Jesus and Three Movies You’ve Never Watched at Christmas

Image by Marko Milošević
Several years ago, I pitched the idea of drawing names for Christmas in order to avoid the time- and bank-demanding reality of shopping for two dozen family members. Only one sibling joined me and we soon relented due to pushback. We tried again the following year. More on board, but still no go. Then it finally stuck and now it’s the norm.

My sister and I fought our own desires to maintain tradition. What we proposed was taboo, even scandalous. Okay, I admit that all we did was save a little money, but it was hard!

I want to tell you about three movie characters who are truly taboo. The summaries, I feel, are rather dry, but they convey uncanny similarities between Babette, Vianne, and Mary, characters who changed my Christmas this year.

Read more about these three at The High Calling. The High Calling hosts everyday conversations about work, life, and God.



  by Sam Van Eman

Transcript of this recording:

Welcome to New Breed of Advertisers. The following Christmas post is called “But, MAAAaaaAAAHM!”

Parents have it rough. Toy companies market directly at kids, and the kids respond, "Yes!" while parents' wallets say "No!"

But who's to blame? The parents, for not setting good boundaries for their kids? The kids, for having low discernment skills? Or the advertisers, for putting on an irresistible show? Perhaps a little of all three.

I read an article about parents complaining to toy companies. The organization leading the push-back was Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and they wanted ads to stop being aimed at kids. Let parents make the decisions, they said.

I like this idea, but even I want half of the toys on TV, and I'm pushing 40. Maybe it's because I only had one Star Wars action figure as a kid: no spaceships, no detailed model of a far away planet, no accompanying action-figure troops, and certainly no special effects like the kids in TV commercials had.

Commercials have come a long, tempting, way since my childhood, and kids are even more seduced now. Only the strongest could resist such an onslaught of allure. I want to say to the marketing minds behind this brilliance, "Stop sucking us in. Enough is enough. Help us to lead simple lives. Quit enticing, my children!"

But my first responsibility is not to change the market. It's to curb my own desires and to teach discernment to my kids. My kids have to learn the difference between wants and needs, quality and junk, genuine interests and peer pressure. I can't protect them forever.

And what about the advertisers? They certainly carry guilt, but how much? Well, just imagine how toy advertising would change if they cared more about our kids than about profit. We might be able to say – and you might want to brace yourself for this – "Johnny, if the advertiser says it's a good toy, then it's a good toy because she loves you and wants the best for you."

Without all of us – parents, kids and advertisers – doing more than we’re doing now, Christmas will always be a commercial holiday.

Here’s to a simple, commercial-free, whine-free, generous Christmas.


Visit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.



Transcript + link to an exercise:
Try thinking about every item you see and every act you do in terms of the raw ingredients that form them. Just as flour and baking soda go into cookies, so do wood and cotton go into chairs, and creativity and ink (and pixels) go into a logo.

Your work – my work – is a combination of a long list of raw ingredients. How we assemble them makes a world of difference. Some recipes produce work that tastes great, but isn’t healthy; other times it’s loaded with nutrition but lacks anything resembling flavor. This presents a challenge. We need to assemble ingredients that end up tasting great and benefiting the consumer. Not always an easy task.


For more thoughts on ingredients and their relation to media consumption, read A Recipe for Film Consumption. You'll find an exercise at the end with a downloadable TV commercial (one of my all-time faves).


Angelic Gas

Image by Ruth Hallam
It’s hard to be burdened with your parents’ hell while learning how to make a cow fart. Bobby’s uncle ran a farmette about a mile from our flea market trailer and kept a single cow in the pasture. One summer afternoon while admiring neatly routered crafts in the half-wood shop, half-stall, Bobby called to me.

“Wanna see something cool?”

“Sure,” I said. “What is it?”

“C’mere.” And he turned mischievously for me to follow.

I stepped through the shop door and up onto the rail that contained the heifer. I ran my hand along her back, watching the skin twitch at flies and suddenly forgetting that Bobby had something in mind. Her brown coat felt hot and soft. He was petting along her side, just in front of the pelvic bone, and began to depress the area like a doctor checking for appendicitis. His other hand joined the first and he pressed harder, massaging slowly, front to back, front to back.

And then it happened...a long, loud expulsion of gas from the cow’s behind. To a recent seventh grade graduate, it was possibly the best thing I had ever heard. Bobby had trouble containing himself while pressing again, this time slower now that he had it going, and the beautiful, wonderful sound came forth in a tremendous second wave. They both finally quit. The cow’s wide eye stared at the two of us hanging there in tears.

That’s when the smell hit. Rot and heat mixed to burn our lungs and punish us for teasing. We jumped out of the stall, gagging and laughing hysterically.

I liked Bobby. He parted his hair and said Yes ma’am and swore conservatively like people do who live in the Bible Belt but don’t really go to church. And he was good for me in a way I couldn’t have known then. Beyond the cow and dares to touch the electric fence, bike rides, fort-building and praying we wouldn’t fall to our deaths when his brother whipped rocks at us high in the tree branches, Bobby was helping me escape.

One particular memory confirmed it.

We had constructed a battle scene of figures and machines on his bedroom carpet. I remember the white walls and ceiling fan in his room because these were nicer than what I had in my closet space with the furnace in the corner. We tied fishing line around the body of a WWII fighter plane and to a blade of the ceiling fan. The slow circling threat kept soldiers on their toes. It was a G.I. Joe action-figure set-up like only the kids in TV commercials had.

We pulled the chain to Medium, continuing with our battle language but shifting more attention to the plane. It picked up speed. The painted pilot banked wider and had trouble maintaining control before settling arythmically. Bobby and I glanced at the bedroom door and then at each other.

“What do you think would happen?” he whispered.

I had no other answer. “Let’s find out.”

As soon as I pulled the chain to High and backed away, the plane rose, weaving and dipping wildly. Its left wing caught the ceiling and caused the aircraft to spin desperately out of control. Bobby and I ducked in fear. Neither of us could reach the speed chain before the red fang-mouthed decal on the nose struck the ceiling.

The string broke. The fighter plane shot over us and exploded against the wall above Bobby’s pillow, shattering into plastic pieces of camouflage and outdoing everything those kids on TV had. 

Mischief, I figured then, but it’s therapy to me now because I realize that I had my own commercial going on there; a break from the usual program. Dad had drunk himself reckless, mom was on the run with four of us in a far state, middle school kept me awake at night. Welfare and church people put food on the steps by the scraggly palmetto bush. We all wondered when normal might return.

Here I thought Bobby and I were making cow farts and wrecking his models. We weren’t. He was being normal, with a normal family and normal bedroom walls and a normal life. He was my grace in a battle I couldn’t fight alone; a TV commercial of normalcy in a program of chaos.

And I loved every minute of it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Angelic Gas" is a response to Marcus Goodyear's call for epiphany stories in the Books & Culture article Only Zombies Worship Styrofoam Jesus.


Self-promotion for Christmas

I don't feel comfortable with a lot of self-promotion but, hey, you might be shopping for Christmas and I just so happen to have a possible encouragement for someone on your list. Glynn Young, author of the newly published Dancing Priest, shared a few nice words about On Earth as It is in Advertising? Moving from Commercial Hype to Gospel Hope.

I received the compliments as a gift and pass them along as such. Here's an excerpt:

"...Author Sam Van Eman is tossing a live hand grenade right into the middle of Christian complacency...[and] is taking on what is still the most significant issue affecting American Christianity – how consumer culture has invaded and taken over the church, resulting in our inability to tell the difference between what he calls the 'SimGospel' and the Gospel of the church."

Read the full review and then get your copy of On Earth at Wipf & Stock Publishers.


The Work of a Roofer

Jessie Romaneix by permission via Flickr.
For a long time, I refused to work with Pete. He scared me. He didn’t say much beyond his tattoos of naked women and unusual profanities. The story goes that he reacted to a honking driver by exploding out of his car, shirtless and ripped like Bruce Lee, with a baseball bat and wearing his son’s Mickey Mouse Halloween mask. He jumped on the driver’s car hood and screamed the man into repentance.

I knew I had to love Pete. Wasn’t he among the “least of these”? The mean appearance and stories that accompanied his work-release life made a definite first impression. But I had to love him. If I didn’t realize the high calling of roofing as a trade then, at least I knew from the brokenness of my workmates that I had a job to do:
"If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God's love? It disappears. And you made it disappear" (1 John 3:17, The Message).
To hear more about my most memorable job (Cold tar tear-offs, for an example), read the rest of this featured article at The High Calling. The High Calling hosts everyday conversations about work, life and God.


Self-pleasure for Christmas

In my recent poll, 68% of you "lounged like Mary with family and friends" on Black Friday. Mary, the one blamed by her sister Martha for lazily sitting at Jesus' feet for story time, may have gotten it right. But that doesn't make the 4% of you who "toiled like Martha for family and friends" feel any better. (Sons of Martha might, however.)

Tied for second were the categories "Other" and "took advantage of the shopping deals."

Speaking of taking advantage of shopping deals, I came across an article at AdAge this morning about new holiday ads focused on me. The National Retail Federation

"recently highlighted J.Crew, which featured a 'Gift Yourself' section on its website, along with the text 'To: You, From: You.' And this week Gap is promoting sleepwear as the perfect gift to give yourself: 'Tuck Yourself In: Dots, pops of color, and soft flannel -- perfectly sized sleepwear just for you. Give (yourself!) the gift of good sleep.'"  
Photo by leapetey
I hadn't seen these ads, but certainly felt more desire to shop for myself this year. Maybe I picked up the vibe subconsciously. I went out at midnight on Black Friday to buy something for my wife. The 1000-strong lines sent me home empty-handed, but I had every intention of making the purchase and then proceeding to fondle numerous additional items I could imagine having as my own.

John Ross, CEO of Shopper Sciences, said, "It looks like retailers across the board widened the draw of their promotional assortment to appeal to a broader audience." (Broader sounds so inclusive, but the only audience added to what used to be a focus on you, is me. So broad, isn't it?) "To the extent that retailers can change their ads, we'd be advising them to do it," he said. "It appears to be something that the shopper is already embracing."

Of course we're embracing it.

What I didn't realize, but what would have been something to celebrate had I known about it, is that "Shoppers have actively tried to be less impulsive and haven't been spending on themselves for some time."

In Mr. Ross's world, this less impulsive bit isn't a point of celebration. It's a problem. It isn't a sign of stewardship or self-control, but a weakness in the system. His aim is to push retailers toward adopting a self-pleasure strategy because it's good for business. Buying for self isn't inherently bad, especially when the price is right, but to employ a self-pleasure strategy in the season most known for charity and altruism can't be good for humanity.


Black Friday therapy

Surplus is an odd word, especially since most of the world endures inadequate conditions. But our stores are jammed with toys and clothing and cars and food. As far as we know, it's like that everywhere. I walked into a neighborhood market that had very few items on its shelves. I asked the clerk if they were closing down, and she said, "No. Why?" Living in a "stocked" environment has serious effects on our awareness of others. The ways in which we pursue material goods, perceive available natural resources, and relate to the larger community are clear indicators that our awareness is low.

"It's not more than you need. Just more than you're used to," says a GM truck ad. Give it time. We'll get used to it.

Material goods have a way of requiring great amounts of attention and they easily distract us from others. We feel the need to protect what we've acquired, to polish what is expensive, and to store what may lose value if left out in the weather. To paraphrase King Solomon: "The abundance of the rich permits no sleep" (Ecclesiastes 5:12b).

I don't believe that Jesus commands us to renounce all possessions. Yet, when possessions act as an immediate substitute for what can come only through faith and patience, our experience of God's immanence is blocked, and we lose our sense of place in the created order. The pursuit of self-serving riches is incompatible with God's will, and it steals time that would be better invested in others. As a result, our indulgence leads to neglect.

-- Excerpt from On Earth as It is in Advertising? Moving from Commercial Hype to Gospel Hope

True confession: I was out last night. Black Friday eve. First time ever and amazed. At midnight, Target had at least a thousand people wrapped around the outside of the building, standing two by twos. Kohls had every parking space taken and cars lined in the far grass, like at the county fairgrounds. I saw the local news van and imagined saying, "I wrote a book about advertising and what's wrong with consumerism. I'm such a hypocrite." I left the crowds without the one item I wanted, but only because I was too tired to push through. Maybe I need to read my own handwriting.

What did you do on Black Friday? Answer in the sidebar poll.


My Own Manbag line!

Satire just in time for Black Friday, compliments of creative friends at The High Calling.


Klothing Klout

"You and I can both be browsing the same site but would see different pricing and selection based on our current rank. For example, you might have a closet full of Levi's while I have none. When we both browse Levi's the price on your screen would be $72 while I'd see $78 for the same pair." 
          - RNKD start-up guy and Zappos co-founder, Nick Shwinmurn.

The idea is that I take pictures of my clothes, tag them by brand and then post them at RNKD. The more of a particular brand I post, the more likely I am to get deals on that brand, like a few dollars off a new pair, or a gift card. Klothing Klout, if you will.

(Nick, can I get clothes free for having a particular item for, say, 15 years, like my United Way Day of Caring T-shirt - now used exclusively for mowing with its am-I-even-wearing-a-shirt feel? This guy did. My Fruit of the Loom treasure dates "May 6, 1996" in faded red on the front. Got to be worth something to their PR department.)

If RNKD can't help me beat consignment and Sally's prices, $72 vs $78 won't make much of a difference for a frugal (and rare) shopper like me.


Read the original article here


John Lewis: The Long Wait

In just three days, Adam & Eve's "The Long Wait" had racked up well over a half-million Youtube views. Not bad for a TV advertisement. You'd assume that it was either a freakishly good homemade project recorded and passed along in admiration of a prodigy's A/V talent, or else a heart-string grabber capable of making the average human being tear up. It's the latter, of course. (Being surprised by the True, Good and Beautiful has a way of doing this to me.)

As it goes, "The Long Wait" is simply another in a myriad of consumer-driven, emotion-catching, way-too-early Christmas commercials, this time for the British equivalent of JC Penney, London-based John Lewis. That doesn't seem to matter once the commercial makes its point. It's a well-told story. Little touches like a bouncing knee make it real. And it's honest in the way that you want the protagonist to be your own kid.

Shopping doesn't make good children. Plenty of living rooms will attest to this as they host the worst in our progeny on Christmas morning. But the Good, demonstrated here, reminds me once again that Advent prepares us to hope for the Christ, and for a world that acts like him. Enjoy "The Long Wait."

(Trouble viewing it? Watch it here.)


Zits are at least 51 years old!

"I am so relieved to find a good acne product before school started!"

Olive said that just two months ago in an online consumer product review. I don't remember using acne products often in my school years, though when I did it was because all of the little zits that dotted my friends' faces would join together on my own as a singular grand finale; a geographically altering explosion of embarrassment.

So Olive needs some relief today and I needed it in the 80s, but this newspaper clipping for Sea Breeze answered kids' prayers in 1960. I found the advertisement in a newspaper we dug out of our chimney.

In full, it reads:

"Amazing SEA BREEZE, new brand of antiseptic skin lotion. It works wonders for complexion in just 7 days! SEA BREEZE wipes away the excess oils that cause ____ blackheads, whiteheads and pimples. It helps prevent ____ and conditions pores. SEA BREEZE kills germs instantly - _____ soothes your skin - never dries it, as so many antiseptics do. Amazing results are guaranteed - money back from SEA BREEZE if not completely satisfied at the improvement after just 7 days! Get SEA BREEZE today! Big 4 1/4 oz. bottle - just 69¢ - at any drugstore." 


According to W, Sea Breeze started as "a cosmetic skin care brand originally launched in 1906. The Original formula was initially sold as an antiseptic for minor cuts and scratches."


Wiggle room

In her book, Eve's Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body, Lillian Calles Barger writes:

"Throughout great classic works of literature the beautiful woman inspires, but this beauty remains largely undefined. It has no particularity. Its content is not fixed, and its attributes are of a transcendent quality. In the Iliad, Helen of Troy is never described except as beautiful. There is no image of her except what our imagination brings to the text. In William Wordsworth's poem 'She Was a Phantom of Delight' the beloved is described as 'a moment's ornament, / Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair; / Like Twilight's, too, her dusky hair.' Likewise in the biblical Song of Songs the beloved is described through metaphors: 'Behold, you are fair! You have dove's eyes' (Songs 1:15)."

What our imagination brings to the text. I like that. But Barger then asks: "What happens when what it means to be 'the beloved' is no longer articulated with words but communicated by explicit images?"

I spoke with a group of college students about the effects of advertising on body image. In our discussion on the way beauty is defined, one woman said, "There's no wiggle room."

The print ad above for Olay affirms her comment. It highlights Barger's word "explicit," as in: spelled out, given definitive parameters, narrowly prescribed.

Nothing short of a miracle could transform the beauty industry into a comprehensive reflection of the Kingdom of God, but is it possible, in the meantime, to add some wiggle room? How would you do it as an advertiser, or a graphic designer, or a photographer, or a parent?


This post was first published in early 2008 when I was my only reader. Because it's still valid and because I care about voices who cover these important advertising topics, I'm bringing it back for your consideration.


Check for $97

I've had an ongoing fight with an advertising book since October of 2005. I once believed in it, supported it and loved it. Others did too. And then someone with another opinion took over and after one brief paragraph the fight began.

" startling features to distinguish it...." All punches to my fragile pride.  

Tony Campolo had said it was "a must read for anyone who is trying to critique our culture and stand against its debilitating effects." Ron Sider called it "an important, urgent, penetrating analysis of how today's pervasive materialism seduces us and how biblical faith liberates us." The president emeritus of Bread for the World said that it was stellar.

I loved this praise. I had worked hard, cared deeply and had a grand vision of pulling materialistic America out of its blind consumption, and I wasn't alone. Jean Kilbourne, famed for her relentless and articulate beef with Madison Avenue since the 70s, stood behind me. She said I had done "a masterful job of demonstrating how the 'simulated gospel' of advertising perverts and distorts Jesus's message of love and compassion."

But insecurity confuses all of this. It doubts. It entertains unprovable possibilities. She was just being nice. He was paid to do it. He didn't really read it - just liked the title and first few pages and gambled on it being good. I've thought a hundred variations like these, all reminders that the only opinion I really believed was the one that started the fight. These were its offspring. 

One year after its release, On Earth as It is in Advertising? Moving from Commercial Hype to Gospel Hope went out of print. I tried to forget about the whole thing until, several years later, Wipf & Stock Publishers asked if they could bring it back on a need to print basis. I didn't really care. Sure, I said. I disliked the new cover (I care enough about advertising to think it should be done well). They promised a dollar per copy and I signed. And then I forgot about it again.    

This morning I received a surprise check in the mail. Without telling my youngest daughter what it was for, I asked her to guess how much it might be worth. She said $5. I guessed $4.

It was $97. I'm not sure what to think about having sold 97 more copies of something collecting dust on the shelf and in my mind, but I smiled. Then not two minutes later I imagined a benefactor had set me up just like Pip in Great Expectations; someone nice and in the mood to send me a hug. Another doubt.  

This post may amount to being the worst book promotion ever, but I set out to write about a fight I continue having with myself, almost four decades old, book or no book. I'm haunted by fear and the criticism that lurks about.

Don't buy a copy because you feel bad for me. I've moved on in other ways. But if you want to read a simplistic, overstated, nothing new book that is simultaneously a masterfully demonstrated, important, urgent, penetrating analysis (See what goes on in mind?), you can find reviews and sources for the original here, or buy it direct from Wipf & Stock.

Better yet, call or email my favorite local bookstore, Hearts and Minds Books.


Jesus and Harry: The Light and Dark of Light and Dark

Photo by FadderUri
I'm finishing book six of the Harry Potter series in Spanish. I wouldn't have been caught dead with this accursed thing in my Pentecostal church growing up. And the 2-1/2 movie versions I've seen so far leave me feeling a sort of heaviness which I don't like. But the books, in Spanish, are not only good practice reading for me, they feel, oddly enough, just fine.

The words that have always carried considerable meaning regarding evil don't carry the same weight in a foreign language. "Witch" and "sorcery" made my dark list in English, but in Spanish? They're "bruja" and "hechiceria" which fail to conjure images of the magic-hatted, green-skinned accomplice of the Devil, or something worse. Regardless of my theological position against all things hechiceria, the added cultural weight of these terms didn't make it through the translator.

In part, this has permitted me to ponder more objectively the brouhaha about Harry Potter and his symbolic relationship with Jesus, as well as the philosophical and theological divisions in the Church about what is light and what is dark. I've made a few illustrations below to show you what I mean.

First, when I read Harry Potter, I automatically place items, characters and actions into two general categories. Of course, I could split some characters into sub-categories since they aren't always good and aren't always bad (Voldemort excluded, unless you consider his desire to learn or his ability to cultivate as essentially good things regardless of his intentions). But to keep things simple, I do the following while reading:

(If Hermione and Voldemort turn out differently in the end, humor me for now.) I do the same with items, characters and actions I'd consider Christian. The Bible, with all of the bad stuff in it, is holy and perfectly good. The financial rating of our local Christian TV station, on the other hand, falls just shy of 60% which is a big fat F. Don't get me started on the way they do fund-raising, which I can't imagine Jesus would ever endorse. So I categorize here too:

Put the two together and I run into questions, which I think are the same ones other people run into. Consider the recent debate going on in the comments of an article about Steve Jobs at Were his acts eternally good or eternally bad or perhaps only temporarily good? Is it eternally good to do good to your neighbor only if you're a follower of Jesus, or does love count for the good-producing heathen as well?

Or consider the controversy around Christianity Today's reviews of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (I've avoided reading spoilers so far, but I'm aware of the rebuttals). Many of us are hesitant to condone or condemn when light and dark look so similar that they tie our moral hands together. So is it like the following, with gradations of good and bad?

Or this, which doesn't try to equate Hermione with the Bible, per se, but considers that good can't exist outside of God's goodness, even if that goodness falls within the traditional category of bad, which would mean that both the Bible and Hermione are good and both local Christian TV and Voldemort are bad?

Or is there another position altogether?


The Immortal Creative

I'm reading The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen. I've had it on the shelf for years and somehow neglected to read it, despite it being an unofficial requirement among my colleagues. Page 13 is yellowed with age and littered with "man" in a pre-PC way (so acknowledged in the Introduction), yet the content strikes me as prophetic; ahead of its time. Nouwen was addressing post-modernism in 1972. He recognized then that young people were moving away from absolute truth and, as a result, away from hopefulness.

One particular line caught my attention and I couldn't avoid assigning it to my concern for employees in the advertising world:

"When man is no longer able to look beyond his own death and relate himself to what extends beyond the time and space of his life, he loses his desire to create and the excitement of being human."
Nouwen isn't saying that people can stop creating, even if they lose the desire. And this isn't about the idea of legacy, which can be convoluted in the mind of the insecure (like me) as the ticket to sticking around forever. It's about recognizing that what we do matters. For good or for ill, it matters. Every action I commit results in some change, either in the world at large or in my own household; either in grand, visible forms or in the mind. Every action, they say, has an equal and opposite reaction, like elementary school teachers who alter the worlds of countless children (despite being largely forgotten).

In other words, every 30 second Hulu commercial, TV commercial, YouTube intro, is an act of creation. Even if it's forgotten in five minutes, it is an action that leads to reactions - to sales, to economic shifts, to artistic twists and digital technology, to discontent and Jones jealousy. And when it is created by the hands of employees who have lost desire and don't care about immortality - or about their neighbor for that matter - those reactions wander into whatever voids will accept them.

So I'll keep watching for workers who have an eagerness and hopefulness beyond pay raises, promotions and the bare need to simply make it through another day. I'll keep watching for workers who see their work as ministry in the immortal sense of the word.


Pee in the Bath

I've been on a bathroom kick lately. No reason I'm aware of. Something subconscious maybe?

I've had this cute Brazilian TV commercial in my bookmarks for quite a while and thought now would be a good time to share it. It's in Portuguese but the subtitles will make it all clear. If you think it's crude, that's okay. I think the Charmin bears with their leftover toilet paper pieces is crude too. At least this ACT-endorsed spot from South America has a grander point: To conserve water.

ACT stands for Advertising Community Together. Their website showcases advertisements and commercials that align with the statement, "Federating, promoting and inspiring responsible communication."

I can get behind that mission. (I won't tell you whether I can get behind their invocation.) Enjoy!


Like Therapy (Only Cheaper)

Laughing Horse by Ella Richardson
I love to laugh. I even laugh by myself, though I swear I'm not crazy. I've laughed in church when I wasn't supposed to, in meetings both light and heavy, during late-night comedy and at matinee movies. I've laughed in the woods, in card games, at TV commercials, and one time I laughed when my wife and I hadn't spoken to each other for days.

Laughter does my body good. This month I wrote about it at The High Calling (see the link above). I also edited a reflection by poet Jeanne Murray Walker on laughter in a cancer ward. Then today, a colleague and I launched a little writing project on laughter.

Deidra Riggs writes for The High Calling, (in)courage, and her city newspaper. She's a delightful woman and a friend...and she loves to laugh. She's hosting the project at her site.

Check it out and be sure to submit your entry by Friday, September 23:


Where the Sun Don't Shine

Image from Respect the Roll.
As of late August, "Nearly 300,000 Consumers Have Signed Up for a Free Roll Cover at"

You've seen the commercials. The one where Eric, Amber and John discuss tp etiquette in defense of unsheltered rolls. And another, which I saw this past Sunday night, where an elderly husband and wife peep into a neighbor's bathroom, flabbergasted at the disrespectful practice of keeping their exposed roll on the back of the commode. (Not sure whether it's the neighbor's primary roll or the extra for when the primary runs out. Are we supposed to respect both? Just the extra? If both, what do you do with the lid on the primary roll when it's time to use it?)

TMI. Sorry. I know folks who find it grossly embarrassing to buy new toilet paper in the store, let alone talk about what we do with it at home.

I've never covered my toilet paper. We have a roll on the holder and extras under the sink. There you have it. And maybe because this has always been our practice, these commercials irk me. They feel a bit like bullying: "What?! You don't ______? You must be a caveman."

Cottonelle has created a site called "Where the Sun Don't Shine Tribune," patterned after an online newspaper. Videos, Letters to the Editor, Top Stories, Current Weather. It has the same gimmicky 50s feel as the commercials. And based on the numbers, the campaign is working, with "72 requests per minute on at the height of website traffic." Either consumers think the available patterns will compliment their bathrooms, or they're looking for novelty in otherwise utilitarian quarters, or they really believe tp should be respected.

Do you use one? Should I? Is this an emotionally manipulative ploy to woo germaphobes (I'm one of these) or a worthwhile purchase?


No touchy.

"No touchy." This phrase from Kuzco, the high-maintenance ruler-turned-llama from Emperor's New Groove, resonates with me. I can't help it. I am a fringe germaphobe, dabbling in the art of knowing where my hands have been.

So when I watch the commercial for Lysol's No-Touch Hand Soap System, I'm intrigued. For a split second, I'm intrigued. And then completely disillusioned:
"You and your family will never have to touch a germy soap pump again."

So? I could see this as a problem if I had to touch the germy pump after washing my hands, but before? Before I wash my germy hands? This product has no logical usefulness. Fear alone will sell it if it sells.

I'm acutely aware of the before/after touching of germy surfaces. For example, it's a major faux pas to place public restroom door handles on the inside of the door yet it happens all of the time. What's the point of washing my hands (No-Touch system or not) if afterward I'm forced to share the exit door handle with so many guys who head out without washing at all? There is no point. It's like touching the soap pump again after my hands have been cleaned. When does this ever make sense?

It seems that bacterial scientists and designers are working on different pages. Talk with each other, people. Good work - the kind Christ followers should see as the standard - gets done when effective profession-level collaboration serves the public in useful ways. And both are needed: the collaboration and the usefulness. Otherwise, I either waste money on senseless products at home or feel tempted in public to knock on the bathroom door, begging someone to let me out.    


Look After You Leap

Image by Craig (lincolnblues).
My contribution to this morning reminds me of how superficial I tend to be when it comes to visual judgment. So why am I not like this when it comes to advertising? I think it's because I'm jaded. Too much crying wolf over the years. I've been conditioned to approach ads assuming the bells and whistles are hiding something. And the more bells and whistles, the more hiding.

I know there's good stuff going on in the ad world. I just need more of it.

I walked past our girls’ room yesterday and saw a book lying open-faced in the chair. On the earmarked page it read, “By the time he was 57, President George Washington was completely toothless.”

Huh. Didn’t know that. Twice I caught my grandfather without his false teeth – accidentally and only twice. It shocked me both times. I’d seen strangers and National Geographic photos of people with nothing but gums, but this was my grandfather who had convinced me he had a full set. And a toothless President? Unimaginable.  

The trivia page went on to say that Howard Taft weighed 350 pounds on his inauguration day. I think I knew this and vaguely remembered a story about him getting stuck in a bathtub at a college where I worked. I wondered how these men came to power. I assume it was their work ethic, leadership potential, articulation, social influence, political savvy…all the skills a public figure needs. It certainly couldn’t have been appearance because we’d never elect to President a man (or woman) with either of these physical characteristics.

"Love your neighbors for who they are on the inside," we’re told. "Don’t judge a book by its cover." Who really takes this advice? We’re a vain lot and research shows that nothing escapes our biases: gender, age, race, looks. Even as a follower of Christ, my narrow band of preference overrides what I’d like to think is Spock logic....
Read the rest here.

The High Calling is a site about work, life, and God.


Level Up with Your Fries: Gamification in Advertising

The Escapist produces high quality videos on gaming and related topics and though I don't play much more than Monopoly Deal and Mille Bornes these days, I admire their work. The following episode covers the topic of gamification and how common video game elements can be translated into real life to make us more productive. But it also addresses potential evils when this concept gets into the hands of advertisers: 


My neighbor and his washing machine fire pit idea

Since we moved into our house last summer, we've been loaded with projects. It had been a foreclosure filled with dogs, loose hamsters, wayward kids and a lazy father who never finished anything he started. Then it sat for months discarded.

We've been on clean-up duty ever since.

My next door neighbor is an unusual renter. He's fifty-something, single, and conscientious. He treats his apartment like it's his and mows, weed-whacks, trims, sweeps, welds, repairs, decorates and inspires. This last part is what makes me think of him as one of the Joneses. I like Tom. He inspires me to work hard. If he's working, it's difficult to sit around. When I'm working, it's difficult for him to sit around.

This morning he came over to share a magazine article about a clever chap who built one of those fire pits - you know, the kind you pick up at Lowe's or True Value? Except this guy made his out of the drum of a front-loading washing machine. Attached three legs, turned it so the hole faced upward, and burned away.

See, Tom and I share ideas nearly every day and when we discover something we both like, we jump on it. In this way, we've unintentionally yet clearly become the Joneses to each other.

This realization struck me a few days ago when I noticed that our last few yard projects seemed uncannily related. I'm not trying to keep up with him. He just informs me of things I hadn't thought of. And I do the same. We're both frugal and believe in reusing, so it isn't like we're picking up two of everything at the hardware store. But we say "wow" a lot. And, "Hey, that's a great idea!" Then we split to our respective garages and go to work.

It isn't always so cut and paste, but Keeping up with the Joneses gets a bad rap too often. I think. Maybe I should keep my mouth shut for the sake of getting the consumeristic end of this social phenomenon to swing its pendulum rightfully in the other direction, but I've caught a glimpse of the good end and I don't mind it one bit. 


Not Unless I Have To

I've talked about the Good Samaritan story many times in talks with advertisers and advertising majors because of its comprehensive application. Imagining yourself, in your specific career, playing a specific role in this famous story, can be invigorating. This morning over at, I wrote about it and some of my inadequacies as a servant.

One of my favorite adult-life maxims comes from the end of the parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus answers the expert in the law and says, “Go and do likewise.” I know he didn’t (and doesn’t) mean, “Go and become a paramedic,” or, “Go and become an inn keeper so that you can lodge infirmed patients.” He simply meant for me to go and do what must be done for folks whose needs I can meet.

To be fair, I do okay. I take out the neighbor’s trash because his disfigurement requires 20 minutes just to get to the alley. I donate to people. And at every chance given to communicate theology on the importance of work in the here and now Kingdom of God, I give it with conviction.

In other words, I get Go and do likewise. Unfortunately, it's a short list and I’m afraid that most of my going and doing is nice-guy personality - not a result of what Jesus said.  

Read "Not Unless I Have To" here. is a site full of conversations about work, life, and God.


Cereal Fetish

Photo credit: Mebajason
Met a woman from Germany on Saturday. She grew up in former communist East Germany and we talked about decisions. I thought it was only American anti-consumerist critics like me who harped about the cereal aisle, but it was one of the first examples she mentioned. (Not that she hasn't adjusted just fine to this American life, having two kids and breakfast cravings of her own.)

Despite my complaints, I keep that particular aisle in business. I like the variety. I like cereal and I like having a greater chance of finding something on sale that my family enjoys.

And I like watching advertisers show off their creativity and strategy, sparring as they do shelves high and 75 remarkable feet wide on a veritable playing field of color and shape, crispness claims, offers of mailable-linkable-retrievable Free Stuff, sugar content, box and oat cluster size, fiber facts, artificial and natural ingredients, fruit bits or chunks or flavors, and Box Top for Education coupons. It's all part of a magnificent display of competition where the weaker brands die and the talented designers move their wares to more prominent positions.

I've shopped long enough to narrow the field; to do my own selection (natural, of course, as I don't care much for artificial), which makes the whole stimulation factor less distracting. In fact, I skip entire swathes of products because I've determined previously that I have no use for them. So on one hand I'm embarrassed that we need so many choices, but on the other, thrilled to have them. Beating the system and navigating the clutter alleviate my guilt enough to keep me from protesting.  

Maybe Tatiana was better off. Communist oppression is no viable option, but humans appreciate products in scarcity more than in abundance. We adapt just fine to having less and we show more gratitude when this is our lot. I know it from wilderness excursions where you carry the minimum on your back, and from being poor as a child. One of the most memorable experiences as a college freshmen was being walked into the cafeteria and shown where to get trays, drinks and any of thirty types of cereal. I asked our campus guide if we were allowed to have more than one bowl.

"Of course," he said. He looked surprised.

We had a half-bowl limit growing up. I spent the first semester eating cereal three meals a day (with salads and sides, of course!), sometimes 4-5 bowls in twenty-four hours.

Obviously, having abundance at my fingertips isn't necessarily healthy. Signs of decay (tooth and otherwise) appear everywhere self-discipline wanes and I too often end up in the display case like the mayor who gorged to a drunken stupor in the film, Chocolat. I need help. We all do.

Can cereal advertisers do anything about it? Should they? Would limitations or discouragement mutate our shopping freedoms into some sort of captivity? These are tough questions for me. Until I find answers, and as long as They send notable coupons, I'll probably keep enjoying the game.        


The value of babies and stuff

I received a New Baby announcement in the mail this week. It came from good friends and I was happy to hear the news. In crude terms, the card was a simple advertisement. The family told us about their product: a beautiful child, a boy; and inferred the benefits of welcoming him into our lives: happiness, hope, reminder of new life...

Of course, I don't see their child as a product, and the card did not strike me as advertising in any of the disordered ways we may be influenced to consume. In fact, the following thoughts came to mind only after it sat on my desk for several days in a moment when I was reflecting on two general characteristics of advertising:

1) Declaration of value.
2) Invitation to enjoy this value.

I'm pretty sure all advertising performs these two basic functions. In a similar way, so does the baby card. What perplexed me was why advertising doesn't work more often like the card, or, more clearly said, why the card doesn't feel like an advertisement at all, even if it (generally) acts like one.

Here's a partial reason for the difference. Actually two. Advertising veers away from the beauty of my friends' announcement when it commits either or both of these offenses: 1) The declaration of value fails to match the delivery of value. 2) The values we are invited to enjoy fail at being valuable.

In the first, I'm mislead; in the second, mistreated.

Years ago, I bought a camping tent that promised durability. I expected this value to come with the declaration. It didn't. I'm quite particular with my belongings and have made this tent work - without failure - for many years. However, sans meticulous care, it would have failed soon after we got it, and I think about this point every time I set it up and tear it down. I was mislead because of the conflict between declaration and delivery. The declaration of value failed to match the delivery of value.

It's true that, in a sense, my poor tent value is a form of customer mistreatment. But I wasn't completely mistreated because I wasn't completely mislead. Do you follow? It has been a great tent and, though I've had to be extra gentle, it still does what a tent is supposed to do. I was only mislead on the one point about durability. So a more poignant example of mistreatment can be seen in this Nissan advertisement:

They're being partly facetious, but no copy editor would choose to write "Envy. Terrible to feel. Wonderful to provoke." if a significant percentage of car buyers wasn't actually motivated by insecurity. I've whined about bullying before and I'll do it again now. Companies have control over customer treatment, especially when it comes to the messages they use to declare and invite via advertising. Bullying always mistreats. It may, in a roundabout way, state a deliverable value, but the end doesn't justify the means.

In the case of this magazine ad, I'm mistreated as a customer because the value - making others jealous - is all chaff and no wheat. My insecurity may perceive this promise as worthwhile, but it really isn't. The value we're invited to enjoy fails at being valuable.

Obviously tents and sedans can't be compared with children, but a truth remains. We admire companies that exceed our value expectations and treat us with human dignity, which is exactly what my friends' New Baby card did. It pointed to value I can't possibly estimate and made me enjoy being human.

What if all advertising did this?


Style Matters

Image by Jade Pegler.
Byron Borger has been connecting readers with writers for decades. With uncanny insight, an unrivaled knowledge of book titles and the ideas and history behind them, as well as the ability to convince you that every title he recommends is one that you absolutely must have, he's a person you really ought to know (if you don't already).

This morning, I got to publish a "sweet little masterpiece in its own way," as L.L. Barkat put it, of Byron's thoughts, and you can find it at The High Calling. "Style Matters" is about the power of words to inform and transform. It helps that I'm a passionate person, but the article called me to be a better writer who weds his words with style; his craft with art.

Whether you're a casual reader, prolific blogger, aspiring author or 9-to-5 copywriter, you may appreciate "Style Matters" since your life revolves around words.
I will never forget one of the first times I was taken by a book as an older teenager, utterly absorbed, lost in another world. I was a new Jesus Freak in the early 70s and a wanna-be revolutionary. I realized there were changes afoot and I wanted to be a part of them...
Read the article here. is a site about work, life and God.


Ethics in Advertising

"If harmful or utterly useless goods are touted to the public, if false assertions are made about goods for sale, if less than admirable human tendencies are exploited, those responsible for such advertising harm society and forfeit their good name and credibility."

- From "Communio et Progressio," a 1960s pastoral letter written by the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications.

"But whatever product, service or candidate you advertise and no matter how you do it, I would hope you would keep in mind our ultimate purpose in life and make of all of your advertising messages that are true, worthy of the dignity of the human person and helpful to the common good." 

- From Archbishop John Foley at the 50th Anniversary of the World Federation of Advertisers.


Vegetarians, don't look. This is a carnivore's delight.

Advertising works when it makes me want to eat the page. I hope they have these in heaven. (Click on the image to enlarge it and then click again for more zoomed pleasure, or to get the recipe.)

From Rachel Ray's "30 Minute Meals"


Giving riddles of love

I'm a sucker for honest, smart, neighbor-honoring copy in an advertisement; it goes a long way in earning my respect. Clever also catches my attention but only until the laugh or intrigue ends. Then I'm back to being frustrated. When is it ever appropriate to make consumers feel insecure? When is it helpful to embellish an item with more value than it's really worth?

As far as I'm concerned, using/managing/stewarding/assigning/writing/broadcasting/editing/creating words is a high calling. On Friday at, I wrote about using words as a way of giving riddles of love. Here's the intro and link to read more:

I enjoy solving, and telling, riddles while hiking with others. Like this one: “There are fifty-two bicycles and a dead man in a room. What happened?” Riddles take work to solve - the first time, at least. The second time is a snap and by the third, you know the answer before the riddler finishes the question.

What fascinates me is that no matter how many times you hear the same riddle, your brain still has to solve it. Eventually it may feel like you simply know the answer but that’s only because your solution speed has increased.

Words work like this.
Read the rest of the article here. is a conversation site about work, life and God.


Who Needs You to Go to College?

Image sourced from Microsoft Online.
Most posts here are about advertising, either directly or indirectly. This specific emphasis falls within a larger category of seeing work - all work (sans prostitution and the like which isn't work but some distorted derivative) - as an act of service to others and honor to God. In this broader vein, I want to highlight two items this morning, both containing application points that will hopefully encourage you in the work you do.

Item #1

The first is from Marcus Goodyear, senior editor at the, published poet (you'll see why I mention this) and a thoughtful influencer on the topic of service/honor-based work. His recent blog entry is called Work Isn't Supposed to Be Fun Anyway and here's a teaser:

As a kid I fantasized about traveling to space. Even recently, I was thinking about the Mir space station pictured above. The world needs me in space at the Mir station, I might delude myself. I definitely have a strong desire to go there. I could even imagine that I have talents and gifts that would justify putting me atop one million pounds of rocket fuel and blasting me toward Mir at 29,000 mph.

That’s roughly 28,965 mph over the speed limit in my neighborhood, by the way.

Alas, I do not have a high calling to join the crew of the Mir space station. That is a personal fantasy, not a calling. (Read the rest of his post here.)

Item #2

The second item is by yours truly, and it comes from a growing conviction that we're asking the wrong question about higher education. It isn't logically or practically possible to ask this wrong question, though we do it as consumers and we do it often. So I'm asking a different question, one that is pertinent whether you are in college, going to college or 20 years out. Here is a teaser for Who Needs You to Go to College?:

The Higher Education Research Institute’s Research Brief for the 2010 Freshmen Survey states, “Perhaps most significantly, a large percentage increase (from 66.2% in 2007 to 72.7% in 2010) occurred in students’ views that ‘The chief benefit of college is that it increases one’s earning power.’”

I understand this freshmen view financially. But to what end is it aimed? Work is not separate from community, either in the doing of it or in what it produces. A little creative (and Biblical) analysis will see that education – despite its personal benefits – is ultimately other-centered. (Read the rest of this post here.)

Happy reading.


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