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Mentor Series: Media and Culture

Media consultant Gordon Pennington explores the effects of media on a post-modern culture.

This is a different kind of Mentor Series installment, and it’s not just because it’s our first Mentor Series article to feature video rather than merely audio. This month, we’re partnering with Focus on the Family’s The Truth Project team to bring you a special interview with Gordon Pennington.

Pennington is an international consultant who has worked with clients including J.P. Morgan Chase, CBS TV Network, U.S. Council on Economic Development, British Airways, Mercedes Benz and others. As the former Director of Marketing for Tommy Hilfiger, he is known for his broad understanding of the growing power and influence of technology and the nexus of global media and entertainment industries. He is Founder of the Dangerous Romantic Poets and is Managing Director of Burning Media Group.

If you’ve gone through The Truth Project curriculum, then you may have noticed the insightful comments Gordon Pennington made about postmodernism and the effects of ubiquitous media messages. Jim Fitzgerald, head of ColdWater Media caught up with Pennington in New York City and captured that interview for The Truth Project. But he got a lot more interview footage than he was able to use in the final cut. The Boundless team reviewed the extra footage and, even though it hadn’t received the final ColdWater touch, we knew it was a message our readers would appreciate.

It’s a privilege to bring you this bonus material that offers the best commentary we’ve found anywhere on what it means to be an engaged Christian in a postmodern media world. It’s also an honor to partner with The Truth Project — perhaps the most compelling Christian worldview curriculum available. If you’re interested in plugging into The Truth Project, please sign up to receive their complimentary e-newsletter and consider attending one of their upcoming training events.

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Jim Fitzgerald: Gordon, you were in a private industry, business, and you decided to leave that and pursue another calling. What changed? What caused that to happen?

Gordon Pennington: Well, I used to work in the field of marketing. I still do. (chuckles) And when you work in marketing, advertising and communications today, you begin very quickly to see how powerful the influence is that can extend into people’s homes, into their very psyches and can influence them in their behavior. Influencing consumer behavior is something that billions of dollars are devoted to every year. This is a country that’s become very, very sophisticated at communicating and influencing people’s thinking. Unfortunately, we haven’t been equally prepared, and education today has not afforded us the level of critical discernment that we need to understand how we’re being manipulated. It’s one of the most volatile and dangerous situations that human history has probably ever concocted.

JF: How much today are people that are led by others influencing their behavior as opposed to people carefully screening and developing their own sense as who they are as a person?

Gordon: Well, in advertising and marketing very often we played at people’s insecurities, and we determine what it is they think they need. If someone has a keen sense of identity, has a strong sense of themselves, it is less likely that we can reach them easily. But for the person who is insecure, it’s much easier to manipulate those insecurities, to cause them to feel that a product or a service or a particular brand is going to give them something they feel they lack inherently or something that will give them a sense of identity that they’re not getting otherwise.

JF: How much of the resources of advertising are targeted to people that are 18 to 30, a range, 35, you know, what the spread is of the youth, and why is that amount of money put into — why are those resources put into that age group?

Gordon: Billions of dollars are spent every year advertising and marketing and creating messaging to shape and influence people’s behavior. And young people are of particular interest to marketers and brand building and the commercial enterprises that want to turn them into customers for a lifetime want them to adopt a brand and make it their own for many years to come.

Gen-x, gen-y, millennials, mosaics — no generation has ever been more manipulated than the generation that lives today, and they know it, and they’re savvy, and they’re adept at living in the technological environment that they also distrust even as they feel compelled to use it. User be used, or use and be used.

JF: What do you think about the lack of reflection, a time to reflect, that exists today because of the constant availability of distraction. How will that shape the thinking of people that live today?

Gordon: We live in an era of psychotic distraction. The level of psychosis that affects people’s behavior is difficult to measure because people are so reactive. They are simply responding to — people are responding to an array of stimuli that is simply overwhelming today. And to filter that out and to protect oneself requires a kind of understanding consciousness, awareness, discipline and resistance that’s very rare. Teaching people resistance will result in people acquiring a new level of individuality as human beings.

JF: And if you don’t acquire that skill?

Gordon: It’s pretty — it’s quite evident today that people are easily conformed, and they want to experience groupthink. And the level of instant polling and constant reflection that — without reflection that causes people to feel that they want to be part of a movement — they want to be part of a trend; they want to reflect what’s hot rather than what’s not; they want to be a part of an in-group; they want to be seen as moving in the right direction — is fatally dangerous.

JF: Where will that lead them? Where will that lead us conclusively and ultimately, if we fail to recognize the times we live in?

Gordon: We’re in the process of being dehumanized. The most extraordinary thing a person can acquire is a keen and clear sense of their humanity, and that is exactly what’s being challenged and threatened and increasingly taken away from people. They are being shaped in ways that create a conformity, and conformity is critical to the advance of the kind of consumer culture that has its tentacles all the way around most people’s souls.

JF: What kind of pathologies are you seeing in the culture as evidence of this happening?

Gordon: Well, one of the most distinctly evident pathologies is the disconnect between people’s sense of responsibility, reality if you will, on a day-to-day basis and the desire to jettison that and live in fantasy. And then the lines become blurred and they live out those fantasies in a world where people depend upon one another to react and to act responsibly, conscientiously.

The fantasy level that people younger and younger and (inaudible) to, and as a result addicted to, is it a benign addiction? It can seem that way for many, but there will always be the person at risk who is going to explode, who’s going to become volatile, and who’s going to carry out their fantasy pretensions or their fantasy illusions on other people. And not a day goes by that you don’t see some evidence of that in the society that we’re living in.

JF: When you said that we’re living in the fumes of Western civilization, how do most people today determine right from wrong?

Gordon: It’s so subjective that it’s really utilitarian. People tend to think what’s right is what causes minimal harm to the people around them or minimal harm to themselves, but allows them to do what essentially they want to do anyway. Without some kind of testable, reliable, transcendence set of ideas, guidelines, norms, laws to govern our collective and individual life we’re lost, because everyone will do what is simply right in their own eyes, and the rest is this amazing machinery of self-justification. And we see so little of reflection that leads to repentance, a reconsideration of someone’s actions, behaviors, their motives, that people don’t find themselves exposed to exemplary behavior that reinforces the good, that reinforces the good, the true or the beautiful. So where will people turn for something that’s sustainable, someway to govern their lives or to live in a context of law and cooperation?

JF: What does it mean to be post-modern? Is that something you talk about much or not really?

Gordon: Yeah, it’s — it’s longer than a soundbite that’s for sure. But what does it mean to be pre-modern? The real question is what is the modern world? What does it represent? What kind of thinking does it — what kind of thinking does modernism — how do you define modernism?

Post-modernism rejects even the idea that the empirical world, that the scientific method alone is adequate to explaining why we’re here, who we are and what all this means, and if that fails, then all bets are off. Post-modernism suggests that everyone tells their own story. That there’s no real metanarrative to explain things. There’s no truth system endurable enough to give us a satisfactory foundation for understanding our lives. It is the rejection reason and revelation.

I suppose you could distill pre-modernism by suggesting that revelation created a foundation for understanding the world, and that modernism added reason above revelation. But post-modernism rejects them both. Post-modernism is a baptism in material experientialism. We are simply existential in that we define ourselves as we go along and that is deemed adequate.

JF: Do we have idols in this culture and engage in idolatry in any way?

Gordon: Who had said that the heart is an idol factory? We produce idolatry with regularity, because we’ll trust almost anything. We’ll trust the invention of our own hands rather than something or someone that we can’t really control, and that’s the fear factor. If we can’t control God, but we are called to submit or surrender to someone who is there waiting with open arms for us, and in experience after experience, test after test, we got to come to a place where we’re willing to fall in the everlasting arms, that’s disconcerting if your training and education and experience in the world has simply reinforced the idea that you can trust what you can touch. And yet, and yet, we have to wonder what are we in our essence. Are we light and energy and spirit? Are we something more profound, abstract or really tangible, but exceeding our physical condition? Who are we?

We’ll always have to come back to these questions because they’ll ultimately be the things — we’ll always have to come back to these questions because they’re the questions that define us and define everything around us.

JF: You’ve been traveling a lot, talking to a lot of people, reading a lot. What boggles your mind lately?

Gordon: I’m fascinated to see how willing our culture is to reject reality and to embrace fantasy. Because we have not been given the tools and the resources and the education and the training that reinforces our ability to deal with conditions of our real existence, and we would much rather project ourselves into fantasy at every opportunity.

Most people practically live with not only the sense of privilege entitlement, but the demand that they be entertained, because it is simply too great of burden to bear to deal with the day to day to day reality of our circumstances. But if we could break through the barrier that suggest to us that there’s nothing interesting there to discover, I think we’d be filled with wonder. We’d see in the very things we’ve ignored, the beauty, the complexity and the joys that fantasy never really bring us.

JF: What breaks your heart of what you’re seeing when you travel?

Gordon: One of the greatest losses we’re experiencing as a culture is the loss of childhood and the loss of innocence. And we’re pushing a grotesque fantasy-driven world further and further into childhood where children cannot escape it and cannot live with the light and life and laughter of imagination. The incursions of technology reach further and further, and the losses are too great to estimate. What happens when you have a generation of children who really never experienced the fullness of childhood? Because at the age of 4 or 5 or 6, by that point they’ve seen so much imagery that’s disturbing, that’s dark, that really has at its heart a kind of disruption and leads on a course toward conflict. We introduce children to ideas that are far too painful, far to dark, and far to complex for them to really understand and to apply any kind of critical discernment that would defend their sense of high purpose or innocence. And yet we’re passive about it.

One of the most heartbreaking concerns that I see people facing today is the feeling that they can’t do anything. There’s a sense of helplessness for many, but that’s changing. I think people are beginning to realize that a very small minority of people have taken the reigns and have exerted a disproportionately significant amount of influence in creating and producing and distributing and controlling cultural content, and people are waking up to that. And this will be one of the critical revolutionary challenges for the generation that is now coming into influence and maturity.

How will they deal with the creation of cultural content? And because we haven’t understood cultural content and that it doesn’t take place on a level playing field, we’ve been marginalized; we’ve been left out of that process. And being left out of that process has left us in a place where we’ve been victimized, and we’ve endured that without pushing back. And now I think we have to look at the technology that shapes our thinking and shapes our societies and shapes our culture. And we’ve got to challenge it. Because while we’ve created a kind of demand and expectation for it, an addiction for it, think about it. How many people can live without the technology that they take for granted as part of their everyday life? But what does it do to us? How does it shape our thinking and reinforce values and ideas that are alien to us if we really stop and look at it carefully?

How do we recapture the ability to exercise critical discernment? How do we control what we’re exposed to? If we can’t, if part of living in the modern world today means that we’re going to be exposed to ideas that we find repugnant, malevolent, dark, wicked, than what do we do to challenge the predominate structures, the predominate institutions, the predominate powers and principalities that control these images? I think that’ll be our biggest challenge.

Our biggest challenge will be to actually recreate culture. I think we could see a renaissance. That sounds like a pretentious way of pronouncing it. I think we could be on the cusp of one of the most exciting periods in history, particularly for people of faith and conscious. I think the opportunity to enter a time of rebirth and renewal and renaissance is right in front of us. We’re now waking up to something that has eluded us because we’ve been asleep, and we’ve been benign in our attitudes, and we’ve allowed this to go on far too long. It’s time to create a renewal of ideas and ideals that have meaning, that have generosity, that have compassion, that are rooted in truth.

Copyright 2007 Gordon Pennington. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Gordon Pennington

Gordon Pennington, former director of marketing with Tommy Hilfiger, is a full-time international consultant to a number of corporations, governments and institutions. He’s known for his broad understanding of the growing power and influence of technology and the nexus of global media and entertainment industries. Gordon is the founder of the Dangerous Romantic Poets and currently managing director of Burning Media Group.

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