Don’t Drink The Kool-Aid

Growing up, Kool-Aid was a welcome refreshment on hot summer afternoons. Television commercials touted this 1950s version of an energy drink for the fun it provided, the ease of mixing it, and its mom-loving low cost.

Years later, I realized the sugar content of all soft drinks, including Kool-Aid, served as a shortcut to the dentist and diabetes.  Each cup had 20 grams, the equivalent of five teaspoons, of sugar.

In recent years, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” has taken on a broader meaning, a modern cliche warning us not to be easily persuaded.  For me, however, this tedious trope reminds me of the power of advertising.  And in America, we drink the advertising Kool-Aid.  Every day.

My wife hates commercial television — primarily because of the commercials, which may explain why we have migrated toward more streaming services. She sees commercials as a waste of time.  I see them as worldview propaganda.

Whenever possible, we record the television shows we watch so that we can fast-forward through the commercials.  But for those times when we have to suffer through four-minute commercial breaks and their barrage of ads that promise a cure for whatever ails us, I look for the Kool-Aid.  

I ask myself, what are these ads really promoting? Sure, they are pushing their product or service, but what lifestyle, what philosophy, what worldview is behind their lingo? What flavor of Kool-Aid do they want this consumer to consume?  Materialism? Consumerism? Hedonism? Narcissism? 

Every commercial has a purpose, which is most often revealed in the tagline associated with the product being pushed.  The catchphrase, intentionally or not, is also promoting a way of seeing the world.  Think of the Burger King ad from years ago, “Have it your way!” Or L’Oréal’s beguiling mantra, “Because I’m worth it.” Advertising agencies make millions coming up with slogans like that.

Think about it.  Advertising companies use catchy slogans, jingles, or taglines as mini-mission statements to persuade their target audience to buy a product or service.  They make big bucks by getting you to spend your bucks. And it’s effective. The average person today is exposed to between 4,000 to 10,000 ads each day.  EACH DAY!  In most cases, the commercial message is about more than just enticing customers to buy their product. It’s also about embracing a lifestyle by associating their product with meeting the deepest needs and universal longings of humanity.

What do I mean by that?

In his book, How Now Shall We Live, Chuck Colson wrote, “America has a highly developed, technologically advanced industry—the advertising industry—designed to entice us with the promise of redemption through materialism and commercialism. Every time we turn on the television set or open a magazine or newspaper, we are bombarded with the gospel of commercialism: that for every need, every insecurity, every worry, there is a product for sale that can satisfy our need, pump up our self-esteem, soothe our worry. Advertisers devote huge budgets to hiring psychologists to probe the human psyche and pinpoint our deepest needs and longings. Then they craft seductive images and phrases designed to hook us, to beguile us into thinking that buying their product will satisfy those fundamental needs. And since those deepest needs are religious, what ads really trade on is the universal longing for redemption.”  (1)

Skeptical?  Is this yet another conspiracy theory?  A devil behind every corner billboard?

This past weekend, as I binged on football games, I watched every commercial and played my game of “Looking for the Kool-Aid.”  First, I identified the key slogan or tagline in the ad.  Second, I asked myself what does that slogan suggest is the need/desire this product or service is fulfilling? Does the tagline appeal to virtues or vices? Finally, what worldview is promoted? Even those who appealed to positive virtues are still designed to tap into our needs, our longings, our hopes. 

I was impressed to hear the American Airlines promo that ended with “Start Something Priceless.” And shook my head when the Twisted Iced Tea commercial blared, “Keep it Twisted.”  One ad has a view that is Priceless, the other, well, the other is Twisted in more ways than one.  

Yet both commercials appealed to the human heart.  One ad touched the need for meaning and purpose.  The other tapped into the sparkling allure of temptation. 

We are constantly bombarded with various worldview messages.  Here are a few examples from the past:

  • “Have it your way.”  (Burger King)
  • “Just do it.”  (Nike)
  • “Embrace Your Vice.” (Vice Golf)
  • “Because I’m worth it!”  (L’Oréal)
  • “We Answer to a Higher Authority.”  (Hebrew National)
  • “When You Got It, Flaunt It.”  (Braniff Airlines)
  • “Grab for the Gusto.”  (Schlitz Beer)
  • “Find Your Own Road.”  (SAAB)
  • “American by Birth, Rebel by Choice.”  (Harley Davidson)
  • “The Happiest Place on Earth.”  (Disneyland)
  • “Open Happiness.” (Coca-Cola)
  • “Betcha can’t Eat Just One.”  (Lay’s)
  • “Finger lickin’ good.”  (KFC)

The secular world of advertising promises solutions to every problem. At regular intervals, television commercials interrupt our entertainment for a moment to worship at the altar of America’s favorite substitute religion — consumerism.  Here’s the answer to your problems, here’s the salvation you have been waiting for, buy this, and life will be good.  And the ads keep coming. 

Someone once said that consumerism is a religion whose practice is like drinking salt water: The more you drink, the thirstier you get. In other words, the more you get, the more you want.  

There is never enough.

One of the few jokes I repeat from time to time is the story of the rich man who wanted to take his gold with him to heaven.  As he lay on his deathbed, he told his family to put his gold in a bag and place it in the attic above him.  So, when he dies, his spirit will grab the bag on the way up.  Sure enough, he shows up at the pearly gates dragging his bag of gold.  When St. Peter inquires as to what he has in the bag, the rich man declares that he brought his gold with him.  St. Peter is shocked and confused.  “Pavement? You brought pavement?”

I saw a current advertisement for Kool-Aid recently.  Yes, the current version, “Kool-Aid Jammers” claims “More fun and half the sugar,” but 10 grams of sugar per 6 ounce pouch is still a lot of sugar.

The advertising world we inhabit reflects these Kool-Aid commercials.  They promise more fun, but it’s really just full of sugar — temporary highs whose value is fleeting.

I don’t drink Kool-Aid anymore.  And I avoid television commercials.  

They just make me thirsty for things that never satisfy.

(1) Colson, Charles; Nancy Pearcey. How Now Shall We Live? (p. 227). Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Kindle Edition. 

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