The high-school slumber parties of the early 1970s were staggeringly boring by 21st century standards. There was no TikTok to scroll or SnapChat for sending cruel messages that would disappear from view before the targeted classmate could call her mother to intervene. Streaming media didn’t exist.

At Laureen’s house, my classmates and I listened for awhile to the mynah bird that argued with itself in Yiddish. We might have played Twister. Then, for lack of other entertainment, we turned to the magazines Laureen’s mom had arranged on the coffee table.

Our page-flipping stopped in awe when we hit a photo in Better Homes and Gardens of a Tudor-style split-ranch home. Its enviable half-timbered exterior wrapped around a living room with cathedral ceilings, a den, a family room, three bedrooms, and TWO BATHS! The $60,000 price tag ($452,000 in today’s dollars) was eye-popping to our smalltown selves. 

One of the girls turned to me and confidently projected, “If you marry David (my sweetheart at the time), you’ll have a house like that.” 

That was the stuff of girlhood dreams in the early 1970s. The house that could appear in BHG; the boy who would pay for it. 

Of course, grown women were having different dreams. Peggy Seeger (half-sister to folk singer Pete) described frustrated ambition in her 1970 song, “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer”:

When I was a little girl, I wished I was a boy,
I tagged along behind the gang and wore my corduroys,
Everybody said I only did it to annoy
But I was gonna be an engineer.
    Momma told me, ‘Can’t you be a lady?
    Your duty is to make me the mother of a pearl.
    Wait until you’re older, dear, and maybe
    You’ll be glad that you’re a girl.’

Frustration was ricocheting through our entire culture. Riots in 120 cities expressed the rage of urban blacks after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The Vietnam war was still carrying to their deaths a generation of young men conscripted to fight a war for which there was no cultural consensus. “What’s it all about?” songwriters Burt Bachrach and Hal David asked in a movie theme. “Is it just for the moment we live?” 

The yearning and uncertainty that provided an unstable foundation for the song “Alfie” were an equally unstable foundation for much of life in that era. Whatever we did, wherever we were, surely there was something better somewhere. Surely, like Mary Tyler Moore, we were “gonna make it after all.”

But what was “it”? Where would “it” be found?

Little did we understand that the BHG photo of the aspirational suburban home was just one of the answers being provided to us—not by the parents and churches and political leadership that our generation considered suspect, but by storytellers among the businesses who had perfected the 20th century’s new model of emotion-driven marketing. 

Engineering Identities
Edward Bernays was a nephew of Sigmund Freud whose revolutionary ideas transformed advertising starting in the 1920s. Bernays recognized that the unconscious emotional currents his uncle had identified might be unknown to their possessors, but were no less mighty in moving them. And he also recognized that those currents could be directed by anyone who understood them. His technique would be called “the engineering of consent,” and as his work gained acceptance, he quickly rebranded it from Propaganda (the title of his 1928 book) to the more palatable Public Relations.

Among Bernays’ early successes was the “Torches of Freedom” campaign, which identified cigarette smoking as a way women could demonstrate their freedom from male domination. It succeeded in increasing cigarette sales to women by about 50 percent. 

In Bernays’ world, PR and propaganda were simply tools. Like nuclear fission a couple of decades later, it could be used in the service of any goal. And in a painfully ironic plot twist, this Jewish executive would see his techniques used to launch the formidable propaganda machine of Nazi Germany. 

Searching For an Identity
Bernays recognized, and current ad campaigns demonstrate, that people long for stories that tell us what is of value and how to achieve the lives we want. We want to be the happy creative professional—an artist, a chef, a musician—who’s empowered by a pain reliever to accomplish work that fulfills her while still nurturing the kids and grandkids. We want to be that retired couple overlooking the ocean from twin clawfoot bathtubs, happily fulfilled because the blue pill has revived their sex life.  

Advertising since Bernays has cajoled, promised, or threatened us at the core of our sense of identity. Whispering women shame the homemaker who subjects her guests to “TERRIBLE” toilet paper. A happy crowd of friends “Schlitztogether” at a summer holiday picnic. A Volkswagen ad barely shows the new car but lovingly depicts the warm friendship among its passengers.

Bait and Switch: Identity Becomes a Brand
We think of “influencers” as a 21st century social-media phenomenon. But the psychology of influence undergirds every ad campaign based on Bernays’ psychology. Remember the bacon and egg breakfasts that your parents and grandparents enjoyed? Thank Bernays, whose 1920s campaign on behalf of the Beechnut Packing Company increased their bacon sales by relying on “health influencers” (doctors) to say that a “hearty” breakfast was more healthful than the coffee, juice, and toast that were then typical.

In the last decade or so, we’ve followed the marketers further down the path they had set, allowing influencers to convince us that identities can be transient “personal brands” instead of fundamental realities. We “brand” ourselves for multiple audiences, living into an incongruous assortment of “identities.” So, for example, “Christian faith” can be part of a candidate’s brand, even when his best articulation of it is “I’ve met so many people who feel good about themselves … and they base it on religion.”

As church communities, we’re leaning into created identities. We have logos designed for our congregations, spend hours in council meetings pondering the tagline that defines us, and sell merch at our conferences. Christian women seeking leadership likewise design ourselves into conformity with the (culture-derived) subculture’s expectations: We are “hot” wives and dedicated “mamas” whose loose curls swing long and whose brilliant smiles never cease to light up our Instagrammed universe. 

Heroic Stories Can Help Us Find Identity
The world around us writes and tells appealing stories designed to convert us to a particular set of aspirations, a specific way of living. The world has even acquired our Christian language to describe that work. Guy Kawasaki, now “chief evangelist” for design platform Canva, describes how he created the role at Apple in an essay for Harvard Business Review:

“My job at Apple was to proclaim the good news that Macintosh would make everyone more creative and productive. I wasn’t just marketing a computer; I believed in it so much that I wanted others to experience it too.”

The goal of this kind of evangelism, of course, is “conversion” to a particular product ecosystem. Web managers meter the conversion rate of web pages: will those who arrive actually “convert” from mere viewers to those who act by making a purchase, or giving an address where future marketing content can be sent?

Christians have, in the meantime, shelved the “evangelism” and “conversion” stories. Not without good reason, perhaps: we’ve grown weary of the never-ending happy endings of testimonies that begin “I was a horrible person with a terrible life” and, following a quick dunk in the baptismal pool, end with “Now I’m happy all the time!” The wardrobe of traditional Christian storytelling is still the bedsheets and towels of the children’s Christmas play. So we find ourselves lost in trying to obey the unspoken commandments of Christian Instagram instead. We get high, not on Jesus, but on the flashy stage lighting and sound systems of contemporary church worship. 

We want to live in an important story. We just don’t know what our important story is.

We don’t often tell the heroic stories of the quietly faithful among us, even when those stories are dramatic. We don’t watch and tell the stories of those who have continued faithful in small things, and been rewarded with deepening faith and impact. The stories we’re busy selling to each other are stories about suburban success, “hot wives,” and a legend about how becoming a business or community leader will empower you to lead others to Christ.

We’re not telling the story that Christ is and will be our all in all, and nothing is too difficult for our God.

Living a True Identity
We find our identity in Christ when we understand that:

  • We have value because God created us. Our value is not in what we do, but in who our great God created us to be.
  • We have purpose wherever God has placed us. Small town, big city, boring job, fulfilling mission. 
  • We belong among whatever people God takes us to, even when we arrive there having been uprooted from what we know best and care about.
  • Our life has meaning when we recognize God’s hand setting in place whatever is before us.
  • We have hope because the future we will live—like all our past and all our present—is lived in God.

Sometimes, those outside Christ seem more clear about their path and purpose than we do. So even while Peggy Seeger described girls who wanted the freedoms that boys got, she grew up to be a woman. Her political folk singing carried her across the world until blacklists forced her to stop in England. There, she married folk singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl. Together, they had three children while they continued to fuel that era’s political folk revival.

Joeth Strickland is a Christian who lives with similar clarity. Born with disabilities, she overcame those challenges only to have her feet and one leg shattered in a midlife collision with an 18-wheeler.  Joeth wanted to be a missionary, but remained faithful to the small part of that vision she could accomplish where she was: collecting and shipping stuff that missionaries needed. Over 39 years, her work has grown from a few boxes in the breezeway of her small-town home to a 17,000-square-foot warehouse that has shipped durable goods on request to Christian NGOs in 104 countries.

Our Christian world is full of people like Joeth. Their stories help us know what it means to live faithfully into the identity God has given us. Listen for the stories of faithful living and pass them on. In these stories, we can discover the identities God creates in human lives, and perhaps find meaningful hints of the identity God has created for our own lives in this world.

Learn More
Peggy Seeger married the late Ewan MacColl, whose compositions include “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” a megahit recorded by the legendary Roberta Flack. Peggy returned to the U.S. after her husband’s death, when U.S. sanctions against her had been lifted, but later returned to the UK to be nearer to her children.

Crossing All Borders, Joeth Strickland’s durable goods distribution ministry, is based in Angier, North Carolina. It has distributed donated medical equipment, clothing, school supplies and much more to Christian organizations in 108 countries. Her life story will be told in a forthcoming book on Spirit Media.

You can read sharp commentaries about 20th century advertising on the provocative (and fun!) website Aunt Mary’s Advertising Storytime

Photo: In 1929, women became convinced that the “unladylike” act of smoking in public represented a way to rebel against a male-dominated culture. Little did they know that the “Torches for Freedom” campaign was driven by a male publicist aiming to increase cigarette sales. (Image from Aunt Mary’s Advertising Storytime.)

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