What has two legs, no head, can’t talk but speaks volumes?
Well, for St. James’, I would offer: The Sign.
For something relatively benign, excepting its digital chest, The Sign has been a flashpoint for controversy. Described as vulgar and ugly, objectively one cannot agree. For the most part, The Sign is not indecent, obscene, or lewd as vulgar is defined and perhaps intended by those using vulgar to describe The Sign.
However, given that vulgar does also mean current, popular or common, The Sign is that. Signage of this nature is very popular, current and commonplace. Just drive around this small city and count the number of signs that are now endowed with digital display. For that matter, just drive around any city and consciously absorb the signage. Signage and its advertising messages ‘now surround us everywhere on everything’. It is overwhelming. And perhaps, with respect to The Sign, that is the elephant in the room.
A market research firm called Yankelovich confirmed that people living in cities now see around 5000 advertisements everyday (Communications Revolutions 2007). Today’s consumers are reaching the marketing saturation point, as they grow a distinctive resistance and negativity towards advertisements (Greenspan 2004). Advertising is not working as well as it used to. We’ve entered the age of stimuli bombardment, visual saturation, sound bites and microscopic attention spans. The number of images and voices shouting for our attention has accelerated beyond critical mass, and the resulting explosion has fragmented the public mind. These mental filters are clearly the result of being bombarded with too many advertisements in such short periods of time. Perhaps it is also our lifestyles and pace that has brought these filters on as well; internet browsing can be thought to have trained users to quickly disregard uninteresting information and empty words. (Williams 2006).
Companies (read corporate bodies, of which the church is one) trying to market themselves and their products in today’s advertising saturated-environment are dealing with an absolute sensory overload. Companies are continually pushing their products harder in order to make them stand out; as each company continues to compete, the environment continues to swell with overload. This idea of information dumping or extreme repetition (which has resulted in this suffocating advertising environment) feels as if it is used by thousands of companies (Wettering 2004).
Consumer negativity towards advertising is growing at a rapid pace. Four years ago studies revealed that 65 % of people felt that they were suffocated by marketing messages and 61% felt that the volume of marketing messages in society was out of control. These results were significantly more negative a few years prior. So, today, another 4 years on, surely our disapproval towards the way we are constantly bombarded with advertisements is even more extreme. People even went so far as to say that they would be willing to lower their living standards or to pay for free media in order to escape all marketing and advertising. (Greenspan 2004).
And hence, I must surmise, the question by one of the more vocal objectors to The Sign: “If they’re allowed to have a digital sign, who’s next?” The local newspaper found this to be a curious question. However, within the context of the research stated above, the elephant moves in the room.
I wondered if the opponents to The Sign have truly searched their rooms for the elephant; their truth in this controversy. Having only identified a commonplace sign as the problem seems to indicate that their position is one of emotional reactivity.
The recent newspaper editorial states: “No doubt the committee that decided on the sign was looking for ways to ensure the church remains current and that parishioners and members of the public are aware of upcoming events that keep the church vital, spiritually and physically.” If there is truth in this statement, a troubling image of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ is conjured. Given the current research on this type of advertising, revealing the concern with the visual pollution created by the level of saturation intruding into daily life, one would wonder about the return on this type of investment. The U.S. Advertising Foundation has stated: “At the end of the day, the ability of the average consumer to even remember advertising 24 hours later is at the lowest level in the history of advertising.”
Unfortunately, The Sign passes the ‘duck test’ of advertising. It does not simply name the sacred place whereon it stands. Its proud chest apparently thrusts itself into the realm that, within our neighbours’ subconscious and in their truth, smacks of more visual pollution, clutter, intrusiveness, stimuli bombardment and the ‘commercialization’ of their surroundings.
I strongly disagree with the local newspaper editor. He states: “Much closer to home, the Anglican Church has its own fairly serious problems, which the editor seems to fixate on as the same-gender blessing motion. The challenge that the church, the body of Christ on the earth (not the bricks and mortar, not the denominations but you and me), faces today remains unchanged since ancient times. The challenge, we are reminded by the Book of Common Prayer, is:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love the neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
We are so focussed on the administration of the church, how to market it, how to get it out there and how to ‘get those numbers up and get those dollars in’ that I wonder if we have losing sight of the challenge. Through meeting the challenge of honouring these two great commandments, the ‘earned advertising’ is qualitatively superior.