By George W. Sarris
I was fascinated to see a picture of President Barack Obama kissing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez on the lips with the words prominently displayed, “UNHATE!”
It turned out to be a photoshopped image for a controversial series of ads by the Italian clothing manufacturer, Benetton.
Several years ago, that company instituted their “United Colors” ad campaign to promote tolerance – of various ethnic groups, of various lifestyles, and of various controversial issues. They had a priest kissing a nun. A black woman breastfeeding a white baby. Three actual human hearts sitting side by side labeled “Black,” “White,” “Yellow.”
It was a very successful way to bring attention to their company and sell their products. It was also a very effective way to press the culture into dialoguing about issues that were not considered polite conversation. And, it was funded by a clothing company, not by charitable donations.
When I saw the picture for the recent ad campaign, I was reminded of Jesus’ words to His disciples in the parable of the shrewd manager:
. . . the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Benetton is being shrewd in their use of worldly wealth. And, we can learn something from what they are doing. If Christians are going to successfully impact our culture, we need to enter the world arena with truth, wisely presented, with excellence. To do this, we must communicate the right message, utilize the right delivery method, and finance the media presentations by the right means.
Communicating the Right Message
Christians today are casting good seed on hard ground, and the seed is not taking root and growing. This is true in part because we have failed to understand two very important truths.
First, American society has insulated itself against the truth by basing its values on the false premise that "all that is in the world - the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the boastful pride of life" lead to happiness, meaning and fulfillment. In reality, immorality, greed, and the abuse of power actually lead to guilt, frustration, and deep sadness.
John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of Christ by proclaiming a message of repentance. Christians today need to prepare the way for the message of salvation by engaging in a strategy to “roto-till” the hard soil in our society. We need to proclaim messages that expose the true consequences of false values.
Second, major scandals in recent years by prominent spokesmen for Christianity, alignment with groups primarily concerned with political interests rather than spiritual interests, and media presentations with poor production values have resulted in the Christian community losing credibility with the public. Christians also need to engage in a strategy to re-establish lost credibility by communicating positive messages about their underlying integrity and their actual work in helping people.
Following the crises of 9/11 and hurricane Katrina, America began to see Christian ministries in a different light. Almost all of the relief organizations that provided help for those in need were clearly Christian based. Instead of being seen as hypocrites and charlatans, Christians were for a time seen as people with true hearts of love and compassion for their neighbors. When credibility was established, many people wanted to know more about the faith of those who helped.
Utilizing the Right Method
One of the most effective ways of entering the public arena with thought-provoking ideas is with an advertising methodology. The Benetton ads are a great example. While major motion pictures and television programs reach large numbers of people with very effective messages, only a portion of the general public actually sees them. By contrast, advertising messages reach almost the entire population because they are aired multiple times in a variety of media – radio, television, print ads and billboards.
Major national advertisers produce “image” ads that often only casually mention their products. Benetton has chosen to strategically address the issues of racism and hate in the world. Whether or not their solutions are correct, they have succeeded in effectively getting their message out to the public while also communicating an image of their company that actually sells their products.
Financed by the Right Means
The major challenge associated with an advertising methodology is where to find the necessary finances to purchase airtime or advertising space. The cost of production can usually be raised through donations from likeminded people. The “delivery” costs, however, are astronomical. While various Christian and non-Christian charitable organizations have sought to develop advertising strategies in the past to get their messages out, most have failed to make any significant, long-term impact on the society as a whole because they lacked the necessary finances to mount a sustained campaign.
Benetton has actually pointed to an answer to this problem that has not adequately been pursued as a strategy by the Christian community. Companies built on Christian values can include image building media messages that communicate Christian themes into their overall advertising plans. Then, the necessary “delivery” finances come out of advertising budgets, not from donations.
Christians are empowered by God with the most powerful messages the world has ever known. Biblical truth relates to all areas of life – family relationships, principles of business and finance, meaning and purpose in life, reconciliation with one another and with God.
God has also blessed the Christian community with successful businesses and skillful media professionals. I have worked with a number of tremendously talented, sincere Christians in the media industry in New York who would love to be involved in projects that have an eternal significance.
As people of the light, we need to be more shrewd in our dealings with the world. When the resources of the Christian business and media communities are coupled with a vision for impacting the culture through an advertising methodology, there will be a significant impact!