Ads as Soulcatchers

Jason Torchinsky is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Jason has a book out now, Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is a tinkerer and artist and writes for the Onion News Network. He lives with a common-law wife, five animals, too many old cars, and a shed full of crap.

So my wife Sally saw this ad on her Facebook page:

Now, this is confusing for many reasons. Most obviously, why does that gothed-out hotula want me to advertise my church so badly? I swear, she's looking right at me. When you click the ad, you end up here, which is a part of Truth Advertising, a direct-mail marketing company that specializes in churches.

I'm sure the churches that use this have noble intentions, but there's just something profoundly creepy about it all. The strange meshing of religion and corporate-type business never sits well-- and this works both ways, both when religion is infused with corporate culture or when corporate culture becomes quasi-religious, like some of those Steven Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People weirdos I've met.

Plus, and I can't put my finger on exactly what it is, but there's some overdone quality about almost everything that tries to mesh religion and mainstream commercial culture that makes things look just a bit off. Maybe it's too many Photoshop filters. I bet, given a lineup of these ads with their copy blocked out, you could pick out the ones for a church and the ones for a godless business.

Maybe I'll try praying at a Staples for a while and see how it goes.


  1. “Plus, and I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is, but there’s some overdone quality about almost everything that tries to mesh religion and mainstream commercial culture that makes things look just a bit off.”

    For another example, consider “Christian rock”.

  2. My impression is that the history of western Christianity, so, mostly thinking about the Catholic church, is that it is fairly similar to a corporation, most likely because there are certain structures, forms, and hierarchies that help people organize large sociological and physical entities, like both corporations and religions. But yeah I hate FB ads, they are so weird, and I tell them over and over I hate teeth whitening but they keep putting up ads for it on the pages I view, so they don’t really care about your feedback. And everything is “secrets you need to know!”, it’s just so terribly and clearly manipulative, and by people who don’t usually make up ad copy since professionals aren’t that obvious about it.

  3. For what it’s worth, small churches are having a tougher and tougher time these days keeping their parishioners (the ‘megachurches’ see the majority of growth) and looking into marketing is a genuine consideration simply to keep going.

    Thankfully, most good churches do have their heads screwed on straight: They look to up their community engagement, do more visible community work and charity, etc. Which is what the church I used to belong to did. (I converted atheist, but still have a fondness for my old church.) Although we had one guy who, sadly, felt the right thing to do was start fire and brimstone preaching at the local supermarket.

    “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” — St. Francis of Assisi.

  4. In Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis describes magazine articles (and maybe seminar courses?) that treat running a congregation as a business. Lewis based his books on things he encountered while exploring the subculture in question, so it’s quite likely that this soul saving for big $$$ has been around for a while.

  5. It’s fetish, that’s what you can’t put your finger on. The sublime object of fetishistic desire. It’s what passes for religion these days.

  6. The church most certainly epitomizes corporate hierarchy and society as it is the template upon which modern corporations run

  7. Unfortunately, a lot of mega-churches really are run like businesses. (One of the reasons I don’t belong to one!) Most people don’t know any other way to run such an organization.

    That said, even my church (suburban, lower middle class, attendance somewhere around 500) will hire for design work, mainly for our church website or for event flyers. People do judge by appearances, and sometimes that design is all people will know about us until they come for a visit.

    Regardless, the best advertisement is still charity work.

  8. #8: “Regardless, the best advertisement is still charity work.”

    There’s a new-wavey church down the road, housed in an old microchip factory. I walk my dog through their parking lot most mornings, so I get a good idea of what they’re up to. Last winter, they ran a warming shelter for people living in their cars or whose furnaces broke. They have services for ex-cons and sex offenders. A clothing closet. A food pantry.

    I’m not a member, or even religious, but I’ve dropped off $200 worth of canned / boxed food over the last few months.

  9. This is nothing new. Years ago I used to flip through my church library’s copy of Leadership Journal, a magazine for church pastors and administrators. It was full of articles on how to advertise and how to put on a good show. It still is. It’s a product, there’s a market, and fierce competition.

  10. “I’m sure the churches that use this have noble intentions”

    They might think they do…

  11. While not wishing to shift focus from the meme/religion/marketing thread – am I the only person who doesn’t know the term “hotula”? I can’t find it in a quick search, but this is a great term and deserves more use. Can I apply it to Edward Cullen and his voluminous eyebrows?

  12. But yeah I hate FB ads, they are so weird, and I tell them over and over….

    If you hate ads then I have to recommend (the admittedly not controversy free) adblock plus.

    Doesn’t seem to block all FB text ads, but I have never seen a picture based one on my comp.

  13. I’m sure the churches that use this have noble intentions, but there’s just something profoundly creepy about it all.

    (and ref. #12 above)

    No. Churches do not have good intentions. And yes, there is something profoundly creepy about all of them. It’s all about power over people, squeezing money and obedience out of them. They’re just political parties with a slightly different coat of paint.

  14. “Plus, and I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is, but there’s some overdone quality about almost everything that tries to mesh religion and mainstream commercial culture that makes things look just a bit off.”

    It’s simply because religion is obsolete in the modern world.

    1. It’s simply because religion is obsolete in the modern world.

      And yet, religious people outnumber atheists by about 99 to 1. I’m not seeing the obsolescence.

  15. Antinous: have you seen the atheists? They’ve got silver jumpsuits and rocket boots, man! Rocket boots!

  16. @18 [citation needed].

    First figure I found on google suggests an 84:16 split, so more like 6:1.

  17. From the above linked, churchdirectmail website:

    “The wickedest of all sins is to run an advertisement without a headline.”

    Wow… Really?… I would of thought it would be mass murder, child rape, something like that.


  18. The wickedest sin of all is to lose money. When you make a shit load of money is how you know that baby jebus loves you. People who run their church into debt make the baby jebus cry and are cursed by god.

  19. Pimp my Church 101? Cute, it somehow makes it even easier to look down on marketing and religion.

  20. Count me among those who don’t think corporatism and spirituality mix very well.

    Historically, the mixing of big business and big religion has brought out the very worst in people. So I am not big fan of it.

  21. Not that I disagree with any of the comments above about churches and advertising, but if this is a facebook ad it might not have been the church’s choice. Unless you specifically opt out, Facebook uses your pictures in ads on your friends’ pages. Or your friends’ pictures on ads on your page.

  22. If the MegaChurches are being run like a business, does this mean they’ll haveta start paying their fair share of property taxes on those pseudo-modernist MegaEyesore MegaBuildings?

    I know..I don’t work that way.

    It’s just nice to think about. I also fantasize going all “Jesus Vs Moneychangers” on the ATM in the lobby. WWJD?

  23. I’ve never attended one, but it seems to me that having a handful of mega-churches might be more financially efficient than having a whole lot of separate little churches. Consolidated overhead, greater purchasing power for better deals on things the church needs, etc. Seems like some of the concepts that have proven themselves in the retail world would apply to churches,too. And I can see the interest in wanting to make sure that your contributions to the church are as effective as possible.

    Big box retailers like Wal-Mart can buy and sell things a lot cheaper with higher profit margins than the little mom and pop stores. They have to sacrifice the specific niche product availability, individualized caring customer service, and expert staff in the process, but for some customer’s needs that’s okay. Some customers need more, but for some it’s fine. I’m thinking some of religion’s “customers” may be served just fine by the mega-churches the same way some customers are served just fine by the Wal-Mart approach.

    If you are just an average person who just feels better spiritually to attend a Sunday service and enjoys the fellowship of other believers and the opportunity to be involved in organized church activities, your dollar might go farther in a mega-church. If you’re in need of something more specific and intense, you might be better served by the less economically efficient church.

    It works that way not only in obviously for-profit business, but in a lot of charity situations. Giving a bum a dollar won’t feed as many people as giving that same dollar to the homeless shelter. If you have a specific connection to a specific small cause that bigger charities aren’t adressing, you might be happier spending it on the little specific charity. But if you just generally want to share with a good a cause, you can often do more good for the same money by giving to a bigger cause. If those concepts work a lot of the time for both profit and non-profit business it makes sense to me that they’d work for churches,too.

  24. And if these words you do not heed
    Your pocketbook just kinda might recede
    When some man comes along and
    Claims godly need
    He will clean you out right through your
    (That’s right, remember there is a big
    Difference between kneeling down
    And bending over…)
    He’s got twenty million dollars
    In his heavenly bank account…
    All from those chumps who was
    Born again
    Oh yeah, oh yeah
    He’s got seven limousines
    And a private plane…
    All for the use of his
    Special friends
    Oh yeah, oh yeah
    He’s got thousand-dollar suits
    And a wembley tie…
    Girls love to stroke it
    While he’s on the phone
    Oh yeah, oh yeah
    At the house of representatives
    He’s a groovy guy…
    When he gives thanks
    He is not alone…
    (He is dealin’
    He is really dealin’
    IRS can’t determine
    Where the hook is)
    (It is easy with the bible
    To pretend that
    You’re in show biz)
    They won’t get him
    (They will never get him
    For the naughty stuff
    That he did)
    (It is best in cases like this
    To pretend that
    You are stupid)
    He’s got presidential help
    All along the way
    He says the grace
    While the lawyers chew
    Oh yeah
    They sure do
    And the governors agree to say:
    “He’s a lovely man!”
    He makes it easier for
    Them to screw
    All of you…
    Yes, that’s true!
    ’cause he helps put the fear of god
    In the common man
    Snatchin’ up money
    Everywhere he can
    Oh yeah
    Oh yeah
    He’s got twenty million dollars
    In his heavenly bank account
    You ain’t got nothin’, people
    You ain’t got nothin’, people
    You ain’t got nothin’, people
    Thank the man…oh yeah

    -Frank Zappa

  25. My favorite example of Xtian marketing is Karen L. Green’s Stop! In the Name of Love, a self-published book with the obligatory cheesy overdone cover aesthetic, advocating sexual abstinence. The advocate is a very hot-looking young woman.

    The site also does something to get to the top of Google, ahead of the older legitimate site of my friend with the same name, an academic librarian who is of another race.

    I’m not linking to it to increase the Xtian author’s marketing; if you Google for yourself, you’ll see it.

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