Youth Culture Window

What I Learned From Watching Commercials

WARNING: Youth workers who have recently added TiVo capabilities to their 84″ HD plasma screen television to avoid pesky commercials run two significant risks: one, you will now be the official host site for all Super Bowl outreach parties, and two, you just might be skipping over an important lesson that could change the way you share the Gospel.

For you other poor schlubs that are forced to wait through the advertisements, you’ve no doubt seen the “truth” commercials starring the tall guy with the insanely large glasses that sticks it to Big Tobacco. His name is Derrick and he is willing to go to any length to accomplish his mission of reducing the number of teenage smokers by exposing the tobacco company’s poisonous product and potentially questionable marketing tactics.

Believing that tobacco companies have ruthlessly targeted children in the past, Derrick dressed up as a life-sized puppet to expose children’s vulnerability to any message from cartoon-like characters. To illustrate the potential dangers of tobacco use, he drew chalk outlines on the streets of New York, and stacked 1,200 body bags on sidewalks, representing the 1,200 people that die every day in tobacco-related deaths. He comically combated the tobacco company’s promotion of “low tar” and “low nicotine” cigarettes, by shopping for “low-death bullets.” Truth’s tactics are poignant to say the least.

Truth’s message is unique for two reasons. First, they craft some of the most creative commercials seen on television today. Secondly, they never tell teenagers what to do. NYC writer April Daley notes, “They don’t tell teens to stop smoking. They just give the facts and trust teens to take away their own message. They’re just ‘truth.'”

You’re probably wondering if these off-the-wall ads actually work.

In short, yes!

Research from 2000-2002 published by The American Journal of Public Health claims, “there were approximately 300,000 fewer youth smokers as a result of the ‘truth’ campaigns.”

So what does this have to do with youth workers’ task of sharing the Gospel? Maybe we can follow their example of successful advertising and improve the way we share our message.

  • Know your audience. Truth knows Gen Y’s attention span is very short, so they restrict their ads to a mere 30 seconds. They also know where Gen Y hangs out. Truth’s presence is routinely felt at concerts, in online social networks, and on youth-centered TV shows. Where is your audience and what is the best way to reach them?
  • Speak in pictures, not words, as often as you can. Truth’s message is “innovative and dramatic.” Chalk outlines, bullets, and body bags paint an unmistakable image in the minds of anyone who sees their ads. Is there a way you can introduce, or substitute, images into your message/talk/sermon or whatever you choose to call the typical word-based communication of youth ministry today to paint a better picture?
  • Allow the truth to speak the loudest. Truth’s leading tactic is simple: present the facts (truth) with laser-like precision so that teenagers avoid smoking. The fact (truth) is not just the loudest voice in their message; it is the only voice in their message. Given that our truth sometimes requires explanation, how can you keep Christ’s message of life transformation simple?

Are teenagers hearing your message?

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David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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