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Once upon a time, in time of crisis or in need of salvation, frightened people turned to God. Now they turn to cults. Or to self-help best-sellers. Or to Vernon Jordan.

Where our spirituality has fled to is the subject of endless speculation, much of which focuses on the obscenely materialistic excesses of the consumer culture. But, if we have sold our souls to Madison Avenue, all of a sudden Madison Avenue is selling them back.

First came Volvo, no longer content merely to save your ass, now promising in its ads to "save your soul." And now, from the red-and-white line of Campbell's soups and BBDO Worldwide, New York, a similar guarantee: "Good for the body. Good for the soul."

Who's running these accounts . . . Elmer Gantry? You can't make a cholesterol claim without medical libraries full of evidence, but the promise of spiritual cleansing apparently requires no FDA scrutiny. Plus, you don't have to sneak marbles into the bottom of the soup bowls.

"Ready to meet your new foster mother?" a social worker asks her little orphan charge, in one of two commercials. The girl seems uncertain, but the woman who opens the door is kind and gentle.

"Hi, sweetheart," she whispers.

In the foyer, in silhouette, an exchange between the women: "Give it time," says the social worker. "I know," is the understanding reply. The child is shown to her beautiful, colonial bedroom, whereupon the foster mom prepares a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup. "Here you go," she smiles, and retreats.

But as the woman reaches the door, the little girl has uncurled from the fetal position and tasted the soup. "My mommy used to fix me this soup," says the vulnerable, angelic, idealized child -- which, naturally touches the caring, understanding, stable, idealized foster parent.

"My mother used to make it for me, too," she smiles. "Why don't I tell you about my mom, and then you can tell me about yours?"

The little girl allows herself a hint of a smile, too. "OK," she says.

OK, you may start blubbering now . . . if you can override your gag reflex.

This ad doesn't tug at your heart strings; it cracks open your sternum and vivisects you. It exploits your emotions, and it exploits all of the real-life foster-care triumphs and tragedies which this preposterously sanitized Hallmark Hall of Shame melodrama is meant to evoke. Meanwhile, it takes something legitimate and important -- the strong emotional attachment we hold for such mundane childhood experiences as hot Campbell's soup -- and cheapens it with treacly, phony sentimentality.

A second (and non-traditional family) spot -- a latter day "The Parent Trap" in which the six children of two single parents conspire to get the grownups to marry -- is more lighthearted, but just as mawkish. The kids prepare a cream-of-chicken soup recipe to fan the flames of romance, a scenario next to which "The Brady Bunch" looks like film noir.

It's meant to be chicken soup for the soul, but it's more like a general strike on the pancreas. What you need after seeing this thing is Campbell's Insulin 'n' Stars.

To the marbles-in-the-soup scandal and the 1980's bogus "Soup is good food" campaign, add now another black mark for Campbell's: emotional dishonesty. This sodium-peddling advertiser has never exactly been a pillar of society. But it's on its way to becoming a pillar of salt.

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