I've spent a lot of money on advertising.
For decades before changing my vocation to professional ministry I had a career in business. Like any person in business I used advertising to attract customers. During an interlude that I refer to as my "Ski Bum Period" I was the general manager of a multi-million dollar mountain sports store. We used newspaper space advertising, television and radio spots, and even produced and sponsored a winter sports television program.
I had no ethical qualms about our advertising message because our purpose was to equip people so they could safely enjoy such healthy outdoor recreation activities like hiking, climbing, backpacking, snowshoeing, and skiing. Using the stuff we sold was good for a person's mental and physical health.
Our advertising mix didn't use that most ancient of advertising media, the billboard. Not that I don't have an abiding testimony about the efficacy of billboards. We just needed a more dynamic and flexible advertising medium.
I refer to a "billboard" as the most ancient advertising because strictly speaking a billboard is any kind of signage. First known as "billing boards," signs would display products and/or services for sale. The message of the billing board used to be pretty straightforward. Here's where you can buy a haircut, have your horse shod, do your banking, send a telegram, get a meal, file a mining claim, rent a room, or enjoy a snort of Old Stump Blower.
In other words, a billing board simply identified the location of products and/or services people wanted.
But billboards have evolved. These days a billboard is a huge structure along roadways that can be read from hundreds of yards away.
The other evolutionary step has been the content and intent of the advertising message.
About 130 years ago the advertising message started to change from identifying a location to, well, seduction, persuading people they needed to spend their money on whatever it was the business had to offer. In my case, I advertised to attract customers because I was convinced they would be comfortable and safe when they headed for the outdoors using products and services purchased from my mountain sport store. But we all know there are advertisers with less laudable motivations who want to sell you something you don't need.
These days I am as intrigued, appalled, amused, bored, and offended as anyone by the seductive messages displayed on the 200-300 square feet of roadside billboards. I'm sure that sign companies try to make sure that the content of the messages are within community standards of decency and at least mostly truthful.
The controversy over a billboard in West Haven displaying a woman in lingerie reflects the usual tension between free speech and what people want to see as they drive down the road. The fact is, you can see more female skin on any beach than is displayed on the billboard. But the woman on the billboard is wearing underwear and posed to elicit a prurient response.
We are all bombarded by scores of similar images of objectified women in advertising every day. I'm just grateful there isn't as strong a market for fancy men's underwear.
I don't like such advertising, but I am far more concerned by ads that try to seduce us to gluttony. Americans over eat enough unhealthy high-fat, over-sugared foods that over 60 percent of our adult population is overweight or obese. Prurient food advertising is responsible for some of that health problem.
And I am equally alarmed by prurient advertising that appeals to our materialism, trying to convince us that running up unsustainable consumer debt so a person can drive an overpriced car, live in the oversized house, buy the big boat or recreational vehicle, or wear the designer wardrobe.
Please note that I don't have anything against people who prosper and can afford to make such purchases.
The point is the all-too-frequent practice seducing people into buying something they probably don't really need and certainly can't afford.
When you look at what some unfortunate people bought and wonder what aroused them to an immoderate or unwholesome interest or desire that they put themselves into debt up to their eyeballs making the purchase, well, you have witnessed one of the worst consequences of prurience. The starting point of such out-of-control materialism is prurient advertising. And it's a sin we have to resist just like the impure thoughts that might be provoked by a gal on a billboard.