We Thank Thee, Allstate

A recent television commercial shows a family battling a flood that threatens to wash away their home. With the house on the verge of collapse, the father cries out for help. In response, a giant hand descends from the sky to rescue the family from disaster. You almost expect to see the family offer up a prayer: We thank thee, Allstate, for thy many blessings. This ad is a blatant exploitation of spiritual themes to sell a commercial product. Turn on the TV and you’ll see other examples, though some of them are more subtle. For example, during the Olympic Games last summer, AT&T aired a commercial that portrayed athletes performing in their national costumes. An American song gradually swelled with the addition of African drums and Japanese pipes. A voice-over murmured, "If we communicate, there’s no limit to what we can achieve." In other words, if you select the right long-distance carrier, you can help eliminate international tension and create peace on earth. The commercial trades on our longing for a world free from sin, strife, and division—a longing for the kingdom of God. Budweiser’s solution to achieving millennial bliss is even simpler: Drink beer. Ads aired during the Olympics featured a Budweiser blimp with the words "Bud World Party" emblazoned on the side. The ad showed people watching the blimp, smiling, waving, and drinking beer. World peace via the beer keg. Religious overtones in advertisements are no accident. In his book, Adcult USA, sociologist James Twitchell says that Madison Avenue consciously seeks to persuade people that buying certain products will fill a spiritual void. As Twitchell puts it, "The powerful allure of religion and advertising is the same: [Both tell us,] We will be rescued." Whether our deliverance comes from the Man from Glad or the Man from Galilee, Twitchell says, we are promised the peace that passeth human understanding. Novelist John Updike compares the effort put into commercials with the fanatical care medieval monks put into decorating sacred books. The advertisers’ goal, Updike says, is "to persuade us that a certain beer or candy bar or insurance company… is like the crucified Christ… the gateway to the good life." The exploitation of the spiritual should come as no surprise to Christians. After all, human beings are religious by nature. As Augustine put it, "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee." Without Christ, we’re vulnerable to anything that promises to give a substitute rest, a false peace. You and I have to steel ourselves against the false spiritual promises lurking behind the ads for insurance and telephone carriers. And we have to actively counter our possession-mad society’s attempt to get us to seek security through what we can buy. When consumer con men suggest that if we cry out into the void, an insurance company will answer; when they promise world peace if only we reach out and touch someone—we have to remind ourselves that material possessions can’t fill an aching heart. Only Jesus Christ—not Bud or Allstate—can deliver on the promise of giving rest to our restless souls.  


Chuck Colson


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