I have always felt that Ultramatic, the company that sells electronic, adjustable beds, makes some of the worst commercials on television. Incidentally, it seems they also have one of the worst corporate Web sites on the Internet. For years their commercials were targeted at seniors - they had these awful ads which were supposed to be reminiscent of the "film noir" genre so popular in the past. A man hiding behind his fedora would carry on a conversation with an elderly lady and through terrible dialogue tell her the benefits of the Ultramatic bed. Then elderly spokesman Gordie Tapp would show up and tell us about the free catalogue and TV offer. You could call and receive their full-color catalogue to learn more about their product. If you purchased from them they would send you a crummy little 20" TV to watch from the comfort of your new bed.
The selling feature of the bed is that it is adjustable, so those who have trouble sleeping can now sleep in greater comfort. It was sold as a solution to all sorts of health problems. The target group for this bed was obviously seniors. Gordie Tapp's appeal certainly would not extend beyond that age group as he is north of 80 and I doubt many people of my generation, or even the boomer generation, know who he is!
The other day I saw, for the first time, a new commercial for the Ultramatic. I was surprised to see that the commercial featured a young woman, probably about 30 years old, slinking around the bed in negligee. After extolling the virtues of the bed, listing all of its wonderful features, she finished by mentioning a contest in which the company was giving away free beds. She raised her eyebrow, mentioned the contest and said, "who knows…you might just get lucky." She then put on her pouty lips and looked longingly into the camera. I found myself wishing for the days of the senior citizen film noir commercials! It turns out that commercial was part of a series using three or four similarly dressed ladies. I guess the company decided to change its marketing efforts, hoping to draw in a whole new generation of Ultramatic users!
I began to think about other marketing campaigns. Pepsi once called itself "The choice of the new generation," though it turned out that the new generation still preferred Coke. I believe Pepsi has since gone through 10 or 12 mottoes and has now simplified, saying only "it's the cola." Other mottos I remember are "Generation next" and "The joy of Pepsi." As the times changed, so did Pepsi, always reinventing the look of their product to keep it fresh in the minds of the target demographic. They had some of the world's most famous celebrities endorse their product, targeting one generation after another. McDonald's told us it was the place to go for food, folks and fun. Who knew that clogging your arteries could be fun? It also asked "did somebody say McDonalds?" and "have you had a break today?" They introduced grown-up happy meals that included a lottery ticket and have recently added a wide selection of healthy foods just to keep up with these healthier times.
The church seems to reinvent itself every few years too. Sometimes we seem to feel the need to change the songs we sing or even just the way we sing them. Other times we want to make even deeper changes - we get rid of the sermon and instead have a message. Before long the message might just be dumbed-down to a time of sharing. Elders and deacons go the way of the dinosaur, being replaced by pastoral teams and ushers. Prayer is removed because people find it boring and doctrine is replaced by felt needs. Jesus goes from being the One who saves from sin to the One who can be our best friend and help us live a happier life.
Through all of its mottos, the content Ultramatic adjustable bed has remained the same. It still has all the same health benefits, still adjusts to any number of positions and still comes with a cheap little 20 inch TV. The contents of a can of Pepsi are the same to today's young people as they were back when it was the choice of a new generation - a generation that has grown up by now. McDonald's, on the other hand, has changed its product many times. The past years have seen new types of meat, new oil to cook the fries in and new menu selections. While the sign on the front of the store is the same, the food is different. It may look the same, but it is clearly different.
I wonder if the church changes its product as well as its marketing. When the church seeks to reinvent itself to a new generation of unchurched people, does it just change the packaging, or does it change the content too? Have we gone from preaching a gospel of sin, condemnation and salvation to one of mistakes, sadness and comfort? Have we turned our Lord and Savior into the great big shoulder in sky, always there for us to cry on, but never condemning us, never indicting us for our sin? Have we allowed ourselves to go from being led by the Spirit to being driven by purpose?
In theory I do not think there is anything inherently evil with changing the packaging, provided it remains respectful and accurate. But if we begin to change the message to match the marketing, that is where we run into no end of problems…