A car that can help save your soul." Would that commercial entice you to buy a Volvo? Or how about this: A young woman sits in church, "confessing" her miserly ways. "It's not a sin to be frugal," the preacher reassures her. And the young woman is released from guilt to enjoy her sporty new Chevy Cavalier.

Madison Avenue has discovered spiritual chic.

Commercials are cultural bellwethers. Advertisers spend fortunes on studies to probe our psyches so they can pitch their products to our deepest longings. Today "spirituality is in," says Sam Keen, author of Hymns to an Unknown God. It has become profitable to exploit Americans' growing spiritual hunger.

In a commercial for IBM's Solutions for a Small Planet, Catholic nuns walking to vespers talk about surfing the Net. Gatorade features Michael Jordan running in Tibet and meeting an Eastern holy man who intones, "Life is a sport; drink it up." Snickers shows a politically correct football team inviting a Catholic priest to bless the team, followed by a rabbi, a Native American, a Buddhist, and a long line of other spiritual leaders. The tag line: "Not going anywhere for awhile? Grab a Snickers."

There is no missing the religious overtones in this familiar television commercial: With a flood threatening to wash away the family home, a father cries out for help. Behold, the heavens open and a giant cartoon hand descends to rescue the family from disaster. The company, of course, is Allstate insurance. One almost expects to see the family offer up a prayer: "We thank thee, Allstate, for thy help in times of trouble."

The need for salvation has been imprinted on the human soul since the Fall. Ironically, in contemporary America, advertisers seem more attuned to that need than our spiritual leaders are, and more adept at exploiting it. This is no accident: According to sociologist James Twitchell in Adcult USA, the people who developed the art of modern advertising in the early part of this century were largely Christians, often sons of clergymen, who imported the methodology of religious revivalism into the commercial arena. The spiritual sequence of sin-guilt-redemption was transposed into the psychological sequence of problem-anxiety-resolution.

Thus the typical television commercial is, in Twitchell's words, "a morality play for our time." We see a man or woman in distress: he has a cold; she has stains on the laundry. A second figure appears on the screen promising relief. This person gives witness to the power of the featured product. The product is tried and, Hallelujah! the problem is solved. Finally, the disembodied voice of a male announcer—like a voice from on high—presses home the product's advantages.

"The powerful allure of religion and advertising is the same," Twitchell concludes. Both reassure us: "We will be rescued."

Since advertisers are paid to hook people at the deepest level, it's no wonder they are hooking into the spiritual. We were created to be in communion with the Creator, and the faith dimension is at the core of our nature. Novelist John Updike compares the effort put into commercials with the fanatical care medieval monks put into decorating sacred books. The goal of all this labor, Updike writes, is "to persuade us that a certain beer or candy bar, or insurance company or oil-based conglomerate, is, like the crucified Christ … the gateway to the good life."

Of course, commercials have always sold more than products. When an ad features a well-dressed businessman, it's selling an image of success. When an ad features a sultry model, well, we all know what it's selling. But it is profoundly disturbing to see religion reduced to one more handle for manipulating viewers' acquisitive desires. When our kids hum the catchy jingle of the latest commercial, is their spiritual impulse being diverted into consumerism? Are they absorbing Madison Avenue's false values?

We must remember that no part of culture is religiously neutral, no part free from the need for an informed Christian critique. Ads do a service when they convey information about a product in a creative manner. But today's ads often do much more: They exploit our deepest longings, sell false philosophies, pander to self-indulgence. And ads with spiritual themes trivialize religion by reducing it to a marketing ploy.

We should not shrink from calling admakers to account. Saab's "Find your own road" campaign featured characters who fantasize about never shaving again, about leaving work, about "flying in the face of convention," and driving off into the sunset. In other words, Saab wasn't just selling cars, it was selling a philosophy: the theme of autonomy, of breaking the rules, of rebellion against the constraints of civilized society.

After I criticized the ad on my radio program, BreakPoint, the president of the company notified us that the ad program was under review and that I would not be seeing those ads anymore. The company's new ads stress product and performance. Two thumbs up for Saab.

Make a point of discussing ads like these when they appear on the screen and inoculating yourself and your children against their appeal. And why not write to the company expressing your objections? After all, a good ad should sell a product, not a philosophy.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Charles Colson
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
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