tebow, barna, and culture [an interview with sam van eman]

Written by Dan King

Christ-follower. husband. father. author of the unlikely missionary: from pew-warmer to poverty-fighter. co-author of activist faith: from him and for him. director of family ministry at st. edward's episcopal church. president of fistbump media, llc.

February 24, 2010

The editorial team for HighCallingBlogs.com is really a pretty amazing group of people. I feel quite honored to be able to serve with this group as the Social Media Editor. I believe strongly in our mission to glorify God through the high calling of our daily work.

Another person I know that believes in that mission is Sam Van Eman. Sam is the Culture Editor for the network. In addition to that he is the Staff Resource Specialist for Coalition for Christian Outreach, and he blogs at A New Breed of Advertisers.

Recently I had the chance to chat with Sam about his role with the network, and to get his thoughts on some recent advertising and related research.

Dan: Sam, dude, tell my readers a little bit about who you are, what you do for HighCallingBlogs.com, and what your blog New Breed of Advertisers is all about.

Sam: Thanks for asking, Dan. I’m a father (just finished a game of Dutch Blitz in which I got crushed by my eight-year-old daughter) and a husband (enjoyed Pad Thai and spring rolls with Julie on a little I-was-out-of-town-for-four-days-and-left-you-home-with-the-kids date). I also think of myself as a teacher.

Writing is a way for me to teach, and at HighCallingBlogs.com that means writing about culture on Fridays and finding other writers to help me do the same.

My blog? Inviting marketers to become good neighbors to the consumer next door.

Dan: So you are a self-proclaimed critic and fan of advertising. How do you connect your faith to your interest in marketing and advertising?

Sam: As a critic, my faith says, “Taking advantage of a car driver’s insecurities may be funny but it isn’t any more than middle school bullying. Christ calls us to care for the disadvantaged and hurting, not run over them.”

As a fan, I’m fascinated by displays of creativity and technology and speaking clearly to a target audience. Add honor and dignity to those displays and I’ll sit up and pay attention to a vacuum ad.

Dan: You actually wrote a book on this theme…  On Earth as It is in Advertising?: Moving from Commercial Hype to Gospel Hope. What can you tell me about the book and the message that you try to send through it.

Sam: On Earth is mostly a critique. It describes how advertising often employs the “SimGospel” by simulating elements of the biblical narrative for the purpose of selling products and ideas. Essentially this means the SimGospel uses the only stuff anyone really wants: love, belonging, efficacy, tranquility – the stuff of heaven, if you will. Which is brilliantly devious for advertisers and oddly complimenting to the Gospel.

Most folks know the basic problems with pop culture advertising, so I thought it would be good to provide a deeper analysis for readers who care about the nuances.

Dan: Recently during the Super Bowl, there was an add that was a bit controversial. It was the Tim Tebow Focus on the Family ad. I’m sharing it here, but what are your initial thoughts on the ad?

[youtube 6BIOTItUwvk nolink]

Sam: I remember watching for it and then waiting for something significant to happen during it. But “nothing” happened except the airing of a decent and respectable TV commercial.

Dan: The Barna Group just released a study that they did on the effectiveness of the ad. In their analysis they mentioned that, “the ad shows the power of mainstream celebrities, like Tim Tebow, to garner attention and the related challenge for evangelical groups to get on people’s radar.” Is that a statement that you agree with? Why or why not?

Sam: Tim seems like an unusual case. In the football world, he’s enormous and he proclaims his faith in the same way. Few could garner the same attention and even fewer with this level of controversy. Having said that, plenty of Christian athletes could address this challenge but how many organizations have $3 million to shell out, or see the value in 30 seconds even if they did have the money?

Dan: The Barna analysis also pointed stated, “Faith and values intersected mainstream culture in a significant new way.” What do you think about that? Do you think that the ad had a significant impact, and what should other faith-based advertisers (and the church) learn from this ad campaign?

Sam: I should have asked David Kinnaman why he said this when I talked with him at the CCO’s Jubilee Conference last weekend! That would have been helpful, eh?

I don’t think this ad placement was terribly significant. Faith wasn’t discussed and even though a faith-based organization stood behind it, not many viewers made the connection between Tebow and Focus, as the study showed. On the other hand, college commentators always talked about Tebow’s faith during games.

And regarding values, we see PSAs frequently. Perhaps it’s more significant that so much buzz came from this particular spot.

Hmm, now I’m wondering if the same buzz would have occurred if Focus had paid for a spot on something less controversial. Like Stouffer’s, for example. Stouffer’s is doing a campaign called Let’s Fix Dinner [http://www.letsfixdinner.com/] and I think it’s great. Nobody would have cared if Focus were making ads about the healing value of eating lasagna together and yet it would have fit well with their ministry.

So (now that this answer has gone on way too long) perhaps all the buzz was really about the use of TV space as a discussion board for ethics. I’ll be interested to see what happens in 2011. Will others follow suit? The answer to that may end up being the real measure of significance.

Dan: What can people look forward to from you on HighCallingBlogs.com?

Sam: Life-changing experiences. Ha! Okay, how about cultural observations. My mom didn’t trust me to buy the right jelly, and for good reason, but folks have said I have a way of making observations. So that’s what I’ll bring to the table. Some bring organization; others, stamina, or conviction, or grace. As the culture editor for HCB, I’ll bring connections and try to share them as well as I can, either directly or through the writers I pick.

Dan: Thanks Sam! I look forward to following along more with what you do!

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tebow, barna, and culture [an interview with sam van eman]

by Dan King time to read: 5 min