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Doritos, Pepsi Max and Religion: An Unholy Mix in Super Bowl Ad Contest

3 years ago
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The NFL playoffs are still underway. But I can already tell you that neither Michael Vick nor any quarterback named Manning will play in Super Bowl XLV. And neither will a particular chips-and-soda ad.

The veteran quarterbacks got beat by better teams. The ad, however, was sacked by a rookie mistake: A misreading by the writer about the acceptable use of religion and humor.

The ad was actually an entry to a contest run by Doritos and Pepsi Max. The challenge: Make an ad, post it to the contest site, and let people watch and vote for their favorites. The winner gets aired during the Super Bowl and the folks who made it get a million bucks.

The entry in question is titled "Feed Your Flock." The first time I saw it, I had two reactions: 1) It's funny. 2) It's going to really hack some people off.

The plot is simple: A clergyman with a shrinking congregation prays for inspiration. In the next scene, people are lined up in the church and being given one chip or a small cup of soda. At the end, the camera pulls back to show the sign out front: "Free Doritos and Pepsi Max Sunday."

Does the distribution of chips and soda look a lot like a Catholic communion service? Yup. Did that mightily offend some Catholics? Yup. And did that shock Michael Lyons, the fellow who wrote the ad and portrayed the clergyman in the spot? Big-time yup.

Lyons is an actor and writer who spotted a promo for the Super Bowl contest and brainstormed an idea for an entry. He is also, he says, a Catholic who attends Mass weekly. And he's a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. So he knows something about Catholicism.

"My intent was to frame this whole commercial in a way that was certainly not offensive and sacrilegious," he said.

On the other hand, he knew he wasn't doing a "Sesame Street" bit.

"Clearly when you are doing a Super Bowl commercial, it has to be a little edgy," he said. "It has to push the envelope."

From his perspective, he included plenty of clues to show that it's not really a Catholic service. The clergyman is addressed as "pastor" and if you look closely, you can see he's wearing a wedding ring. The church has no crucifix, no altar, not even a visible cross. There's no on-camera blessing of the chips or soda.

"It was a lot of mixed up stuff," Lyons said.

But he knew what the joke was about: "We set it up to look like it was communion, which creates this horror. And then the punch line is there -- the sign: 'Free Doritos and Pepsi Max.' It's not communion."


When I talk to reporters who have not done much writing about religion, I give them all the same warning: There is no assignment where you can more easily unintentionally hack people off. With most topics, you have a sense of where the land mines are. But every religion has its specifics that you probably won't know about.

You can't even assume that the person you're writing about won't toss you a grenade. Call the head of a "Messianic" congregation a rabbi, as he does. Or refer to a woman in a collar as a "Catholic priest," as she does. Or even refer to Mormons simply as Christians, as they do. And prepare for plenty of blow-back.

Lyons was too smart for the room, too subtle with his clues, and too confident that pushing the envelope wouldn't get him in trouble. The most offensive image you're likely to see in any Super Bowl telecast is a girl in a bikini. Serious controversy is most unwelcome for the sellers of stuff. (Though an ad during last year's telecast managed to raise -- intentionally -- the issue of abortion. )

But it's clear that he didn't realize what he'd stepped in until it blew up on him. Once the complaints started, he and his production partner not only pulled out of the contest, they pulled the spot from their company website and even from YouTube. (Fortunately for us, a TV station has saved a version on its site, which is what that link takes you to.)

Lyons was, he said, very sorry.

It's not that religious humor hasn't found its way into commercials in the past. The best and longest-lasting example may be kosher meat producer Hebrew National and its slogan "We answer to a higher authority." But that hardly makes sport of the faith.

A couple of years ago, a Red Bull ad pushed a lot harder. It was a Christmas Nativity spot, with four Wise Men visiting the baby Jesus. The fourth guy brought Red Bull. The ad got banned in Italy after a priest complained. It drew an official complaint in Australia, but that country's Advertising Standards Bureau decided there was no harm and no foul: "The Board considered however that most members of the community would consider the advertisement's use of the Christian scene as light hearted, and the references to four wise men with the fourth bearing Red Bull an irreverent but humorous interpretation of the nativity scene."

Tellingly, I can find no evidence the ad was ever shown in the United States. But you can watch it here.

And an entry in last year's Doritos contest -- produced by a church -- played with the idea of resurrection without kicking up much sand.

So, where are the lines concerning religion, humor and commercial use? I asked Peter McGraw, a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the director of the Humor Research Lab. (For which he uses the acronym "HuRL." Cute, eh?)

He's got a theory about what makes things funny that includes what he calls "benign violation." There's got to be something skewed -- but we need to think the skewing is not harmful. Or it needs to happen to something or somebody we can distance ourselves from.

"You need to see how the situation is OK," he said.

But we all have different ideas about what is skewed and what kinds of skewings are OK. The HuRL lab tells stories to people to see if they find them funny.

"What one person sees as a benign violation another sees as not even worthy of laughter and another person sees it as just wrong," he said.

Religion, which is so central to the identity of so many people, is just not a thing that they find fit for humor. Catholics are among the faith groups who include in their number folks with highly tuned antennae and who are quick to complain publicly and loudly about a perceived offense. Enough of them took to the Internet to lodge their objections and ultimately shoot down "Feed Your Flock."

On the other hand, I offer the analysis of the famously, if eventually, Catholic G.K. Chesterton (he converted from Anglican) from an essay published in 1908:

"So far from it being irreverent to use silly metaphors on serious questions, it is one's duty to use silly metaphors on serious questions. It is the test of one's seriousness. It is the test of a responsible religion or theory whether it can take examples from pots and pans and boots and butter-tubs. It is the test of a good philosophy whether you can defend it grotesquely. It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it."

Of course, he never had to worry about fielding complaints from people who would say they wouldn't buy his chips and soda.

I asked Lyons if he and his producer had learned anything from this experience. They had:

"We learned that religion and advertising are a volatile mix. If I have to do another commercial in the future, I will certainly stay away from involving religion," he said seriously. "We learned how powerful the Internet is. We learned how passionate people are about their religion."
Filed Under: Religion, Culture, Ethics

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