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Advertising the World's Greatest Pearl

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 10, 2012

I think it was Chesterton who observed that modern commercial life is exceedingly strange in that we so often spend our hard-earned funds based on advertising—that is, based on what a particular company says about itself. Yet there is no conceivable reason for us to consider advertising a reliable source of information about anything.

In addition to outright lies, advertisers naturally try to associate their products and services with other values which motivate us, and with which they themselves have absolutely no unique connection. Sometimes these are good values, but very often the appeal is to our weaker nature. Some specific brands of beer, for example, seem to promise unlimited sex-related partying . (Footnote: Please drink responsibly.) Auto advertisements which promote unequalled luxury and sweet peace are another example.

And then there are those ads which are almost blasphemous in their scope. One I’ve been hearing on the radio lately, from a company called Force 3, rises to new lows. Force 3 clearly needs American businesses and government agencies to believe in themselves. Therefore, its ads roundly declare that it is ridiculous to suppose that America is in any sort of decline: “America’s greatness is now—just as it has always been and will always be.” World without end. Amen.

To some degree, I suppose, we recognize our debilitating reliance on advertising. To compensate, some of us subscribe to consumer magazines and spend time on websites with user-posted reviews. But if a consumer magazine takes advertising, its tests and reviews are immediately suspect. For example, some auto magazines have apparently never seen a new car they did not like. And we now know that the companies themselves pay people to go online to post good reviews and comments on their own products. Sadly, it is very hard to catch “the man” unawares.

Over the past year or so, ads for quick access to money have been on the rise, money often gained by signing over the title to one’s car. Such ads are often accompanied by images which stimulate the desire to spend non-existent income on unnecessary things. Even the various state lotteries depend on advertising, attempting to give the illusion that the chances of winning are better than one would think. To take but one example: “The DC lottery: Lots of people win!” It all depends, I suppose, on how you define “lots” and “win”.

What we are being sold above all in modern advertising is happiness. In fact, I’ve noticed that variations on the word “happy” are increasingly creeping into advertising. We’ve long had “happy meals”, of course, and I guess there is little that makes us as happy as eating. So now the slogan for Bonefish Grill is “Happiness Here”. And Golden Corral says, “Come hungry. Leave happy.” Indeed, the great challenge of all modern advertising is to make people think that their insatiable thirst for happiness can finally be satisfied by a diamond necklace, a new car, a redesigned kitchen, the latest iPhone, or endless self-reinforcing communication on Facebook.

I suppose we all frequently look around at the world thinking about what we really want. We see at once that the “one thing more” that we need is not so far off. To eliminate our discontent once and for all, we just need to get ourselves into a position to take time for this, or to accomplish that, or to purchase something else, and it is usually not something completely beyond our potential reach. We might even fuel our interest with magazines, web sites, television programs, or other kinds of information which connect us with these desired things and situations, so that the professional advertisers can work their magic. And in dreaming about such things, we find ourselves actually advertising to ourselves—imagining how happy we would be if only we could get into the particular situation we have in mind.

Unfortunately, not even self-advertising can be trusted. Again, we have to be very sharp to negotiate successfully with “the man”, that is, the natural man. The very first thing we need to understand is that ultimate happiness is not rooted in natural things. And the second is this: No matter where we go or what we acquire, we carry our unhappiness within us. As soon as the dust settles on our newest acquisitions and newest situations, the same old discontents assert themselves from within—the same nagging insistence that there must be something more, and that we are being unfairly deprived of it.

I do not intend to argue that a little judicious refreshment for the natural man has no value, as long as we do not start believing the lies implicit in even our own advertising. But the key to happiness is to learn to lay up treasure in heaven, “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Mt 6:20), and where the gaping hole in our nature without God can be filled and healed. This is supposed to be the lesson of Advent—that the “something more” we are made for is God, and that our hearts are inescapably restless until they rest in Him.

Yet, paradoxically, it is during Advent that the commercial world reaches its fevered pitch of sales, that people are convinced they can finally be happy through just one more acquisition, and that advertisers vie with each other to incorrectly identify that one essential thing. All of us yearn for it, all of us try to imagine it, and all of us strive to obtain it. Yet only one person in all of history was ever commended for finding it. I mean Martha’s sister Mary, when she was sitting at the feet of Christ (Lk 10:41-2).

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: impossible - Dec. 12, 2012 11:43 PM ET USA

    Truth, in the final analysis, is the key. Recognizing it, accepting it, living it and spreading it should be the mission of Catholic writers and publishers. What has gone wrong that accounts for an epidemic of lost faith, declined Confession lines and Mass attendance? Cause and effect comes to mind. Identifying the cause, courageously exposing it and offering solutions should be your mission.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 12, 2012 8:42 PM ET USA

    In a certain transcendent sense the slogan "Happiness Is" might serve to advertise a right-ordered, grace-driven pursuit of happiness in Christ's Mystical Body. But most of us are a lot busier than Mary or her sister Martha ever were. It often takes a significant dose of unhappiness to redirect. Thanks for the profound Advent reflection.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Dec. 11, 2012 4:42 PM ET USA

    You missed the John Hancock commercial that flatly states, "The sky is not falling." I used to trust that company. I have found that my mental health and spiritual life have improved greatly by watching one hour of television in the morning, and about the same in the evening, and spending some time before bed in spiritual reading.

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