The dewy-eyed babe smiles happily, his hair curling like a corkscrew at his forehead. Mama looks on protectively. The ad captures my attention and my deep-seated maternal instincts kick into high gear. I’m listening. What does the advertiser – the Soda Pop Board of America – want to communicate?
“For a better start in life, start cola earlier!” Impressive stats substantiate their claim: “Laboratory tests over the last few years have proven that babies who start drinking soda during that early formative period have a much higher chance of gaining acceptance and ‘fitting in’ during those awkward pre-teen and teen years.”
This type of advertising, circa-1950, complete with vintage soda bottle, seems laughable, even absurd. We’ve come a long way, baby… sort of.
As 21st-century consumers, we’re much more savvy about the messages advertisers send. We’re less inclined to believe their claims hook, line, and sinker. We know advertisers want us to have an emotional reaction to their products, so we carefully avoid being sucked in by glitz and hype. We protect our children against the onslaught of advertising that pollutes every sphere of our lives, and diligently shield youngsters from being branded by McDonalds, Disney, or the Gap.
Oh, really? “New research suggests children as young as three recognize brands and what they symbolize, a much younger age than was previously theorized – seven and eight,” warns a 2010 Globe and Mail article.
That means kids will navigate their worlds based on what advertisers tell them to buy, wear, watch, and even eat. In fact, due to the near-epidemic rise of obesity in children, U.S. advocacy groups are now proposing voluntary guidelines that would restrict advertising targeted toward children under 17.
“People are starting to blame invasive advertising for the stress in their lives. A few generations ago, people encountered only a few dozen ads in a typical day. Today, 3,000 marketing messages a day flow into the average North American brain. That’s more hype, clutter, sex and violence than many of us can handle on top of all the other pressures of modern life,” writes Kalle Lasn in Adbusters.
Facts like these drive some magazines, such as Geez and Adbusters, to reject advertising altogether. Their pages are free from what the editors call “mental pollution.” According to these folks, advertising is as dangerous to a person’s health as toxic sludge.
Welcome to the advertising section
So, with some sheepishness, I admit we run advertisments in the Herald. This month, ads comprise approximately 18 percent of our content. Other months, when there’s an insert in the middle of the magazine, that figure is higher (yes, MB Mission’s Witness magazine is advertising!). Over the years, we’ve allowed advertising to bleed into our editorial pages, but we try to limit that – we want readers to enjoy feature articles without visual interruption.
So, if advertising can be so destructive, why do we allow it in our magazine? First and foremost, advertising revenue keeps our overall costs down and allows us to send out the Herald on a monthly basis (even when many other denominational magazines have cut back to bimonthly production).
Second, advertising allows readers to discover agencies and services that may be unfamiliar to most. Where else could we hear about small publishing companies like our own Kindred Productions; how else could we learn about the free audio Bibles offered to inmates by Prison Fellowship Canada; which secular magazine would alert us to Holy Land study tours offered by Canadian Mennonite University?
And let’s not forget about job postings. The Herald features career ads to help those looking for new ministry opportunities. We believe these products and services are important to share with our community, especially since many of our advertisers are partner agencies, such as MCC or Family Life Network.
But does this mean we should support these businesses, agencies, and individuals without thinking? No. Just because they’re Christian doesn’t mean they’re better. Discernment is still required.
Like all marketers, Herald advertisers invite consumers to make choices – about where to spend money, how to manage time, and where to use talents. These choices must be filtered through our desire to reflect Jesus in all we do. The admonition found in Romans 12:2 holds firm, as we’re bombarded with advertising messages: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
How does God want me to spend my money, manage my time, use my talents? The Bible calls us to be cultural (and advertising) critics – to never accept an advertiser’s claims at face value. It’s worth the time to research advertisers and learn more about their products, business practices, and ethical standards. Who are they associated with? How do they manage their money? How do they treat consumers? We simply can’t afford to follow blindly.
Did I mention that the ad I described at the beginning of this editorial is a fake – a modern mock-up created by a website called thecitydesk.net? Ironic, isn’t it?
—Laura Kalmar, editor