henryk Skolimowski, the images of advertising “are projected to be psychologically appealing. Psychologically appealing images are those which appeal to our seven deadly sins: sexual urges, vanity, snobbery, gluttony, greed, etc.…” Try analyzing, in terms of their appeal to the seven deadly sins (pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth), the television commercials, billboards, and printed advertisements you see in the course of a single day. Then note these same appeals as they appear in the temptations you face. The attraction of Satan’s electric carrot is most assuredly based on that unholy triad: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16).
Perhaps the strongest appeal is the appeal to sex. “Sex,” Malcolm Muggeridge says in Jesus Rediscovered, “is, of all forms of self-indulgence, the one which makes the most appeal to the imagination.… Therefore, it is the hardest to conquer.…” Madison Avenue motivational analysts have in recent years been discovering what Vance Packard calls the “hidden persuaders,” which the inveterate huckster has known and used since Eden. The temptation in Eden had built-in sexual aftertones. When Adam and Eve bought Satan’s lie, they knew shame for the first time and sought to cover themselves; and today we hear “Take it off; take it all off.” Before the fall they were nude; after the fall they were self-consciously naked.
Another of the “hidden persuaders” Vance Packard talks about is ego-gratification. The spiritual application is obvious. Malcolm Muggeridge writes: “The devil is always there working on this ego.… And of course, the ego, the Devil’s instrument, is always there to his hand.” The spirit of Satan is the spirit of self, as shown, for example, by the five appearances of “I” in the brief account of Lucifer’s fall (Isa. 14:13, 14). To the extent that man indulges self he manifests the spirit of Satan.
“Advertisers … determine the fashionable type,” C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape tells Wormwood, his nephew and fledgling devil. Consequently, “a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do” to divert man’s attention from prayer and other spiritual matters. Satan’s appeal to Adam and Eve’s desire for power through knowledge diverted them from God’s perfect will. Basic to advertising, and to Satanic solicitation, is both diversion and advertence. To “advertise” is to “advert,” that is, to turn a person to something. Satan attempted both to divert and to advert Christ by selling a sense of power in each of the three recorded temptations: power to turn stones to bread, power to defy natural law, and power to reclaim the world.
This third temptation was also a bargain special. Hear the old huckster: “Get all the kingdoms of the world at a special reduced price, a sensational unheard-of bargain! Why wait and pay the more expensive price at Calvary? Take advantage of this special offer!” The same copywriter offered a “special” on fruit to Eve, on “Wonderbread” to Christ, and on lentil soup to Esau. Before Esau sold his birthright, he bought the “bargain,” a mess of pottage—and he paid dearly for it. Grabbing for all the gusto he could get, Esau sacrificed his future on the altar of the pleasing present. The sales-pitch was “Buy now, pay later,” and pay he did. It was not an “easy payment plan,” for the way of the transgressor is hard; sin, when it is finished, brings forth death (Jas. 1:15). When “later” came, Esau “found no place of repentance though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:17).
Eve, Esau, and indeed Everyman have grasped at the elusive, illusive carrot, largely because of the devil’s insidious soft-sell approach. No small part of his success lies in his skilled use of propaganda techniques widely used in advertising. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis some years ago discussed the major devices in an article called “How to Detect Propaganda.” One is the Glittering Generality, and certainly the devil’s assurance to Eve, “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil,” is both glittering and a generality. A large part of this device is to identify the product or course of action with virtue by use of “virtue words” or “purr words.” Madison Avenue uses such highly connotative terms as “prestige,” “man of distinction,” “satisfying,” “luxurious,” “fashionable,” “modern,” “matchless,” “figure-flattering.” Similarly, the devil uses words to stir up our emotions and befog our thinking, generalities to make us accept and approve without examining the consequences.
Another device mentioned by the Institute of Propaganda Analysis is Card Stacking:
The propagandist employs all the arts of deception to win support.… He stacks the cards against the truth. He uses under-emphasis and over-emphasis to dodge issues and evade facts. He offers false testimony. He creates a smoke-screen of clamor by raising a new issue when he wants an embarrassing matter forgotten. He draws a red herring across the trail to confuse and divert those in quest of facts he does not want revealed. He makes the unreal appear real and the real appear unreal. He lets half-truths masquerade as truth.
What an apt description of Satan’s advertisement of evil!
Stuart Chase, in his book The Tyranny of Words could also be describing the Satanic method: “The advertiser often creates verbal goods, turning the reader’s attention from the actual product. He sells the package and especially the doctrinal matter around the package.” Satan presents only the attractive package of sin, hiding the horrible contents and the high price. He offers deceptive “doctrinal matter”—the doctrine of devils (1 Tim. 4:1). He peddles what Jules Henry has called the advertiser’s “pecuniary pseudo-truth” and “pecuniary logic”—“proof that is not a proof but is intended to be so for commercial purposes.” Satan presented only half-truths to Eve when he promised her that her eyes would be opened. Her eyes were opened, according to Genesis 3:7, but the new knowledge brought with it spiritual death, separation from God. Adam and Eve did in a limited sense become “like God” in their knowledge of good and evil, but they were tragically unlike God in their complicity in evil. Knowledge was their “end,” both their desire and their destruction.
Satan also effectively uses the Band-Wagon approach, an appeal to “follow the crowd.” “Everybody’s doing it!” “Everybody’s talking about the new Starfire!” “Can two million satisfied customers be wrong?” There is also the Transfer device, by which, according to the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, “the propagandist carries over the authority, sanction, and prestige of something we respect and revere to something he would have us respect. For example, most of us respect and revere our church and our nation. If the propagandist succeeds in getting church or nation to approve a campaign in behalf of some program, he thereby transfers its authority, sanction, and prestige to that program.” What could be more subtle than Satan’s attempt to use “religion” and “religious” institutions in opposing Christ, as he used the sincere but impulsive Peter as his mouthpiece in opposition to the redemptive plan (Matt. 16:22, 23)?
Popular also with Satan is the device called CEBUS (Confirmed Exposure But Unconscious), discussed in a Time magazine article (“… And Now a Word about Commercials,” July 12, 1968). This device involves a repeated barrage of words and images until a “fatigue factor” sets in and with it often a lasting subconscious impression. Satan bombards us daily with images and ideas, hoping for a fatigue factor and submission. The solution is to be found in Hebrews 12:3, “Consider him … lest ye be weary and faint in your minds.” Satan works constantly on and through the conscious and subconscious mind, just as he “beguiled Eve’s mind through his craftiness” (2 Cor. 11:3). The solution lies in “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
Evil solicitation, like advertising, relies upon repetition. Luke’s account of the temptation of Christ states that when the devil had ended the tempting, “he departed from him for a season.” “The genius of advertising,” according to James Webb Young, “is reiteration, and … its prophet, Isaiah, said: ‘Whom shall he teach knowledge? And whom shall he make to understand doctrine?… For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little.’ ” The point is significant: one learns doctrine through repetition, whether the doctrine be commercial, Satanic, or divine.
Perhaps ultimately the basis of all advertising—and of Satanic solicitation as well—is the element of promise, of investing the product or the act with glamorous meanings beyond itself. “Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement,” Samuel Johnson wrote in the eighteenth century. Each temptation offers an attractive but hollow promise: “Your eyes shall be opened”; “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil”; “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” These assurances are the equivalents of such implicit promises as a “new you” if you drink milk, “sex appeal” if you brush with a certain toothpaste, rugged masculinity if you drive a certain kind of car, a mate and domestic bliss if you use a certain mouthwash.
The promise not only invests the product or act with desirable meanings beyond itself but also divests it of associations with evil, guilt, punishment: “Ye shall not surely die.” “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,” says Ernest Dichter, president of the Institute for Motivational Research. Similarly, the devil seeks to palliate evil, to make sin appear less sinful.
The subtlety of the devil’s promises lies in the fact that they are directed toward pseudo-fulfillment of legitimate, God-ordained needs and desires; they function as counterfeits of divine promises of fulfillment. Accordingly, Satan advertises the superficial but attractive “pleasures of sin for a season” (Heb. 11:25); God offers fullness of joy and pleasures at his right hand for evermore (Ps. 16:11). Satan hawks cheap thrills, temporary euphoria, sensual titillation; God offers peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7). Satan peddles earthly fame, the vain plaudits of a fickle crowd; God offers a crown of glory that does not fade (1 Pet. 5:4). Satan solicits man with treasures upon earth, where moth and rust corrupt and where thieves break through and steal (Matt. 6:19); God offers incorruptible treasures in heaven and treasure in these “earthen vessels” now (2 Cor. 4:7).
Perhaps the prophet Isaiah had in mind this competition of products and promises when he wrote: “Say there! Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink—even if you have no money! Come, take your choice of wine and milk—it’s all free! Why spend money on foodstuffs that don’t give you strength? Why pay for groceries that don’t do you any good? Listen and I’ll tell you where to get food that fattens up your soul (Isa. 55:1, 2; Living Bible).
“What will ye buy?” an inhabitant of Vanity Fair asks Bunyan’s pilgrims. “We buy the truth,” they respond. Is it not tragic that men continue to ignore God’s promises of free, genuine fulfillment and pursue, with ever-increasing frenzy, the devil’s electric carrot?
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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