Christian Living

Our Culture Persuades and Is Persuaded Not by Reason, but by Advertising

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 05/13/2014

I came across a post written last year by Alastair Roberts, and though it’s specifically about how Rob Bell (and other postmodern Christians) seek to persuade others, the insight he has into Rob Bell’s style applies to a great number of people in our culture, and not just in the area of religion:

The ad man doesn’t persuade his customer by making a carefully reasoned and developed argument, but by subtly deflecting objections, evoking feelings and impressions, and directing those feelings and harnessing those impressions in a way that serves his interests. Where the lawyer argues, the ad man massages...

Advertisers can be masters of eliciting feelings and states of mind... Vague and indefinite terms that will be filled with highly emotive states (e.g. ’spiritual’, ’transcendent’, ’wonder’—words which almost always carry great emotional resonance for any hearer) and prose that seems to be saying something profound without making much of a specific claim is fairly typical here...

I am a fan of the TV show Mad Men, set in an ad agency in 1960s New York. The show’s chief protagonist, the charismatic philanderer, Don Draper, puts this point well... ’You are the product. You, feeling something.’

The ad man knows this secret, and so do many contemporary evangelicals. Much of the time Bell isn’t trying to communicate a particular abstract theology to people. Rather, he elicits desirable emotive states from his audience and connects those with a heavily chamfered theology while tying undesirable emotive states to opposing viewpoints. All of this can be done without actually presenting a carefully reasoned and developed argument for one’s own position, or engaging closely with opposing viewpoints...

The advertiser does not make lengthy and involved arguments and those who are raised on advertising can seldom handle them.

If you listen for it, you’ll hear it—people using words as ideological tools to paint emotional images rather than to communicate objective truth, choosing those words according to their emotional connotations rather than their accurate representation of reality (e.g., try reading, not watching, recent political speeches). Roberts’s explanation for this is the key point of his post:

[T]he overwhelming majority of people today were trained in the process of making up their minds by advertisers. They also picked up the art of persuasion, not from classic texts of reason, but from advertising. As a result, many people fail to demonstrate genuine literacy in understanding and creating reasoned arguments, but are adept at producing advertising copy for their impressions. They have been taught both to process and to persuade using impressions.

So what does this mean for us? If this is how people are communicating, should we change our style to match theirs? I agree with Roberts that the answer is no:

While recognizing the power and potential uses of advertising, we need to develop a deeper understanding of the ways that it works and the manner in which it can distort our thought and discourse. As Christians, maintaining the integrity of our discourse is one of our primary duties. This duty does not merely demand an attention to the content of our discourse, but also to the weaknesses, temptations, and inclinations of our chosen forms. Is the fragmented, vague, and emotionally-oriented and disorienting discourse of advertising, with its dense maze of interlocking narratives, questions, anecdotes, quotations, images, metaphors, and suggestions, the most faithful means of communication? I don’t think that it usually is.

Read the rest of his post.

(HT: Tim Challies)