What Jesus can teach ad makers

One daily habit I picked up as a marooned senior during this pandemic is tuning in to online masses early in the morning before breakfast. While listening to some of the parables of Jesus during the Gospel part, I’ve come to realize they are really a form of advertising, conceptualized in a way that appealed to people of that time.

Parables were His way of conveying His succinct messages. The technique was traditional and familiar to all throughout the region during His time. At its simplest the parable is a metaphor drawn from nature or common life, captivating the hearer by its vividness and as one theologian describes it, “leaving enough room in the mind about the precise application to tease it into active thought.” That’s what an effective ad does, to tease and provoke the target consumer to action whether to try a product or to change his mind.

From the perspective of a retired advertising copywriter like me, Jesus was a consummate wordsmith and persuasive adman who knew how to hold an audience. I would not even go into His striking way of making memorable slogans (“Blessed are the peacemakers…”) or his way of capping His messages with a call to action (“Repent” or “Sin no more” or “Go now your faith has made thee whole” or simply “Take up your cross and come follow me.”

In His parables, which are the ancient equivalent of our public service messages today, he used the conceptual techniques of combination, analogy, contrast and comparison as well as appropriation or adaptation very astutely.

He also employed the conceptual technique of what I call “inherent drama” by which He took what is old and giving them new life in the listener’s imagination. He often appropriated excerpts from the scriptures, and mixed familiar experience and metaphors and images that people of His time could relate to and reinterpreted them.

He used things from His surroundings for His analogy technique. Vineyards, mustard seeds, weeds, yeast, pearls, oil lamps, wineskins, sheep, silver coins and other images—these were commonplace and well-known to the farmers, sowers, vineyard tillers, shepherds and fishermen who flocked to Him. Using these familiar images, Jesus was able to describe abstract ideas like kingdom of heaven in concrete terms they could understand and grasp.

Jesus’ parables do not indulge in the fanciful or the fantastic, but remain true-to-life. They are words made flesh, words that breathe, visually vivid and almost tactile.

In contrast John the Evangelist used another conceptual technique in Revelations: images that are surreal, weird and even terrifying designed to shock or jar you from your complacency or sense of comfort. The same technique employed by many ad makers and content makers of today to enthrall viewers.

His use of what is familiar and making them seem new is a good lesson for local ad makers and content makers. Our creative thinkers should cease being copycats and stop being awed and influenced too easily by foreign materials.

Instead, they need to mine from what is given in our culture as winning conceptual vessels to convey messages if we want to hook our Filipino audience.

There are images and feelings that are native and indigenous to us that can be evoked much more powerfully than foreign concepts, which can cast a more intensely enchanting spell on local consumers.

All we need is to dig into the matrix of our myths and folktales, go back to the original womb of our shared narratives where we absorbed our myths, legends and folk tales, the wellspring of our indigenous culture as well as beliefs and values that have shaped us and continue to mold us.

We have our treasure chest of bugtong, salawikain, idiomatic expressions, etymologies of our languages. Then there’s also our deep well of superstitious beliefs, and our native valhalla of folk heroes and gods. Why not appropriate from our local pop culture such as songs and street lingo? The closer the concept is to the native’s collective mind and experience, the more it easily endears the product to the consumer’s heart.

F. Sionil Jose, National Artist in Literature, once said: “What is important for our artists is to draw from indigenous sources to give our art a Filipino character, whether it be music, literature, the stage. When you do that, your art has a nationality. Makikilala kaagad.“ Probably what he also meant to say is that pasok agad sa kamalayan ng Pinoy.

But going back to parables, I like them better when heard than read. That’s probably why they were meant to be conveyed to people immersed in an oral culture. Jesus had no audio-visual means such as radio and TV and Internet to convey His short advertising to His ever-growing followers. Would Jesus have made better impact if He arrived at a later time? As a line from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar puts it: “Why’d you choose such a backward time in such a strange land? If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation.”

Hearing the words of the parables leaves them to resonate in our mind and enables the imagination to stir our senses. This of course requires not just casual hearing but being fully absorbed and captivated through mindful listening. As we focus on the words, images start to form from the well of memory and experience and through the power of imagination, they become virtually three-dimensional.

It is like listening the way a child does when a father or mother reads a story about dragons and fairies and forests before bedtime. Or our grandfolks with their tales of Bernardo Carpio, Maria Makiling, Juan Tamad, diwatas and nuno sa punso, tikbalang and other characters from our myths and legends. The child is completely focused and absorbed as the images play out in his mind.

This brings me to something I read that says that the best communication is bringing it before the senses, hence prae sensae, meaning right in front of the senses as in up close.

So to the young makers of ads and viral videos, during this Lenten season, read the parables aloud and learn from a man who delivered ads of good tidings from the top of a wooden stool or box, in a village synagogue, on a prow of a boat or on a hill. He may have chosen a backward time but nevertheless He was so effective that His short “public service messages” are still frequently quoted and made into viral memes more than 2,000 years after they were first delivered.

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