Super Bowl Sunday is not just the day when the champion of the National Football League is decided. It’s also the biggest day of the advertising year. Many people enjoy the commercials every bit as much, if not more, than the game itself. This year, as is true every year, many memorable commercials attracted attention. Some were funny, others provocative, and others were just odd. One that drew my attention was the Ram Truck commercial, featuring a lengthy recorded quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. regarding servanthood and greatness. There were other commercials that were “cause” related (T-mobile’s “equal pay” themed commercial and Kraft’s “family” commercial come to mind) beyond this one example. What interested me most about these commercials is that the product itself (Trucks, Mobile Phones, Kraft foods) were not the focus of the ads. Nothing about the ads touted the features, superiority or reasons for buying the products in question. My first thought was, “what are these ads selling”? But I immediately knew the answer to my question as soon as I asked it. What were the ads selling? Righteousness.
All advertising contains a moral element. What is the implicit message of all advertising? Buy fill-in-the-blank product or service and your life will be better. You will be prettier, healthier, happier, thinner, stronger, smarter and the list goes on. But the ads that aired on Super Bowl Sunday that are referenced above signal a shift in some ways. The ad makers of these particular ads moved the emphasis from a product or service being the source of the betterment of life to these products or services being in alignment with what is considered right. The claim now isn’t that this product or service will make you better. It’s that the company in question is worthy of your dollars and support because they are on the right side of things. Buy from us and you are on the right side as well. It’s righteousness as a consumer product. But why the shift? Why did these ad makers (who generally are among the most savvy observers of what resonates with a moment in time in our culture) think that this kind of messaging would be effective? I think it’s because our culture has shifted in the way it thinks about what it means to be righteous.
Righteousness in American culture today has less to do with actions than at any point in my lifetime. Righteousness is about what side you are on. It’s about what viewpoints you hold in the public sphere. And it’s not just about what those viewpoints are – it’s that they are seen to be held in a public way. One of the most clear indicators of this can be seen in the observation of social media behavior. Much of the content on any social media feed consists of viewpoints. It’s a shared link, it’s a comment about a current topic or a rant about the latest outrage in the political world. People create, over time, a clear identity or image of who they are and what they think on whatever social media platform they frequent. For some, it’s an image of “look at how great my life is” complete with the latest pictures of fun times on vacation, family or cool events. For others, it’s an image of humor with the latest funny dog video or clever meme. For many others it’s an image of the passionate crusader for justice or righter of wrongs through sharing of provocative articles or responding to the daily news cycle. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this kind of content sharing or creation. But when I see an ad on Super Bowl Sunday that is explicitly selling righteousness as a consumer good it gives me pause. What does that tell us about ourselves?
One of the many provocative themes in the teachings of Jesus can be found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. The first verse reads as follows:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (ESV)
The next few paragraphs of the chapter apply this to prayer, almsgiving and fasting. I wonder if it could be applied just as easily to social media behavior. Are we fostering an atmosphere not only in our culture, but in our churches and in our own lives, where we are substituting “correct opinions shared publicly” with hearts and lives that are surrendered to Christ in a way that is content to love and serve others even if no one else ever sees or notices? Have we blurred the lines between who we are on a public social media platform and who we are at home with the people who know us the best, when we are alone or when we are with people who have no incentive or clear path to make our lives any better or easier?
There really isn’t a way to live your life in a completely private fashion. Some of who we are will always be public for the world around us to see. We all have a circle of relationships where we exert influence one way or another. No person is an island. But we are influenced by the culture around us as well and there is a spirit to the age we live in, just as there is in every time and every place. I wonder if one of the most counter-cultural things that we can do is to take Matthew 6:1 seriously. I wonder if spending less time making sure that everyone out there knows that we are on the “right side” and more time loving and serving those in our circle of influence would produce a righteousness, not that the whole world knows about, but that the whole world can see. It’s easy to rail against the culture around us and take stands to try and change the world. But more often than not, the culture around us is also telling us some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the change that we might want in the world around us begins with change in the world within us and goes out from there.
The righteousness that Jesus offers isn’t something that we can buy or something that we can produce by cultivated image. But thankfully, it is something that we can receive and hopefully shine so that others might glorify our Father who is in heaven.