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Selling Jesus, pizza and politics
Superficial marketing has taken over even our most important choices
Marketing of church and state have become just as superficial as selling pizza. (Photo by GJ Charlet III)
We’ve been hearing for years that Americans are losing trust in just about every institution, but we got a new notion of why the other day after driving past a place that could have been a church or could have been a pizza joint, but we couldn’t tell which. That’s just wrong, isn’t it?
It was on a route we take occasionally, and we noticed a new sign next to the road, one of those with changeable letters, like what churches use these days. You know, there are often catchy religious messages — “You can’t enter heaven unless Jesus enters you” — and more humorous ones, like, “Last time things were this messed up I sent a flood. – God.” Some churches signal their place on the progressive/conservative spectrum: “Jesus wasn’t neutral. He sided with the poor, sick & immigrant. Be like Jesus.” Some are seasonal or funny, or both: “Cool A/C. Hot preaching. Pastor Steve.”
Spiritual matters are deeply personal, but I have to admit that I’m bothered by the idea of marketing something as huge as the appearance of God on earth with lame jokes on plastic signs. Granted, it’s not as unsettling as the evangelical church in my community that marketed itself by raffling an AR-15 rifle, so maybe an electrified sign with a message — “Think it’s hot here? Only Jesus can keep you from burning” — isn’t something worth stewing about.
Besides, these signs are so popular that they have spawned online memes and Facebook groups. A cynic might think that churches are posting signs more aimed at getting a viral hit than drawing new worshippers, and some must be copying sayings off the internet, but who can blame them for wanting somebody to notice? Church attendance has been dropping for years, and Covid only advanced the process: 34 percent of Americans regularly attended worship in 2019 — half the share of the population a half-century before — but even that dropped to 28 percent last year.1
So this week we noticed a sign along that nearby road: “You’re not pizza — nothing tops you.” It turned out to be not a church’s reassurance of the value we each have as God’s creation but, rather, just a way to draw attention to the product of John’s Inferno (formerly Dante’s, of course, before John bought the Inferno). My wife had noticed the sign before; last week, she says, it offered, “You can’t please everyone. You are not a pizza.” Apparently any saying that includes the word “pizza” will do. (Suggestion for next week: “I want someone to look at me the way I look at pizza.”)
Now, I’m not one to say whether you’ll be happier eating at a pizza joint or a church. I grew up on hamburger casseroles, spaghetti pies and Jell-O salads at church potlucks, though these days I’m more likely to recommend the occasional “everything” pizza from your best local joint, which in my town is DeFazio’s. But I do understand something about marketing, and I have to say that it’s not good if we have to use what works for pizza to sell salvation for the world, let alone political progress for the nation — both of which just now are offering themselves to the public with tactics that resemble fast food marketing. That is, it has all gotten simply too superficial.
Sloganeering has always been a useful tool to help people embrace something complex, including a political movement or a religion. The word slogan derives from the Scottish Gaelic slough-ghairm, which means “battle cry,” and it’s understandable if some simplification is needed to draw people to a tough battle for one cause or another — like, “No taxation without representation” in the American revolution, or “Remember the Alamo” in the Texas fight for independence from Mexico.2
But many of us have gotten wedded to this sort of reductionism — eager to embrace clever words and impatient with anything that might stretch our understanding by requiring deeper thought. Even as the challenges of our society in the digital age have grown more complex than they were in our industrial or agrarian past, we’ve become less tolerant of the need to dig into those complexities. We seem not to have the time or energy for it, while we’re eager to lap up the simple syrup of a marketable phrase. And why is that?
Part of the cause is surely our shorter attention span, which many studies have documented, likely a result of the technology that now brings us the information that we used to get by reading. Microsoft reported a few years ago that its research using electroencephalograms (EEGs) found that since the year 2000 — more or less the base for the mobile revolution — the average attention span of Americans has dropped by one-third, from 12 seconds to eight seconds. Exactly what that means isn't clear, but the study also noted that goldfish are supposed to have a nine-second attention span.3
Shocking as it is to have a shorter attention span than a goldfish, if that’s so, there’s also good news, perhaps, in that same research: It showed that we’ve meanwhile gotten better at multi-tasking — including listening to one thing and watching another. That’s why the words at the bottom of a TV screen are so important. They’re called chyrons; like zipper, the word was originally a brand name that now has become generic. Those chyrons are a shorthand way of explaining on screen what a TV personality is telling you, in case tracking the language is too exhausting.
To be effective, the number of words in a chyron or a slogan must be short, we are told, which is true whether you want people to buy a product, a candidate or a religious belief. Some experts say a good slogan is no more than 4.9 words, which means “Make America Great Again” is about right. It’s right up there with “Like a good neighbor” (State Farm is there) or “You’re in good hands” (with Allstate).4 The slogan of the 2016 Trump campaign also has the advantage of being unspecific: Who doesn’t want greatness, however you might define it?
And the fact that we don’t know what “great” means in this instance no longer matters. The Republican party specifically decided not to have a platform in 2020 — whatever Donald Trump said was good enough for everybody else, party leaders said — so the actual goals of the government that would have followed Trump’s re-election weren’t clear, as long as people felt that Trump was on their side. As Nicola Machiavelli noted, “It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is necessary to appear to have them.”
What has happened to our discourse, according to Georgia Tech communication professor Jay David Bolter, is in no small part an outgrowth of social media, which has quickly and broadly changed the way we absorb information. Bolter has researched the “flow” of content on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, platforms that use associative linking to keep us moving from one post to another and then another. His conclusion: We have become obsessed with accessing more information that rolls our way rather than more deeply understanding what we have just read. This is quite unlike the pattern of reading that used to be the way people absorbed content. Since about 70 percent of Americans get at least some of their news from social media, we are vulnerable to a cascade of superficial information, rather than insight into what’s real.
“Applied to politics, flow buries discussion about civic action under endless streams of text, images, and videos,” Bolter has written, noting that “the phenomenon might already have refashioned political discourse and permanently changed the institutions that depend on reasoned debate.”5
It doesn’t matter so much if pizza marketing is superficial. My favorite joint, I have learned, uses fresh organic ingredients, and adds high-quality Pecorino Romano cheese to about everything, though even if I didn’t know that, I would go there because the pizza is mighty good -- and, incidentally, they don't use those cheesy signs. But there’s something unsettling about firms that tout themselves as marketers for churches by offering pastors such advice as, “Double down on holidays,” and, “Write an amazing Unique Selling Proposition” for the church, along with offering Jesus-themed refrigerator magnets, sticky notes and pens.6
And it’s likewise true that the biggest challenges facing our political system — including economic inequities, environmental risks, and security threats — deserve more careful review by citizens than what we can learn from a four-word slogan or a bunch of 280-word tweets. This does, in fact, affect the trust we are asked to place in our government and our political system. How can citizens trust policies based on clever wordsmithing rather than thoughtful analysis?
Democracy’s success hinges on the rational choices of an informed electorate. If we let ourselves be distracted by superficial marketing – by political slogans no more intellectually nutritious than tomato sauce and cheese on a pie of hot dough — then those essential choices will be skewed. We’re vulnerable, it seems, to the most clever manipulators of our emotions, whether what’s for sale is a boxed pizza or a church service or a candidate eager for our allegiance. Beware the gimmickry.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Stockton, Cal. (The Record, recordnet.com)
Savannah, Ga. (Savannah Morning News, savannahnowcom)
Tama, Iowa (Ames Tribune, amestrib.com)
Quincy, Mass. (The Patriot Ledger, patriotledger.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Funding assured for crisis intervention
Drawing on federal funds allocated to help communities recover from the Covid crisis, the city of Stockton in California’s Central Valley will set up a crisis intervention program to respond to non-violent and low-level 911 calls. According to reporting of Hannah Workman in The Record, the pilot program will allow dispatchers to send trained intervenors rather than firefighters or police when they are responding to behavioral health incidents. "In hostage and barricade situations, historically we're used to having the loudspeakers of officers shouting for the person to come out the house,” the Stockton police chief said. “Well, now we have a commission that can mitigate the situation, that has that skillset at the scene."
Careful what you fish out of that river
There’s a hobby, apparently, called magnet fishing — a sort of a cross between metal detecting and angling — but it clearly isn’t as wholesome as casting flies for trout. And it has drawn some stiff fines for three men in Georgia. According to a report in Savannah Morning News by Abraham Kenmore, the men were shooting video for a magnet fishing YouTube channel when they dragged up some rockets and ammunition near Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield — “potentially explosive finds,” the report dryly notes. While the men reported what they had snagged to law enforcement, it didn’t stop them from being charged for fishing without a permit — and being fined $340. Among the items fished out of the water was apparently an airline bag full of the 35 mm rockets, which appear to be training materials for antitank weapons, and 50 mm ammunition. How the live ammunition found its way into the river is unclear.
Dual language road signs installed in eight states
Iowa’s only significant remaining indigenous community is Meskwaki Settlement, not far from the little city of Tama, on the historic Lincoln Highway (which was the nation’s first cross-country road for automobiles). The Iowa Department of Transportation has now erected a sign in two languages — English, reading “Meskwaki Settlement,” and in Meskwaki, "Meskwakiinaki," which means “The Land of the Meskwaki.” It’s an effort to save the native language and to let travelers know of the heritage. As Virginia Barreda of The Des Moines Register reports, the Meskwaki were forced to leave the state in the 1840s but bought back 80 acres of Iowa land in July 1857. Today, the tribe has more than 1,450 enrolled members and owns more than 8,000 acres.
Beach water quality postings are almost always wrong
At every state-run beach in the Boston area, a water sample is taken daily, which is then transported to a state lab, dropped into a Petri dish, and examined 24 hours later for bacteria. Reporter Mary Whitfill explained to readers of The Patriot Ledger that if there’s high bacteria count in the lab, a red flag and sign are posted on the lifeguard stand at the beach warning against swimming. But independent researchers have found that the water quality has almost always improved by the time the warning is issued — so that, for example, at Wollaston Beach, the largest in the Boston area, the water quality warnings were wrong 87 percent of the time in 2020, and 64 percent of the time last year. “It appears as if you would be better off flipping a coin than believing a red flag on our ocean beaches,” said one independent monitor.
Feeling the tragedy of violence
As a young reporter, I learned that some stories would seem to rewrite themselves over and over. At a crime scene, for example, I found that somebody who lived nearby invariably would express shock that such a tragedy had struck their very ordinary neighborhood or their peaceful lives. A journalist must listen closely in those moments if the goal is an empathetic report, so that the protection of emotional distance that we gain by repetition won’t diminish our telling of the tragedy’s effect on those who are more closely touched.
The horrific attack Friday on the brilliant author Salman Russia as he sat before a live audience in western New York struck me harder than many of the countless acts of violence that appear in media accounts every day. That’s because I know the place where the tragedy occurred, and it is hard to fathom a more peaceful community, or one where I might have imagined such an attack as less likely to occur. The Chautauqua Institution is a community that seems to have emerged from the set of The Music Man, except that it’s real — a place where families return year after year during summer months for educational, artistic and inspirational programs. There are no motorized vehicles on the streets, except when people are moving in and out. The 400 year-around residents of the quaint Victorian homes are joined by perhaps 7,500 visitors each day in the warm season — people who come for lectures, classes, concerts and convocations, as well as swimming and boating and bicycling. It has seemed to be a place of unquestioned good will.
Twice our family has spent time at Chautauqua during my wife’s appointment as an author in residence there, and we have always imagined returning to the charmed place. That it could be a scene of violence against one of the world’s leading advocates of free speech, probably because of that brave advocacy, is almost unimaginable. The trauma of the attack was most especially visited on Rushdie, of course — as this is written, his survival is not assured — but it also will affect everybody who witnessed it, not least because it is so unexpected in an idyllic place dedicated to cultural and educational advancement. And it also powerfully affects so many of us who care about Rushdie or Chautauqua.
It reminds us of how fragile, indeed, is the comfort of our lives, and how fortunate we are when we are able to enjoy peace. Moreover, it’s an occasion to renew our commitment to fighting violence in places where it is more commonplace, whether that be poverty-stricken neighborhoods in our cities or urban battlegrounds halfway around the world where peace has been upended by politics. Pray for hope, and work for peace.
Thanks for sharing your time with The UPSTATE AMERICAN, and for joining me on our *common ground, this great country.