If you’re like most television-watching Americans, you hate commercials. Few things are more annoying than having your favorite show interrupted by some toothpaste company telling you that four out of five dentists recommend their product. Isn’t this one of the main reasons we pay through the nose to get cable packages with hundreds of channels? We need somewhere else to turn when these unwelcome intrusions take over the screen.
But here’s a challenge for you. The next time you’re relaxing in front of the TV and a commercial rears its ugly head, don’t change the channel. Relax your finger. Sit still. And pay close attention.
Now before you go thinking I’ve lost my marbles, hear me out.
If you’re a Christian who desires to faithfully make the gospel known to those around you, it’s important to understand the hopes, dreams, fears, and questions that dominate the hearts and minds you want to reach. And if you want to understand such things, then in my opinion there are few resources more insightful than commercials.
You see, television commercials aren’t random or arbitrary creations—at least the good ones aren’t. They’re carefully crafted and well-researched by marketers who know how to resonate with viewers. As a result, you’ll rarely find an effective commercial that fails to speak in some way to our culture’s most profound and deeply held values.
Take this new Coca-Cola commercial, for instance. It was recently launched to coincide with the 2016 Olympic Games:
The marketing team at Coca-Cola understands something profound about our culture. We long to be on top of the world, to be victorious, to experience the feeling of accomplishment and triumph. And yet, most people viewing this commercial are sitting on the couch, eating potato chips, watching other people live out their dreams of Olympic glory. In other words, we’re a long way from the conquests we dream of.
So what does Coca-Cola do? They subtly intersperse clips of world-class Olympians experiencing the euphoria of winning gold with clips of average people experiencing the euphoria of drinking Coke, thus conflating the two. Realizing that none of the people in their target audience will truly know “what gold feels like,” Coca-Cola offers an alternative (and more accessible) option: opening a bottle. Now if we’re honest, most of us know that the joy of being crowned the best athlete in the world has absolutely nothing in common with the joy of drinking carbonated sugar water. But with the right background music and enough lens flares, we might just begin to believe. And the next time we’re thirsty, some inexplicable compulsion may just drive us to reach for that red bottle.
For the Christian, a commercial like this is a window into the soul of our culture. It helps us see what our friends and neighbors hold dear. And it helps us know how to engage them.
In this case, the innate longing for victory and accomplishment informs the way we reach out to people. After all, we know the fulfillment of this longing, and it’s not a beverage. The ultimate victor is Jesus, and he generously invites us to share in his conquest. He has defeated the power of sin and the curse of death. He has broken the stronghold of the Evil One. And when we join ourselves to him in faith, we too get to experience these triumphs. If you want to speak to the heart of people who crave that “gold feeling,” this is how to do it.
But gold feelings aren't the only things we crave. When I watch this commercial for a psoriasis medication, I see the fears of those who desperately want to be known and accepted despite imperfections—and I think of how the gospel relieves those fears. When I watch this Mercedes commercial, I see the hunger of those who want to be connected to something that’s both historical and modern at the same time—and I think of how the gospel connects us to an ancient faith that’s also forward-looking and progressive. We could go on and on.
The point is this: When we pay attention to the advertisements around us, we’re effectively letting well-trained, well-resourced market researchers do some of our homework for us. And why wouldn't we want to use their work to help us explore inroads for the gospel?
Ultimately this idea goes far beyond commercials. There are hundreds of ways we can let the culture itself tell us about its values (and idols), and TV ads are just the tip of the iceberg. So if you have a heart for the gospel's advance, then let me encourage you to have your eyes open and your ears alert at all times. If you do, you’ll find clues everywhere. And as a Christian you’ll find plenty of ways to seize those clues and use them to make Jesus known.