Gerardo Marti: A Super Bowl commercial contest and Christian creativity

Some see it as crash commercialism. Others as a chance to be gospel salt-and-light in the world.

Behind the scenes of this year’s Super Bowl XLIV is a contest. Not an athletic contest, but a spiritual contest of a unique sort, a competition that could open opportunities for witness and expand the influence of Christian-based mass media.

It involves a casket, a million dollars, and a whole bunch of Doritos.

Here’s the story: For the fourth year in a row Doritos is sponsoring a competition for filmmakers to create their “best” Super Bowl commercial. This year, a filmmaking team from Mosaic in Los Angeles put themselves in the running. “Casket” features a young man who, with the help of his friends, faked his own funeral so he could be blissfully buried surrounded by his favorite Doritos chips (see the video here).

Alas, the plan fails. In his enthusiasm watching a football game in the middle of the memorial service (courtesy of a built-in television set), our Dorito-lover overturns his casket, chips scatter everywhere, and the guy is revealed to the grieving congregation to be alive after all.

Trying to rescue the situation, his quick-thinking buddy stands up and shouts, “It’s a miracle!”

The “miracle” for the Mosaic filmmaking team is that their entry—one of over 4,000 this year—was selected to be one of only six “Super Finalists.” The team’s quirky commercial, created using the skills of members within the congregation, has a bona fide chance of becoming one of three commercials aired during the Super Bowl. And if it wins, the team may receive a $1,000,000 cash prize.

The team is so excited about the contest that they’ve organized a “Vote for Casket” campaign complete with a fully-featured website that provides backstory, behind the scenes clips, and a plea from the pastor and producer Erwin McManus to vote online every day until January 31st.

Why does this all matter? Because the “Vote for Casket” campaign provides an intriguing opportunity to reflect on the willingness of church leaders to sponsor new types of media involvement and encourage the work of Christian media professionals.

I know many will balk at the co-mingling of consumerism, corporate sponsorship, and self-promotion. Yet, all of us surely recognize that Super Bowl Sunday is a core American institution that draws the attention of our society. Whether you love football or not, all of us are stuck with the sheer magnitude of the Super Bowl as a type of modern holiday.

Church leaders have already accommodated their ministries to it. Although not everyone agrees about this being a good thing, we all know churches that change their service times to accommodate the airing of the game. Churches also use Super Bowl Sunday events to create social gatherings, often directed at drawing men specifically to church services. And Super Bowl Sunday is an occasion (alongside Christmas and Easter) regularly used to draw in the “unchurched.” I found one online resource that encourages church planters to “Organize a Super Bowl Celebration Party, with a presentation of the Gospel during half-time.”

Rather than seeing the Super Bowl Sunday parties as the Christian outlet, the team from Mosaic took a risk to place themselves at the center of the action. The importance of the Super Bowl as a platform for one’s message is obvious (to the point that even historically bad Supe Bbowl commercials are memorialized). The Super Bowl happens to be one of the few media outlets where the artistry and message of its commercials still matter. By submitting a quality video that merits selection from thousands of entries, the contest reveals an intriguing avenue for media-savvy and entrepreneurially minded Christians who inventively find ways to place themselves at the center of mainstream culture.

Among entrepreneurial Evangelicals, so-called “secular” media has become a ground of missional activity. As I describe in my book “Hollywood Faith,” a growing number of Christians see involvement in the Hollywood industry as an avenue for the development of their artistic passions that fulfills the gospel-imperative to be “salt” and “light” in the world. Hollywood is not the enemy but an opportunity.

The cash prizes for the winners will be used to fund future faith-based films. With first prize of $1,000,000 (second prize is $600,000, and third $400,000), this little contest may become the most successful “grant” obtained for creating ever more expansive, message-driven media productions.

For Mosaic filmmakers, the Doritos “Crash the Super Bowl” contest is an occasion for the exercise of religious creativity. More generally, their “Vote for Casket” campaign highlights the creative use of media and the new possibilities for ministry readily embraced by certain innovative segments of the Christian church today. Whatever happens this week, congregational involvement in the use of secular media for religious causes has taken yet another leap forward.

Watch for Casket this Super Bowl Sunday. The winner will be revealed while you’re hanging out with your church group.

Gerardo Marti is L. Richardson King Assistant Professor of Sociology at Davidson College in Davidson, NC, and is author of "Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church" and "A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church."