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

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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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Keep religion as a private matter in your homes and churches as free speech, stop pushing it on others. As a child of Catholic and Methodist parents, organized faiths are the worse.
I am a point now in my life, that God is everywhere and I can worship him in my own home. I forgot to tell you, I was married to a Catholic guy for 5 months,(dated 2 years and even my parents didn't set his dark immature side. We counseled and after 2 separations parted for good, thank goodness no children involved. It took the Catholic church over 4 years to decide that the marriage was annuled. By a three years I had remarried and was having trouble conceiving. The church charged me $400 in N.J. I told them they would get $10 a month, since they took so long and I had many doctor bills.
Know possibly some day I would get the annulment I tried to put in for adoption, but I was called a sinner (still married to another in their eyes) even though I would take some years especially on the East coast. We were later married Catholic, but the adoption attitude finally got to me, all they had to do was cross our name off if the annualment didn't come through.
Organzied relgion has to stop being holyer that thou and love thy neighbor for once.

February 02 2011 at 5:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't know why Catholics should see this as an attack. The abundant hints mentioned in the article are just that--abundant. The concept of a Dorito host is just too absurd to be taken seriously,anyway. As any educated Catholic knows,the current word (not Word)is that gluten free substances can not undergo transubstantiation.(There might be enough gluten in the flavoring of the regular Doritos, but the Cool Ranch are advertised as gluten free.) The last time I checked, Pepsi is also free of the grape. Now, if that pastor had been holding up donuts and we had seen java steam wafting above the chalice, I would have been offended. A jibe at free coffee and donuts might hit too close to home.

January 27 2011 at 7:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How has religion managed to place itself in a position where it is above criticism or even humor? Why can we parody our politics, societal institutions and even a restuarant, yet religious delusion is insulated by the fear of being labels "sacreligous?" It seems to me that religious institutions, teachings and traditions are a ripe target for humor, if for no other reason than the ridiculous assertions they make and their claim to know with certainty that which they could not possibly know. Pass the Doritos.

January 27 2011 at 4:04 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Maybe it's just because I'm not religious (not in the organized sense, anyway), but I thought the commercial was kind of funny. He seemed to be trying to point out that Doritos and Pepsi are "just that good," rather than making fun of Catholicism. However, I guess it could insinuate that Catholics have to have an incentive to come to church, but that isn't terribly far from the truth when you consider the fact that they can do whatever they want and get away with it, as long as they confess. I don't believe all Catholics are like that, but I know plenty that are. Anyway, I think if you get offended so easily, you must not have to much faith in your religion or your own intentions.

January 26 2011 at 10:22 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Gorgeous Gord

Typical Catholic response. Be outraged by a simple silly commercial (Jesus woould have laughed at this one) but support a sect that denigrates women.

January 24 2011 at 5:49 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Catholics believe in Transubstantion - that bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood. It is at the very core of the Faith. That a Notre Dame alum cooked this 'parody' up is hardly surprising considering the fact that the college is run by a man whose understanding of the Magisterium is shaky at best (yes, I know Jenkins is a priest...doesn't make him a good priest. That the creator goes to Mass faithfully....I don't see that, frankly. A good, practical Catholic just wouldn't think about mocking the Eucharist. He can claim all the 'clues' he wants - by his own admission, his Catholic 'faith' inspired this commercial.

As to the Chesterton quote - I don't know if he would approve of the ad. There is a difference between being able to take a joke and mocking the reason for Mass. And the Eucharist is the very heart of the Catholic Mass.

Finally, it seems that in America we cannot be prejudicial towards any group - except Catholics. When others feel they are slighted, the media rushes to decry the offenders. But when Catholics complain, a rush of 'Christ had a sense of humor, get over it' and 'stop taking yourselves so seriously' or 'Christ had compassion - why can't you' comments emerge. Christ had compassion - but He was also a Judge. And the Gospels are rife with examples that He took certain issues very seriously.

It was in bad taste. Period.

January 23 2011 at 6:55 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

It is said that anti-Catholicism as the last acceptable prejudice and this certainly verifies it. The fact that the writer identifies himself as Catholic and is a graduate of Notre Dame hardly makes him a faithful, believing, orthodox Catholic. Father Jenkins should be proud...another graduate who is at best ambivalent about faithfulness to Church teaching...a Catholic who regards the Eucharist as the "source and summit" of pour faith would not be nearly so confused...can't help but wonder if he cut his classes in theology...if they were even required at Notre Dame...very sad.

January 22 2011 at 7:20 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

Like the man who made this commercial, I am Catholic, but I don't find it funny. Communion, or the Eucharist, as we call it, is the very heart of our faith. To compare the communion wafer to Doritos is to make light of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, because that's what the Eucharist is. It's the body and blood of Jesus, not a party snack. I'm not against Pepsi or Doritos, but just because I'm a Catholic, that doesn't mean that I'm a doormat and that you can say whatever you want about my faith on the public airwaves.

January 22 2011 at 2:01 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Organizing Mass Worlwide Boycott of Pepsi and Doritos.
Hit them where it hurts.
Our goal is to inflict huge economic loss for their disrespect.

January 22 2011 at 12:22 PM Report abuse -7 rate up rate down Reply

I am catholic and I thought it was well done and funny!

January 22 2011 at 11:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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