July 12th, 2013
03:36 PM ET
By Jeffrey Weiss, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Has any advertiser gotten into more trouble than Samuel Adams by not putting religion in an ad? Usually it goes the other way.
If you missed the recent brew-haha, in a TV commercial pegged to this year’s Fourth of July, the Boston-based beer company offered an homage to its namesake:
“Why name a beer after Samuel Adams? Because he signed the Declaration of Independence. He believed there was a better way to live. All men are created equal. They are endowed with certain unalienable rights: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Which smoothly drops a key phrase from the Declaration: “…they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights ...”
On the one hand, it’s just a beer ad and it used up its whole 30 seconds. On the other hand, why leave out some of the best-known words in American history?
The company explained it’s all about the Beer Code. No kidding: There’s a national Beer Institute that has an Advertising and Marketing Code.
Right after, and I’m not making this up, “Beer advertising and marketing materials should not contain graphic nudity,” you will find: “Beer advertising and marketing materials should not employ religion or religious themes.”
There’s no mention of why it’s OK to use the Declaration itself, perhaps the most sacred text in the national civic religion, to sell suds.
Sam Adams himself wrote a lot about God. His dad even wanted him to go into the clergy. Instead, Adams went into business and became one of the firebrands of the American Revolution.** In 1772, he penned a report called The Rights of the Colonists that was presented at a Boston town meeting.
In it he argued for religious tolerance. Except for Catholics. Because, he explained, Catholic dogma and doctrine leads “directly to the worst anarchy and confusion, civil discord, war, and bloodshed.”
So ol’ Sam wasn’t perfect. None of our Founding Fathers were. But he probably wouldn’t have been happy about the beer named for him eliding the creator from its ad.
Modern reaction was about what you’d expect. Howls of outrage filled the company’s Facebook page. Columnists and commentators took the company to task.
This commercial is far from the first to tangle with faith. Some other countries are less sensitive about the topic than Americans, as this collection from Buzzfeed demonstrates.
The attempt often doesn’t go so well in America. But there are some exceptions.
Here are five notable American examples:
1. For several years, Doritos and Pepsi have held a Super Bowl ad contest. Folks submit an ad, the ads get posted online and voted on, and the top vote-getter gets broadcast during the Big Game.
A couple of years ago, a temporarily popular entry was titled “Feed Your Flock.” In it, a clergyman with a dwindling flock prays for inspiration. Cut to a long line of people waiting for a chip and a sip of soda. Does it look like Catholics receiving the sacraments? Ubetcha. Cut to the sign out front: "Free Doritos and Pepsi Max Sunday."
Yes, it was funny. And yes, it was offensive to some Catholics. And yes, the folks who made the ad apologized and pulled it from the contest. But you can still watch it here.
2. Another ad aimed at the Super Bowl with a religious theme ran as planned. This one was intended to kick up a controversy but turned out to be less than expected. It was paid for by the conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family and featured football star Tim Tebow. The pregame buzz was all about how overtly religious it was going to be and how it would be all about abortion. As you can see here, it turned out to be a lot more subtle than that.
3. A third Super Bowl ad with a faith theme aired last year. (Maybe the biggest game inspires ad agencies to reach for the biggest metaphors?) Dodge pulled out a Paul Harvey speech from decades before and ran pretty pictures in front of it. The audio begins: "And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, I need a caretaker. So God made a farmer."
The nostalgic ad took two minutes – an expensive eternity for Super Bowl TV commercials. And it kicked up no significant faith-related complaints.
4. A different kind of ad that tangled with faith was a social media phenomenon two years ago.
The Facebook page for Oreos featured a photo of a six-layer “crème” cookie. Each layer was a different color of the rainbow. The text on the page said, simply: June 25/Pride. Objections from religious conservatives were predictable.
5. Finally, there’s the most successful religiously themed ad ever made for a secular product. Hebrew National makes deli fare: Salami, hot dogs, corned beef, bologna. And Hebrew National is kosher, meaning it follows traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Starting in the mid-1960s and returning occasionally in the years since, the company has run ads with a slogan that played on that unusual aspect of the business: “We answer to a higher authority.”
As with the recent Sam Adams commercial, the Creator is never actually mentioned. But as you can see here in one of the first of the “higher authority” ads, nobody who knows the product ever missed the point.
Jeffrey Weiss is an award-winning religion writer in Dallas.
** An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported that Adams was a lawyer.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.