Surface messages, “greenwashing,” and the truth that lies beneath

There’s been an interesting discovery I’ve made by running in the circles I run in (so to speak) recently that underscores for me in a more philosophical way that things are not always the way they seem. In this case, I’m continuing the thought I started with my post on how pictures (which supposedly cannot lie because they’re taken of “reality”) can be manipulated to achieve a certain end (in that case with the intent being to show a “jubilant crowd” celebrating their “liberation” from the Saddam Hussein regime). With this post, I’d like to go deeper beyond the images themselves to the persons or corporations standing behind them seeking to use the images to portray a certain sense of who they are to the public.

Example A: There are two Dove commercials that have received huge airplay in the last year that seem to be a full-frontal attack on how advertisers manipulate images (whether pictures or video) of women to make them seem more “perfect” or “sexy,” which in turn makes young girls and women feel deeply inadequate about their bodies and destroys their self-esteem; not to mention lures men into false ideas of sexuality. Among other places, in the couple instances where I watched Oprah with my fiancee, the Dove commercials received a central place in the advertising in commercial breaks; with Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” tagged on at the end of the commercials. Here are the videos;

First one;

And another; called “Onslaught.”

Sounds good, right? Like how Dove really values young women and desperately wants them to know they matter? The Campaign for Real Beauty site has these cute stories from older women to aspiring young women as well as a “self-esteem zone” where girls can commiserate with one another and seek hopeful alternatives to our culture pushing twisted sexuality on them. And that’s good on a surface level.

A deeper look at the situation, though, reveals a different reality; one of projected image rather than authentic image. Dove is a subsidiary brand owned by a much larger conglomerate corporation that goes by the name Unilever. It just so happens that Unilever carries another brand in their personal care portfolio you may have heard of that goes by the name Axe (or Lynx for those in Ireland, Australia, or the UK). It also just so happens that the Axe brand promise is that it “gives guys the edge in the mating game.” Or, more specifically from their website, the “Axe effect” is “the internationally recognized name for the increased attention Axe-wearing males receive from eager, and attractive, female pursuers.” The different deodorant variants of Axe are marketed for different effects; Clix fragrance should be worn because “the mating game is all about amazing figures. Spray on, sit back, and count your clicks” (how many women you hook up with), and possible Touch users are encouraged to “use Touch under your arms and it’s only a matter of time before some sensitive, sexy ladies want to touch the rest of you.”

Combine these marketing slogans with television commercials like the following (which is incredibly tame compared to the rest of Axe’s marketing), and you start to see where I might be going here.

So Unilever is marketing one brand (Dove) as a way for women to recover “real” femininity and raise their self-esteem in the hopes that guys will recognize “real” beauty. And Unilever’s marketing another brand (Axe) with skinny, scantily-clad women swarming over fragrance-wearing men, encouraging men to mark their conquest of females with “clickers” to measure the numbers; in short, maintaining a message of sexuality completely the opposite of the one they supposedly profess with the Dove brand. Sound contradictory? Of course it is, but the average consumer doesn’t know it; especially when Oprah’s pushing Dove and the “Campaign for Real Beauty” has a slick website and a feel-good message.

This is a classic case of presenting images of products and preying on the desires and fears of various demographics in order to maximize sales. The contradictory message displays Unilever doesn’t give a rip about the self-esteem of women or the evolution of male sexuality and female sexual image in our culture; they’re latching onto both to make a little (or, more accurately, an obscene amount of) coin. This is related to the practice corporations are pursuing now that being more globally-conscious or “sustainable” or “green” is a social fad. This practice is called “greenwashing,” where the corporations don’t change their practices at all (or do in negligible amounts), but hire a PR firm to spin the company in such a way that it appears to care about sustainability; thereby capturing the wallets of those who seem to care about such things.

Unilever is engaging in a campaign of disinformation and manipulation of emotion and desire to sell a product. Not only is this misleading and hypocritical, it is deeply immoral. Clearly, Unilever is not the only corporation engaging in such practices, but this does not absolve them of responsibility. Just another reminder that what something appears to be on the surface is not always so in reality. Be aware that we are considered potential “giving units” with emotions to be preyed on to extract brand loyalty and desire fulfillment. Just a thought.


A Black Friday reflection…

cobalt Just a couple thoughts to offer today.  I’ve had a chance to think in the last year or so about this “freedom” Americans often claim our army is fighting for.  I hear it everywhere in our society as a phrase to clobber both naive pacifists and traitorous liberals with different ideas about how Iraq should have been handled.  As I’ve wrestled with what this is all about, I’ve done my best to keep my ears peeled eyes open for others working through this same issue.  I happened to come upon an interview online of one of my mentors-through-proxy (Internet and books substituting for face to face interaction) Stanley Hauerwas that shocked me. I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but as time has passed, it’s making more sense to me.  Check it out;

“In his reflections on Sept. 11, Hauerwas uses the term ‘American imperialism’ matter-of-factly. He’s not afraid to humanize those who flew jets into buildings on Sept. 11, and to point out what he calls ‘the loneliness of the American people,’ a loneliness he says is tied to their pursuit of happiness.’On Sept. 11, Americans were confronted by people ready to die as an expression of their profound moral commitments,  Hauerwas said in his Silk Hope talk earlier this year. ‘Their willingness to die stands in stark contrast to a politics that asks of its members in response to Sept. 11 to shop.’  

‘Americans are, for the most part, good, decent and hardworking people, but so were the people that supported the Nazis.’  Hauerwas said he worries about ‘how goodness can become deeply corrupted by its innocence….most of the time innocence is deeply immoral because it is such a lie not to acknowledge that we live in a very complex world that we benefit from, and we don’t have to acknowledge the havoc our benefits depend upon.’  

While those who loathe the United States are willing to die as an expression of their hatred, Hauerwas said U.S. citizens have no comparable moral conviction on which to base their lives.  “A people who have been bred to shop then can quickly become some of the most violent people in the world,” Hauerwas said, “exactly because they’re dying to have something worth dying for. 


Before you get too upset (like I initially did), read the quote five or six times, then take a couple hours (or months) the chew on it from time to time.  I’ve come to see it as deeply insightful over time.  The question he raises is relevant; what does “freedom” represent in America, and at what cost is that American freedom perpetuated?  

Example after example in the last few months has proven to me Stanley’s suggestion that “freedom” in our society directly translates to “shopping.”  If it does not, what is the comparable conviction Americans have to bring that they’re willing to fight for?  The right to vote?  Maybe so, but check out the percentages of folks that exercise that right when the time rolls around.  Right to freedom of religious expression?  How many American folks are really, I mean really, deeply invested with the whole of their lives in the religion (often Christian) they claim? Precious few.

So what IS the mark of American (and by extension, Western) society that takes up most of our attention, time, energy, thoughts and dreams?

I’d suggest it’s cash money, the jobs it takes to get more, the marketing that competes for us to exercise our right to buy their stuff, and the sheer amount of stuff we can buy with that cash.    

Our “holidays” of Christmas and Easter are perfect examples of this.  If those who claimed to be Christian truly deeply valued and respected the two most holy celebrations of their year, they would be up in arms about the mockery our secular society has turned them into. Heck, witches and black-magic practicioners should be pissed at how secularism has changed the height of their year (Halloween) into an avalanche of candy and cute little costumes.  In short, consumerism has taken every day holy and sacred to competing traditions, subverted them, and marketed them under completely different pretenses and seeking different ends.  So now we have Santa Claus (the original Saint Nicholas has to be rolling over in his grave), The Easter Bunny, Thanksgiving football and excess amounts of turkey and stuffing, and Valentine’s Day (a boon for the diamond and Hallmark card industries) as examples.  More examples exist, and they all reveal the central value our society upholds; money, what it takes to get it, and (for marketers) more and more innovative ways to convince consumers they need to spend it on YOUR product. 

Which brings us to Black Friday, the official holiday of the hallowed First Day of Christmas Shopping, the most profitable day of the year for businesses and the height of capitalism.  The day where we consumers camp out at our Best Buys and Kohls and JCPenneys and shopping malls so that at midnight or 4 am or 6 am (whoever opens first) we may spend our money on things we don’t need.  But we have the right to!  

Nobody tells me where I can or can’t spend my money, not no A-rabs or dem Chi-nese or nobody!  

And THIS, my friends, is why Stanley Hauerwas is so spot-on in his diagnosis of our society.  We have nothing to fight for in our society but a vague notion of freedom in need of definition.  And the definition has come to mean the right to shop.  We claim freedom of choice, yet our naivete about our individual capability to make good choices as if we weren’t slaves to marketers reveals not only that we aren’t free, but that we’re overconsumed and cynical and bored.  The system keeps us entertained but unfulfilled, and we are shocked by the possibility that someone would give up that right and fight to recover another vision of what life is to be about.  It’s a clashing of civilizations, the dominant one secular (NOT Christian) and competing visions daring to suggest their commitment is more life-giving and worthy of sacrifice. 

This is a series of unfinished and slightly incoherent thoughts, I’m sure, but Black Friday in all its glory shoved me back to the place inside me Hauerwas twisted into a mess with his comment.  I’d encourage you to wrestle with it.

 In closing, I’ll leave you with one of the most prophetic bands I know of around these days, “The Cobalt Season”, and some of the lyrics from their deeply honest lament/hopeful song “Like Jesus“;   


And friends, Romans, countrymen

Won’t you lend me your ears?

This Holy American Empire

Gotta tell you it’s crumblin’ down

To the ground


’Cause everything’s for granted

And nothing is for sure

So let’s grab a Starbucks baby

And let’s spend a little more


Forget about the dreams we had

Just work and sleep until we’re dead

Are we blind to what’s ahead?


Oh Lord, how long?


When memory’s for granted

Nothing is for sure

And history goes round and round

As we long for something more


We lie and wait for better days

With hope and fear and joy and dread

Or just ambivalence to what’s ahead?



Desperate message from an acculturated church…


The church might not know this is a desperate message because it seems like a fun little whimsical product, but it is; look at the picture, read Matthew 25:31-46, then read Revelation 20:11-15.

Now tell me if the picture is accurate, or even relevant to discipleship.

Now I’m gonna channel a little Schrute.
Fact: Family Christian Bookstore (the maker of the catalog I ripped the page out of), like most “Christian” bookstores, cares a heck of a lot less about equipping the church than making as much coin as possible.

Not that I wouldn’t buy it, you should too! Link to purchase here.

The Gospel according to Moneyball, or…A picture is worth how many words?

I was reading for a bit in the instant classic Moneyball (by Michael Lewis) this morning, and he made several observations I found immediately incisive and made my thoughts wander a bit. He’s talking about the game (and management) of baseball, but hopefully you’ll see where my thoughts went. Lewis is talking specifically of Oakland’s former assistant GM Paul DePodesta and his decision to enter the business of baseball rather than a more lucrative finance career;

“He was just the sort of person who might have made an easy fortune in finance, but the market for baseball players, in Paul’s view, was far more interesting than anything Wall Street offered. There was, for starters, the tendency of everyone who played the game to generalize wildly from his own experience. People always thought their own experience was typical when it wasn’t. There was also a tendency to be overly influenced by a guy’s most recent performance: (but) what he did last was not necessarily what he would do next. Thirdly- but not lastly- there was the bias toward what people saw with their own eyes, or thought they had seen. The human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw, and every trick it played was a financial opportunity for someone who saw through the illusion to the reality.”

This is just a wonderfully interesting quote by itself that could be spun off in a number of directions if one had the time and the energy to think/write about it, but in this post, I thought I’d explore the “thirdly” part of Lewis’ quote that included the suggestion that “the human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw.” Just to take you through the progression of thoughts in my mind, I immediately thought “Hmmm…” followed by a moment of the suggestion sinking in, followed by remembering a little of what Neil Postman had to bring to bear on the power of image to overcome rational thought, followed by beginning to wrestle with the “false reality” that can be created by persons with the wherewithal to do so (which preys on the temptation for us to only rely on what we have “seen”). That was the process…I’ll work through it a bit more here following.

I guess a relevant question would be, is it true? Are we more deeply affected by what we see or directly experience than what is said to us or revealed to us outside of our experience? I’m assuming yes, though I’d label that as a temptation rather than an assumed truth. This over-emphasis on experienced truth is one of the deep weaknesses of uncritical postmodern thought as I see it. I could talk about this for pages probably, but that’s not my intent in this post. My basic intent is to expose the basic inadequacy of relying on experience or what one “sees” as a foundation for what is true through a couple simple examples. I recognize there are multiple shades of gray between the black and white of experienced truth vs. revealed truth, but hopefully the reality that what is “experienced” or “seen” can be manipulated shines through here.

The age of the internet complicates things, making news much more open-source and therefore less able to be easily manipulated for propaganda purposes, but it is still very possible (especially if the populace relies on basic news outlets for information) to present something as “reality” when it really is a series of images that have been manipulated to achieve a desired outcome. One example to support this suggestion was the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in the center of Iraq as the U.S.-led Shock and Awe campaign swept into the center of Baghdad in 2003. In describing the fall of Hussein’s statue, Donald Rumsfeld described the images as “breathtaking,” the British Army saw them as “historic,” and for BBC radio they were “amazing.” In the pictures that spread through media outlets like wildfire, there seemed to be a massive crowd of jubilent Iraqis pulling down the statue of Hussein that represented their celebration of freedom from his oppressive rule. Here’s the central picture of that series;


If you check out a Youtube video that follows Fox News’ coverage of the statue toppling, you’ll notice the anchors saying “jubilant seems too mild a word for what you’re seeing here,” followed by poking fun at French governmental officials for their opposition to the “liberation of Iraq.”

After the event, conservative commentator Robert Novak weighed in with his opinion, saying that

“As the war began in 2003, the New York Times required less than three weeks before it ran a front-page report by a star correspondent of the last generation, R.W. Apple, which hauled out the heavy word of the Vietnam generation, quagmire-as in the quagmire in which, Apple wrote, U.S. troops were already bogged down. Three weeks later, those same quagmired troops had sped into Baghdad, watching as jubilant crowds pulled down the great statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of the city and organizing a systematic search for the suddenly deposed butcher of Mesopotamia.”

And these images then were exported throughout the world as display of the celebration that had ensued in Iraq and the momentous change of regime on par with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some of the images follow;

This third image represents the global impact of the photography, as viewed in Frankfurt, Germany.
(pictures linked from here)

So, it seems there was a massive crowd celebrating the end of the Hussein era, right? Not so fast. If you had a healthy sense of skepticism and traveled outside the seeming exultation of the crowds presented by prominent media outlets, you would have found a different picture…literally. And while one could argue which pictures represent reality more faithfully if two different groups take different pictures and claim different things at the event, I think we’d all agree that pictures of wider context usually display a more full picture of the reality.

Take a gander at a bit wider angle shot of the event, then two definitely large-scope shots taken chronologically;

It seems that less-euphoric/less-subjective/less-manipulative news sources reported a much different scene than the CNN/BBC/Fox News one. Journalist David Zucchino interviewed a member of the Army’s psychological operations unit and found that the event was almost entirely put on by the US military. After a US colonel “selected the statue as a ‘target of opportunity,’ the psychological team used loudspeakers to encourage Iraqi civilians to assist, according to an account by a unit member.” And when cameras zoomed in on the Marine recovery vehicle toppling the statue, “the effort appeared to be Iraqi-inspired because the psychological team had managed to pack the vehicle with cheering Iraqi children.”

And in the words of eyewitness Neville Watson, a clergyman from Australia,

“Well, there certainly was some jubilation, but I certainly wouldn’t go along with that presented by television. The one that I’ve seen a lot of since I’ve been back is the toppling of the statue of Saddam and I can hardly believe it was the same one that I saw, because it happened at only about 300m from where I was and it was a very small crowd. The rest of the square was almost empty, and when we inquired as to where the crowd came from, it was from Saddam City. In other words, it was a rent-a-crowd. Now, that piece of television has been played over and over again, but I’ve seen nothing of the pieces of television, for example, what happened in Mosul the other day, where the Americans opened fire on a crowd killing 10 and injuring 100 when it became anti-American. So I think the scenes of jubilation have to be balanced against the other side of the picture.”

All in all, the wide-angle shots and different testimonies reveal a much different picture. In total, there were about 200 people in the square, with a vast majority of that number being military personnel and international media (we won’t mention that the square is just adjacent to the Palestine Hotel where the international media were based) along with a handful of Iraqis. And even the spontaeity of the handful of Iraqis is in doubt; one could say those who came after encouragement by the loudspeakers were somewhat spontaneous, but a picture of a central celebrant reveals him to be a member of the “Free Iraqi Forces” militia who were flown into Iraq several days before the statue-toppling. Starting to shape up into a different “picture,” eh? *pun intended* I guess I shouldn’t mention that the BBC reported the American flag initially put over the face of the Saddam statue was one flying over the Pentagon on September 11th either. Seems less and less spontaneous, the deeper we go.

I don’t want to belabor the point, because my intention, again, was just to expose the inadequacy of relying on experience or what one “sees” as a foundation for what is true, because one can be greatly deceived by persons interested in keeping us in the alternate reality shaped and colored by their perspective. And governments (ALL governments) certainly have a vested interest in the support of the populace. Just a cautionary note; don’t believe all that you see. Maintain a healthy skepticism. Be willing to wade deeper, even if it may cost you or cause people to label you.

Truth. Speaking. Is. Unpopular.

Excerpt from video below in this post, “One of the things that ‘s always perturbed me…as we come to celebrate the life and living of Martin Luther King Jr, one of the things we can say with alarm since the legalization of the holiday is that Dr King has been reduced to the syrupy sweet Hallmark Card where he is no longer prophetic and he no longer speaks to the nation and he no longer causes us to speak to the nation in ways that shake the foundation of this nation’s immorality…”

All my friends who are not Christfollowers do not need to listen to the following flash video. Feel free, but this message is mainly a convicting reminder that those of us who dare to claim that we are disciples of Jesus are expected to be peacemakers.


And that’s not peacemaking as defined by Nathan Myers, or Jane Doe, or whoever else. It’s peacemaking as defined by Jesus.

What was his example? What did his life scream to us about how to confront evil as a faithful disciple? How did his disciples live this out?

If you are a Christfollower, you and I don’t have a choice with whether we “want” to be a peacemakers or not. We don’t. Oh, we justify it…we say this and that….define peacemaking like this or that…in short, interpret peacemaking the way we do much of the Bible…seize onto the “For I know the plans I have for you” and “fearfully and wonderfully made” and “I call you my friends” passages while ignoring the “love your enemies” and “those who seek to protect their life will lose it” and “he was faithful to the point of the death, even death on a cross” and “for our battle is NOT against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities” passages because they challenge us too much.

As I watched this simple little flash from a simple speech, I was deeply convicted and tears welled up in my eyes as I thought about how often I shrink back from clear statements on truth when I’m around my fellow Christfollowers in church because I’m afraid they’ll leave or reject me or hate me for that position. My friends that don’t know Christ are begging to see me live like I love them and will give my life, my finances, my energy, and my prayers for them no matter what…they’re CRYING out! And I’m often a shuddering, emasculated Christian who’s ok with false unity in church in the name of comfort and “family” and all the easy Scripture; and I say I don’t, but I really DO want you to look like me, dress like me, like the same things I like, hate the same things I hate…or at least PRETEND you do so our relationship doesn’t challenge me. I’d rather not be called to take most of what I’ve learned in my life and unlearn it through pain and struggle and cyclical addictions to various things. I’d rather be comfortably numb in my self-centeredness, thank you very much.

But, MLK, for all his struggles, was a man who spoke truth…he would not let us sit in our seats and just nod along and afterwards say, “Good speech. Good delivery. Your voice intonation was tremendous.” *pat on the back* “See you next week, Marty.” Wouldn’t let us do it. He chose to say what he said and live like he did and give himself like he did. He knew his life was in danger, and he wasn’t afraid to confront the status quo and whoever stood to continue reaping the rewards from it. And for that, I am grateful. Because the status quo was and is continuing to rip us apart as humanity.

“Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation…He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it. ” -MLK Jr.

I’m tired of cooperating. I’m tired of my smarmy proof-text-quoting-Scripture-life that exists because I’m not disciplined enough to grow beyond it and don’t have the stones to challenge my friends and church family and neighbors to take that step with me. But still I settle for recycling the same verses, saying the same prayers, and talking about the same issues I did a week ago…all the while, I’m spinning my tires and going nowhere! I’m TIRED of that life. I want MORE. There has to be MORE than where I am now. And we are now. And I don’t really care that the beginning of this video has a strong message about Bush. Watch it all the way through. Give it a fair shake. Sit back and think a little about what it means to follow Jesus the way he told us to…no matter what.

And challenge me. Forgive me. Let me rant like this from time to time. Help me to love more, give more, forgive more, expect more, pursue more.

And if I’m going to hold the leaders of the United States to a high standard of truth-telling as I am by endorsing this flash video, I sure as heck better be pursuing it myself, or I’m a flat hypocrite.

Click on play, lower left corner.

ht on video: Ariah


I was messing around on some blogs today (trying to avoid my paper) and happened upon Aaron Monts’ blog and a shocking, raw picture. Almost immediately I heard Derek Webb start up in my brain…”poverty is so hard to see when it’s only on your tv and twenty miles across town. where we’re all living so good, that we moved out of Jesus’ neighborhood…where’s he hungry and not feeling so good from going through our trash.” (from “Rich Young Ruler“)

“young homeless man beavis shooting up in the tenderloin.
he picks his scabs to find a good spot;
and tries a few locations before he gets a vein.
he has the “love” and “hate” tattos from “night of the hunter” on his fingers.
he’s showing “love” with his right hand as he sticks the needle in.” Rest of his story here.

This stuff is real, and most of us (including myself) live in our insulated reality where we don’t expose ourselves to this…or, if we see it on the news, we either look away quickly or flip the channel. Too uncomfortable. Might make our whining about money or cynicism pale in comparison to this man’s situation.So click away quickly. Wouldn’t want to upset your world (or mine).

Or stare and absorb. Reality isn’t easy, and demands a response.

So what’ll it be? Naive insulated existence (aka ignorance of reality)?
Or do we let the gospel drive us to weep on our knees for this man…and compel us to action in our world in the name of Jesus?

Thanks for the dose of reality, Aaron.