DECEMBER 20, 2001
Saved by Zero?
-- Jon Pahl
Connections between religion and advertising are mutual and frequent in American public life. Yet the post-September television advertisements of two major automobile companies seem to have crossed a troubling threshold.
Like most people, I don't usually pay full attention to television advertisements. Toyota's recent campaign, however, caught my ear, and then my eye. The campaign plays both upon Toyota's logo, which resembles an oval or a zero, and the seemingly ubiquitous idea of zero-percent financing, offered (the small print explains) to "qualified buyers," of course. One night last week, as I lay in bed reading and waiting for the news to return, the campaign slogan -- taken from the chorus of an eighties-era pop song -- filled our room. "Saved by zero!" It was repeated so many times that I finally looked up, annoyed. "Saved by Zero!" "What?" I asked out loud, to the television as much as to my wife. "Saved by Zero?" But then the news was back with images from the war in Afghanistan, and I was drawn to the latest about the search for Osama bin Laden, so I forgot to answer my own question.
A few nights later, in the midst of Monday Night Football, Chrysler's ad triggered a similar question. "Drive = Love" asserted the graphic at the conclusion of an otherwise typical spot. "Drive = Love?" I again asked out loud. "What does that mean?" But then Dennis Miller was on with another rant, the Packers were on the move for a touchdown, and I lost my train of thought. It has since returned.
Why, at this time in history, has such loaded religious language surfaced in American advertising? What does it mean that we are offered to be "saved" and to receive "love" from automobile makers, for a minimum, of course, of $13,000? Maybe this is nothing new. A historian of advertising might explain that the word "save" is a staple of the industry. Its persuasive force derives from consumers' desires for bargains, real and imagined. These are only words.
But I'm a historian of religions who also dabbles in theology, and in the wake of the bombing of the World Trade Towers, this use of religious language to sell a wide range of products seems untrue to the depth of our religious traditions, even downright dangerous. As the language of salvation and love degrades, the possibilities of what people might do in the name of those symbols expands to include the ridiculously consumerist and the horribly violent.
Sociologists Max Weber and Robert Tawney understood long ago that just as Protestants created the capitalist spirit of acquisition to prove their status as children of grace, so would capitalism change the religions of its participants into individualist systems of eccentric signs. We have come to the point in this interchange of Protestant iconoclasm and the market that salvation can come from zero, and love from transportation.
Perhaps advertisers are doing their patriotic duty by linking the purchase of big-ticket items to love and salvation. I suppose that, in an economic sense, sectors of the American economy can benefit from the Islamic practice of interest-free lending, and I do understand the pleasure that can come from driving a fine car. More likely, though, advertisers are counting on more than the usual consumerist confusion. Their audience is an uncertain America, thinking, perhaps differently, about life, love, and value.
In this audience are many people of faith, to whom salvation and love ought to have meanings not tied to commodities or large moving machines. Though unnecessary for some, we ought to remind ourselves how important it is that salvation and love retain as primary their deeper, more gracious meanings. Those who thought they could be saved by destruction, and earn love by "driving" planes into buildings, showed us the potential danger of playing fast and loose with religious terms and concepts.
By the way, I bought a Honda.
-- Jon Pahl is Associate Professor of the History of Religions in the United States at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.