Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, my parents and teachers warned me to beware
anyone trying to sell me mind-altering drugs with cartoon characters. It might
have been urban legend, but America’s parents were convinced that rough-looking
characters lurked in schoolyards plying LSD-laden stickers with pictures of Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, or G.I. Joe on them. Moreover, our parents rightly worried that maybe the nonsensical lyrics about “Puff the Magic Dragon” emerging from the 1960s counter-culture just might have something to do with
How times change. Now America’s parents and children are happy to have cute, cuddly cartoon characters market mind-altering drugs to us—as long as they are on television, disclose all the unpleasant side effects, and promise us a gospel of self-realization. I’m referring, of course, to the Zoloft blob and his magical orange butterfly.
As Kate Aurthur of the New York Times reports, the pharmaceutical industry’s 30-second advertisements for Zoloft have been a success because in the course of one commercial it “makes the struggle for stability downright cute.” In the ads, the little blob is seen in a cave, fretting and blue, when suddenly he sees the orange butterfly (the drug) flying by. The sad little blob follows the butterfly until he is bouncing with joy, interacting with other smiling little blobs. Aurthur notes that the “commercial’s appeal may lie in their simplicity: childlike animation and elementary-school explanations
of mental illness.” She also observes that the cartoon blob helps to deflect the fatal error of anti-depressant ads: the list of side effects (nausea, diarrhea, sexual dysfunction) by quickly narrating these distasteful legalities just as the little blob begins his ecstatic bouncing. Moreover, the Times reports, the blob is so cute that he has his own constituency—chat-rooms across cyberspace feature fans who want a stuffed-toy version of the Zoloft blob.
Before the pharmaceutical conglomerates give their advertising agencies a raise, let’s remember that we’ve seen this all before. The tobacco companies knew this would work when they designed an infamous cute, cool-looking animated figure that could sell nicotine without having to show real people actually smoking cigarettes. The Zoloft blob is our new Joe Camel—except with arguably harder drugs to sell. The drug companies know that cartoon characters can slip by even the most skeptical customers in a way that “real” people can’t. That’s the reason the Looney Tunes mocked Hitler in the 1940s,
and the reason Wal-Mart shows a smiley-face knocking down prices instead of a middle-aged store manager.
But the Zoloft blob takes the Wal-Mart smiley-face to another level because the orange butterfly is promising us far more than quality products at discount prices. It is promising us peace, joy, and love.
Sociologist Neal Postman warned us years ago that the advertising industry had co-opted the American revivalist tradition of the conversion testimony. Successful ads show us exactly the way many of us in evangelical Christianity were trained to share our faith: This was my life before Jesus (or Zoloft), how I met Jesus (or Zoloft), and my life since I met Jesus (or Zoloft). The little blob could almost sing to the orange butterfly what we sing of our union with the crucified Christ: “And now I am happy all the day!”
American Christians can’t pretend that these television advertisements will not affect evangelism and the life of the church. I don’t deny that there are depressed or anxious persons who are so because of bio-chemical factors. And it is good that we have medicines to control such things, just as it is good that we have insulin for diabetics. But what does a person do when he lives in a culture that believes insulin is good for virtually everyone? What do you do when Insulin is celebrated as a panacea for dealing with life itself? How do we then identify who the real diabetics are?
Let’s be grateful for pharmaceutical advances, but let’s be wary when pharmacology turns into gospel preaching. As the journal The Public Interest observes in the Winter 2005 issue, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-IV) no longer makes distinctions between depression “with cause” and depression “without cause.” There is no category for distinguishing
between “normal” sadness and bio-chemically based depression, or between “normal” worry and medically explainable malfunction. And so we treat it all with drugs. It is a windfall for the pharmaceutical companies—and an ideological victory for those who tell us that all human beings are can be explained by firing neurons and chemical combinations. There is a reason the DSM-IV is called the “Bible” of psychology and psychiatry.
The challenge for the church is not government regulation of advertising for psychotropic drugs. It is something far deeper—and far more ancient. Our churches need to proclaim a bold, life-changing gospel of an atonement that can clear any conscience of guilt. It means we must equip Christians to discern when they have a mental disorder—and when they are sinning against God with worry or ungratefulness. Jesus, after all, addressed issues such as anxiety (Matt 6:25-34), long before the medical industry claimed all such feelings as a disease they could cure. It means that our churches should present a compelling alternative to the counter-gospel of pharmaceutical utopianism—the sanctification of the Spirit. And we should be honest that this about the often-painful struggle of crucifying what Paul calls the “works of the flesh”—aspects of our sinful selves that we can dull ourselves medically into forgetting but that we can never free ourselves from with a pill.
And it means, quite frankly, that our churches should stop imitating the advertisements
that are imitating our conversion stories. Our people need to understand that the Christian life is sometimes hard, sometimes dark. It is not all beauty queens and football heroes who have achieved a Christian nirvana of perpetual happiness in the suburbs. After all, between here and the New Jerusalem, there is a war going on—and it is bloody.
Let’s not forget that there are some people (but relatively few) who have real somatic illnesses, which need to be treated by drugs. But these aren’t most of the people who are listening to the cute testimony of the little blob. Most of the people who want to bounce with joy at the taking of a pill just know that something is out of kilter in their lives and in the world. They are right. But these aren’t blobs. These are people for whom Christ died. And this isn’t a thirty-second advertisement. It is life.
Let’s point them to something that is far less cute than an advertising campaign—the gospel of an executed and triumphant Messiah. And let’s show them that the path to everlasting isn’t found by leaving the cave to follow an orange butterfly, but instead by leaving everything to follow a crucified Christ.