Advertising in a Digital Age

This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.

Session 1 of Faith in a Digital Age:Advertising in a Digital Age

We live in a digital age. Some may long for a time prior to the advent of the digital age but the revolution of how we interact with others and the world around us caused by the digital age is not going to disappear. Digital technology has impacted so many areas of our life: how we shop, how we interact with one another, how we date, how we get our news and many, many other areas we’ll explore in these sessions. Digital technology is not ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but they can certainly be used in positive and negative ways. One of the questions that religion should help us answer is ‘what does a good life look like?’ As we engage the various aspects of the digital technology that we interact with we will be wondering together what does a blessed or good life look like in a digital age.

One of the hard parts of this discussion is that it will impact different generations in different ways. I remember the first computer that we had in our home, the first dial-up modem, my first email account, the beginning of the internet, the wide dispersion of cell phones and then smart phones but for my children who are entering adulthood they have never known a time without these things. One of the things you will frequently see in these discussions is people belittling or criticizing another group, think of how many posts on social media you may have seen about: what is wrong with millennials, young people, old people, technophobes, people addicted to technology. These not only tend to make broad generalizations about an entire group but they also tend to be shaming and shut down any real conversation. I want to enter this with a sense of curiosity, not because I want to adopt uncritically these technologies but instead, I want to think about how they may be used to enhance the life I want to live. I am a leader of a Christian community so I am also thinking through this in a manner that attempts to use the resources of my faith to think through how we might live a good life in our time.

The outline of the discussions is:

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: Advent of the internet and a connected age
Week four: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week five: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week six: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week seven: The dangers of a digital age

We are beginning with advertising. You may ask why are we beginning with something that has been around since long before the digital age, yet advertising underlies the digital age. Google, Yahoo and Facebook are all advertising companies.  Advertising pays for the digital age. If you get something for free it is probably because you are being advertised to and advertising is paying for the content. Advertising is not a new thing, advertisers have paid for radio and television content for generations. Advertising is not an evil thing, the reality that you are seeing this in a digital environment is mainly because the platform is financed by advertising. Advertising has been around for a long time, since people would put out a sign pointing to one person’s booth at a fair or one person’s farm to trade for products. Yet, advertising is much more connected than it was in its origins. Advertising attempts to sell you a story, not primarily a product. Humans are hardwired for story, it is how we make sense of our lives and our worlds. Advertising attempts to sell you a story in which the product is a critical piece of that story.

I would encourage you to think about a show that you watch and what is advertised to you. If you watch a Hallmark Christmas movie you will be advertised different products and stories than if you are listening to sports radio, a television sitcom, a science fiction show, a sporting event, or an award show. It is a revelatory exercise to pay attention to what is being advertised and the stories the ads are telling and what they say about what the advertisers think about you as a viewer. What are the emotions being pulled upon, the insecurities being exploited, the desires being projected? Who do the advertisers say you need to be?

Advertising works, even if we don’t believe that it does. Advertising even becomes a part of our culture in surprising ways. A quick example from 2018-2019, if I were to say, “dilly, dilly” most people would reflect back to a series of commercials for Bud Light. The commercials are short stories set in a fictional kingdom with a vain king, they are humorous and Bud Light keeps them on because they work. Nike and Gillette have recently generated controversy with their advertising but they are a part of the conversation of our lives.

Advertising may make us realize things we never knew we wanted. That is not necessarily a negative thing. I share the example in the video of Christmas shopping and being presented with ideas for my sisters, my wife, and my kids that I think they will enjoy. Advertising has introduced me to new authors who are writing in a field similar to authors I enjoy and whose work other readers have enjoyed. But when advertising begins to make us feel insufficient or encourages to go beyond the limits, we would otherwise stay within it is a problem. I started this class right after Christmas and Christmas can be a beautiful time for people but I also know people who come out of Christmas stressed because they attempted to create a Christmas that matched the stories of advertising and they will be paying for that for the next six months. Advertising can make us feel like we are not doing enough or that we are not living out the story we should be living.

Seth Godin writes in his short and entertaining book about advertising All Marketers are Liars:

All marketers tell stories. And if they do it right, we believe them. We believe that wine tastes better in a $20 glass than a $1 glass. We believe that an $80,000 Porsche Cayenne is vastly superior to a $36,000 VW Touareg, even if it is virtually the same car. We believe that $225 Pumas will make our feet feel better—and look cooler—than $20 no names…and believing it makes it true. (Godin, 2005)

If I were to pour an expensive bottle of wine in a solo cup and in a crystal glass, I assume that it probably tastes and looks better in the crystal glass. I believe that a soda is worth more when I go to a movie, a restaurant, or to a sporting event than I would pay for it at a gas station or a grocery store, but it is the same soda.

What are some ways we can think about this as people of faith? Well probably the natural place to start is the ninth and tenth commandments:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:17)

One of my realizations in studying both Exodus and Deuteronomy where the commandments are listed is that for the people of Israel were expected to create a different kind of society than what they experienced in Egypt. In Egypt it was a society where a small number of people had a large amount of the wealth and power and where many people were enslaved to pay for the wants and desires of this small group. Israel was always supposed to be something different, a society where everyone could recline under their own fig tree or grape vine. A society where everyone had enough to live on and provide for their family. One thing that would destroy this community would be to see what the neighbor had and to determine that I needed what my neighbor has to be satisfied. This is where a lot of conflict can emerge from and it can create in us a sense of scarcity and dissatisfaction. We often compare our lives to an aspect of another person’s life, and never their entire life and that comparison often makes us desire what the other person has and not be satisfied with what we have.

I alluded to scarcity above and I think it is important to realize that one of the dominant stories of our culture is a story of scarcity: of not having enough, of not being enough. One of the places I think we as people of faith frame this discussion wrong is, we think of the opposite of scarcity being abundance (more than I could possibly desire) but the opposite of scarcity is having enough. If we only think we will be happy when we have more than we can imagine we will never be satisfied. We will never have enough money, power, looks, success, fame or status. Every time we reach a place where we once said we’d be satisfied, we move the bar to a new place where we will be happy when we reach it. There are entire industries set up to feed upon our fear that we don’t have enough. Americans in general struggle with depression more and are more in debt than at any time in previous history and I believe that this is partially related to attempting to keep up with the projection of who we should be.

Lynne Twist writes in the Soul of Money about the “great lie”:

For me, and for many of us, our first waking though is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and or arguments with life. (Brown, 2012, pp. 25-26)

Part of a good life is learning to say I have enough. Now I have nothing against a person deciding to buy a new home, a new car, new clothing or any other item but the danger is when we believe that our happiness is defined by acquiring these things. When we have a mindset of scarcity we will never have enough and we will never be enough. One of the things gratitude makes us realize is that we have and that we indeed are enough. It begins to challenge the great lie that our life is lacking something that will make us complete or whole or that some other story will grant us our happy ending.

Ethically we need to talk about advertising in a connected world. You’ve probably had the experience of looking at something online and suddenly ads for that item and related item are everywhere in your social feed, your email, on websites and more. Or, if you have a device like an Amazon Echo or Google Home you may talk about something in conversation and find that advertisements for that item suddenly popping up. We give up our information pretty freely in a digital age.  For example, my grocery store has a shopping card which tracks what I buy and where I buy it in exchange for deals and discounts. But are we OK with some reading my email, browsing history, listening to my conversations and gathering my information?

If you think advertising doesn’t work on you and impact how you think about things you are deceiving yourself. It has been proven that those who believe they are impervious to advertising messages are the most likely to be influenced by them. This can have some profound effects on the way in which we interact with our world and with other people.

A final area I want to encourage you to think about is advertising in relation to politics. One of the dangers of targeting political advertisements and messages is that we can become surrounded by an echo chamber of things that fit our own political leanings. Your social media, for example, knows your political leanings based upon who you follow, what you click and what you say and it will continue to show you more of what it thinks you want to see. The danger in this is we become isolated from people who think differently than us. One of the gifts of Rejoice Lutheran, where I serve as pastor, is that we have a wide range of political opinions inhabiting (sometimes unaware of the differences) in the same space and it is one of the few places in our culture where we may be surrounded by people who think differently. In a world of political polarization, we need to be aware that one of the stories we will encounter is attempting to solidify our affiliation with a political group or view in contrast to others who may think differently.

Stories speak to not only our logical portions of our brain but to our emotions are well. Advertisers play on emotions which include: fear, hunger, desire, comfort, pleasure, the desire to belong, attraction, competence/intelligence, love, stress, jealousy, insecurity, image, connection and the desire for success. Using emotions is not necessarily a negative thing either, I use emotions all the time when I preach for example as I attempt to provide a fuller experience of what a text may be pointing to. We are emotional and rational beings and I’m reminded of the proverb about people being ‘emotional beings who sometimes think rather than thinking beings who sometimes emote.’

Discussion questions:

List the type of shows you watch. What is advertised during these shows? What does that say about you as listener/viewer? How did they make you feel?

List the positive and negative things about advertising. Somethings may end up being positive or negative depending on the situation or the viewer.

Think of an advertising catch phrase like “dilly, dilly” or “just do it.”  What are they advertising? What stories did they use? Why do you remember them?

What are you grateful for? Do you celebrate the things that you have or is it easier to desire the things that you don’t have?

Talk about a time where you purchased something and it didn’t live up to your expectations? How did you feel? Were you angry with the advertiser or yourself?

What do you think about organization mining your email, browsing history, listening to your conversations and monitoring your purchases to target advertising to you? What are some potential problems you see with this practice?

Do you think advertising is having a negative impact on the political process in this country? If so how?

Can you think of an advertisement that made you feel like you needed to change something about yourself? Did you purchase their product? Why or why not?

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4 Responses to Advertising in a Digital Age

  1. Pingback: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age | Sign of the Rose

  3. Pingback: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it Faithfully | Sign of the Rose

  4. Pingback: Cell Phones and the Continually Connected Life | Sign of the Rose

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