The numbers are staggering. Americans watch an average of more than four hours of television a day. If you add this up over a year, it's 61 days. If you add this up over 40 years it's just shy of seven years. Phew! That's a lot of TV watching. What useful things could we do if we leave our easy chairs and break away from the "boob tube?"
Further, at least 25% of this TV time is commercials. Haven't we seen our fill of sexy new cars, goofy insurance companies, skinny people eating fattening pizza, young people drinking beer, old people swallowing pills, and promotions for forgettable movies? (At least the despicable political commercials are gone for another four years.)
Actors and directors have a love/hate relationship with commercials. All want to do "important work," yet production values have risen for these 30-second stories, and doing commercials sometimes pays the bills for starving talent. And once in a while a well-written commercial brings out the best in the human condition.
Over the Christmas holidays I saw two commercials which touched my heart. One was for Toyota. The opening scene is a typical Friday night high school football stadium. Boys competing on the field in a playoff game. Time running out, the quarterback throws a pass into the end zone. The receiver catches it, but the referee rules he was out of bounds. No touchdown, the receiver's team loses. A huge disappointment.
The next scene is Dad and Mom driving their son home through a driving rainstorm. Dad sees a car broken down, and a soaked man trying to fix it. Dad pulls over, winds down the window and asked the stranded man if he'd like a ride. It's the referee! Dad says, "Son, move over." The receiver looks at the referee, dripping wet, looks at his father, then reluctantly moves over in the back seat. The referee says nothing, acknowledging the awkward moment, but gratitude is written all over his face. The receiver hands him a cloth to wipe his face. Simple human compassion beats a football loss.
The second one is by Amazon. Two elderly clerics are enjoying conversation and a cup of tea in a rectory. One is a Muslim imam, the other a Catholic priest. As they make their goodbyes, both have trouble getting out of their chairs. Oh, those aching knees. The priest and imam embrace, and grin at each other as they depart, recognizing their shared stiffness.
As the imam walks home, he has an inspiration. He pulls out his smart phone, and buys something. The priest, back in his rectory, also has an idea. He does the same. (Commercial pitch--2 day free delivery with Amazon Prime!) In the next scene, an Amazon delivery person comes to each of the clerics's doors. Both gave the other the same helpful gift--a lime green knee brace.
In the concluding scenes, the imam puts on his knee brace, and then the priest does the same. Both kneel in prayer, in mosque and in church.
This commercial is truly unique. Have we ever seen a priest in a commercial in a positive light, much less in genuine friendship with a Muslim leader? Interfaith relations are presented in a positive, personable light. When have we seen men at humble prayer, with bended knee? In our violence-filled world, a subtle yet powerful message of peace.
I confess that the first time I saw this commercial I had tears in my eyes. There was no dialog, only a haunting piano score in the background. The bonds of affection between the clerics were clear. This is the way friends act. Isn't this the way we should act too?
My twelve years of seminary studies consisted of reading and studying the best textbooks of theologians, and the most important papal and episcopal statements. Yet one day someone said to me, "You know, Jesus never wrote a single thing. All he did was tell stories and live out stories of compassion."
These two commercials confirm the power of storytelling. How should we act? What kind of persons do we want to be? In the wasteland of television commercials and popular culture, these imaginative parables help us to see how to do the right thing and be good persons.
You can see these commercials on YouTube at Toyota and at Amazon .