I can’t believe it’s been over 25 years since Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall teamed up in the movie Coming to America. Murphy plays an African prince who divests himself of his royal prerogatives and moves to Queens to find a bride that would accept him for who he is and who he can respect for her strength, intelligence and independence. It’s Murphy and Hall in their prime and it’s worth watching again just for the barber shop scene.
With the move back to the States after eight years of living in Grand Cayman, I’ve toyed around with the idea of starting a blog called “Coming (Back) to America.” I daydreamed about writing lots of posts full of Bill Bryson-style insight and humor about what America is like (or I’m like) after eight years in another culture. Alas… I’m not that creative or observant. So rather than a blog, I’ll try my hand at a couple of posts sprinkled here and there.
Here’s the first thing I notice about living in the States again: commercials. Well, truthfully, I didn’t notice them. My seven year old son Titus noticed them. All of them!
Here’s the thing: In Cayman we never had cable or watched network television. We relied on DVDs, Netflix, or something on Apple TV. This meant commercials never interrupted our programming–not even during the annual commercial feast called the Super Bowl. Since Titus was born in Cayman, his entire seven years of life have been lived in our commercial-free Siberia.
But coming back to America means he has a Saturday full of commercials! He’s exposed constantly to product pitches and appeals.
I wondered why all of a sudden he kept insisting that we “had to have” a new mop with “hurricane spin.” Or, why he began asking me for just $14.95 plus shipping and handling. Today. Right now. Or else we might miss out!
Of all the shots he’d taken during his rounds of immunization and well-baby screenings, he’d never been inoculated against American-styled commercialism. Most of us get that shot as we grow up. So we learn to tune out commercials–mostly. We develop radar for various kinds of sales pitches–soft sale, hard sale, bait and switch. Samples lose their appeal–unless it’s the bourbon chicken samples in mall food courts. We swim in a sea of advertisements never feeling wet by all the enticements. We feel accustomed to it and so hardly notice, until a 30-second ad interrupts our favorite shows at the wrong time. But Titus sat wide-eyed at the wonder of toys and gadgets he’d never heard of and now suddenly couldn’t live without.
After a couple of weeks, Titus doesn’t fall for all the commercials. He’s learned that “they’re just trying to get our money.” But I wonder if that only strengthens his resolve to have those few products that do pass his defenses. Funny how saying “no” to ourselves in many areas make us prone to shout “yes!” in areas of keen interest (read, advertising vulnerability).
Truthfully, now that I think about it, even if we’ve lived in America all our lives, we’re not too unlike Titus. We may be older, slightly wiser fish, but we still get hooked from time to time. Why do you think companies continue to pour billions into advertising? Advertising works. Corporations and ad firms have mastered the art of appealing to our flesh and our worldly instincts. They’ve studied us and they stalk us. They create desires where once none existed, then they satisfy those desires with their products.
I notice that I’m more conscious now about how I dress. Not that my dress has gotten any better; I’m just more aware. Why? It seems I’m in an advertising culture that places far more stress on the right look, the right clothes, and the perfect accessories. When you’re on an island and most people around you are wearing flip flops,beach shorts and a Cuban shirt (or want to be wearing those things), you tend to think “dressing up” is unnecessary. When you’re now on Capitol Hill, which is also the capitol of seersucker suits and Jimmy Choos, then swag gets more of your attention.
Or take the car I’m now shopping for. Yes, the family needs a car. But driving my sister-in-law’s BMW X5 kinda makes me snooty toward “domestic” vehicles. We peep the sleek new styles–far more styles, colors and choices than we’d ever see on the island–and some consumeristic grows in my heart. Basically, my commercials differ from Titus’, but I’m still susceptible to them. I still have a flesh that desires and live in a world that tempts and teases. We all do. And what coming back to America teaches me is that I’d better raise the guard on my heart and teach Titus the same. Self-control will be the watch word–for all of us.
Here’s one other thing I see again for the first time: American Christians are pretty consumeristic with their churches and spiritual habits. We’re not just consumeristic; we also want it custom made to suit us. That’s no new revelation. I’m simply seeing it again. And I’m wondering if we ever see how deep a root it has in us if we never get outside our context. And if we never see how strongly our desires–often unspoken or unconscious–affect us, might this be a “silent killer”? Might worldliness, expressing itself in quiet unchecked consumption,be the besetting sin of the church?
I don’t know. But I suspect my vulnerability to Madison Avenue affects my walk with the Lord far more than I’m aware. And, worse, if left unchecked, I suspect swimming again in the familiar advertising waters in which I was raised will slowly dull my senses and draw me away with the school of other consumer fish swept in the currents. How about you? Swimming with or against the commercial currents of your setting?