Monday, December 01, 2014

A Force for Good

Student assembly address:

Good morning! I was passing by Opry Mills  Mall on Black Friday on my way to the airport to drop off my daughter and son in law. Were any of you there? All I could tell from Briley Parkway as I drove by was that the parking lot was jammed with cars, and there was a line of cars on Briley about a half a mile long just to get off the Opry Mills exit. 

Retail businesses do about three trillion dollars in sales during the build-up to Christmas, or about 20% of their annual business. Black Friday is the biggest retail day of the year, followed closely by "Super-Saturday," which is the last Saturday before Christmas--this year, on December 20. All this also means that we're also deluged with advertisements clamoring noisily for our attention.

Some of the very best minds in business work in advertising. It's no easy task to create witty, 30 second ads that stand out from among all the other ads. People with a talent for it are well paid, and should be--good commercials influence us to buy the product that they're selling, so much so that thirty-six companies spent over one billion dollars in advertising last year. (Trivia: Which company spent the most, at 4.9 billion dollars? Procter and Gamble--think Tide detergent, Crest toothpaste, Charmin bathroom tissues, Gillette razors, Head and Shoulders, etc.)

One of the interesting questions about advertising is: what are they selling? I don't mean the products they ultimately want you to buy, but how they're trying to connect with you--what their underlying message is. Consider this recent Cadillac commercial:

This commercial is very good--it's funny, it features a goofy fella whose name is Steve Merchant, a British comedian and writer--and it's memorable. If you've seen it, you remember it. But underneath the humor, what is the appeal? If you drive this Cadillac, you'll turn heads. Pretty women will notice you. Men will be jealous of you. It's an appeal to our vanity, really. People will know you're a success if you drive this Cadillac. They'll envy you. Be a person who is envied by others.

That's a pretty consistent advertising technique, especially for luxury items: to appeal to our vanity. But there's another kind of commercial, much rarer, that appeals to the opposite side of our character, to our better instincts. Consider this recent Navy recruiting commercial:

What is the appeal of this commercial? Aside from its high production value, it appeals to a noble desire within each of us to make a difference with our lives, to do something of value, to serve others. All of us, I think, want to be challenged and want to be proud of ourselves. It's why we respect coaches who push us, or teachers who are hard on us. 

Instead we live in a coddled culture, with low expectations, where everyone gets a trophy. When my son was ten years old, he had about 20 trophies from football, basketball and baseball on top of his dresser. One day, I noticed he had arranged them, with half sitting prominently on his dresser and the other half on some back shelves. I asked him why he had arranged them like that. "The trophies in the back are participation trophies,"  he said. "They don't mean anything. The trophies in the front are for making all-stars, or for winning something."  If it's easy, it doesn't mean as much.

The armed services commercials appeal to our deep desire to challenge ourselves and to do something noble with our lives: "The Few. The Proud. The Marines." or "Army Strong" or "Aim High. The U.S. Air Force." They are extraordinarily successful, too--all four branches of the armed services met or exceeded their recruiting goals this last year.

I think we can learn from their success. If we commit to serving others, if we act not out of vanity but out of altruism and concern for others, our lives will resonate with other people, and we will not only feel better about ourselves, but others will want to be around us.  Want to impress a girl or a guy? Don't appeal to his or her vanity; instead, appeal to what's good, deep down inside him or her, deep inside all of us. Suggest you do Christian Internship hours together, or visit an elderly home at Christmas, or do something for someone else. The measure of a good relationship is: Are we better people because of our association with that person? Do we draw out someone else's best instincts to serve others? 

We began the Advent season yesterday. In preparation for Christ's coming, let's recognize the best way to welcome Christ is to be--perhaps not a global force--but a local force for good in the lives of all those we meet.

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