Does Religion Sell? A brief journey in religion and advertising

I love the Super Bowl. I actually don’t understand anything about American football (a sport that, as a European, I believe a poor replacement of rugby), but as a religion scholar, I love to see the nationalistic, civil religion in the ritual of every American family coming together to celebrate masculinity and Lady Gaga singing the national anthem. The religious scholar in me adores seeing quarterbacks dedicating their points to Jesus, who, as it turns out this year, is a fan of Philadelphia Eagles and doesn’t like the New England Patriots. And, of course, there are the commercials.

As a scholar or religion and media, I couldn’t be happier this year in seeing that one of the famous Super Bowl Commercial was, indeed, about religion. Companies spend millions of dollars for few seconds of Super Bowl time as it is probably the easiest way to enter into all American homes simultaneously. This year, Toyota choose to spend its millions on religion: a Catholic priest, a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Buddhist Monk all enter in the same car. It seems the beginning of a bad joke, but it is not (unless you consider it funny how they forgot the Protestant Pastor). They go watch sport and meet a couple of nuns, and the commercial ends with the “We’re all one team” disclaimer.

A nice, unifying message everybody agrees on, a part of course for YouTube commentators who found it blasphemous. What’s more, Twitter seemed to talk about the commercial a lot, probably resulting in a couple of promotions in the Toyota marketing department. But, some may ask, why choosing religion for a commercial? Isn’t it weird?

Well, apparently it’s not.

As a matter of fact, religion in advertising has been there for a very long time. Carlo Nardella, a scholar from the University of Milan, studies exactly this. He found ads of bishops wearing shoes, perfumes appropriating Hindu terminology, and many slogans containing “angels” and “demons”. He found enough examples to write an entire book about it, which he published in 2015. And that was only about the Italian context. Are religious people happy about it?

Some are not.

An Australian lamb ad, promoted by Meat&Livestock Australia, shows various gods sharing a meal. Jesus, Buddha, Zeus, and others enjoy a meal of lamb prepared by a young woman, who represents the “non-religious,” the fastest growing denomination in Australia. As in the Toyota commercial, the various religions coexist and their representatives talk with each other (“shall we address the elephant in the room?” jokes Buddha looking at the elephant Ganesh). However, the Consulate General of India in Sydney asked to withdraw the commercial because it is offensive to the Hindu community, and apparently representatives of various faiths (not Muslims, as Mohammed strategically cannot make an appearance to the dinner party) also complained to the Australia’s Advertising Standards Bureau.

While this was happening in Australia, the European Court of Human Rights decided that companies can use Christian symbols to advertise their products. Three Lithuanian commercials, indeed, showed Jesus and Mary abandoning Bethlehem fashion to embrace blue jeans. However, the European Court of Human Rights decided that it wasn’t clear why the commercial was supposed to be offensive, considering that Jesus and Mary were not used as religious references.

Not to play the devil’s advocate of companies who appropriate religious symbols, but depictions of gods and religious leaders, where permitted by the religion, have been made for centuries. When I was a grad student, I was a teaching assistant for a course called “Principle of Advertising” and my students read “20 Ads that Shook the World” by James Twitchell. In the introduction, the author compares advertising to Renaissance art because painters like Michelangelo did not create what they wanted to create, but they were usually told by a Church authority what to paint. The Sistine Chapel, from this perspective, is a giant example of Vatican advertising. I found this a thought-provoking reflection I wanted my students to discuss in class, just to discover how few of them usually read a book’s introduction (especially if it is about religion).

What I find interesting in Twitchell’s comparison is that we do not have to think that religion and marketing are two completely separate things. The Vatican paid artists to have Jesus and Mary painted the way it wanted (normally, without blue jeans). Religion also soon started to understand the logic of advertising and to comfortably enter Capitalism. As Mara Einstein explains in her book “Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age,” most traditional and new religions employ some sort of advertising, use social media, and even hire marketing experts. The Pope is on Twitter. The Dalai Lama is on Twitter. God is on Twitter, even if he might not be the real one. A car trip to the US will probably open the eyes of many to the extent that roadside signs can sing the praises of Jesus.

How does all this happen?

Carlo Nardella addresses it by explaining, through Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory, that the advertising field appropriates the religious field’s symbols. As the symbols “migrate” from one field to the other, the religious field progressively loses controls of its own symbols. Therefore, the boundaries between advertising and religion are progressively blurring.

The question is: why religious symbols and not other types of symbols?

I do not have a definite answer to this question, but only some suggestions that come from my background in media studies, the fact that my father worked in advertising and, most of all, shameless binge-watching of Mad Men.

Advertising uses people everyday’s life to sell them products. It portrays what happens in culture and society, it makes it a little hyperbolic, a little disturbing, a little rhetorical. People like when a commercial is slightly, and only slightly, controversial, because it makes them uncomfortable without making them ashamed. It makes them think about their life, but it is not so familiar to become boring. It is for this reason that sex sells, as we all know: people do not like to openly talk about sex, but they sure don’t change channel when they see it on TV. Religion has something in common with sex: people are a little anxious about it, they do not like to talk about it, sometimes they joke about it, and it is definitely a big part of everybody’s life, believers and non-believers alike.

It is for this reason that people like seeing religion in advertising. Certainly, it offends some (as sex does). But we don’t have to forget the old mantra (to appropriate a term from the religious field) that “no publicity is bad publicity”.

And we don’t have to forget that advertising is powerful. Maybe not as powerful as religion, but powerful enough to diffuse the image of Santa Claus as we know to sell Coca-Cola, and convince us that we need to get rid of halitosis with Listerine. It is surely no religion, but nobody will want to live in a world without Santa and full of people with terrible breath. As I answered to my students’ insistent questions (“Why do we have to study the Frankfurt School of Critical Studies, can’t we just learn how to do advertising?”), to understand advertising we need to understand society. To learn the social dynamics that created a commercial and the impact it has on culture. Advertising can reinforce or undermine sexism, it can be racist or inclusive.

Probably, advertising can also contribute changing the way we experience religion.

Is this good or bad? What is sacred? What will remain sacred in a world where religion becomes advertising and vice-versa? Will capitalism replace religion (if it hasn’t already done so?)

I do not have an answer to these questions. I think that, as scholars of religion (and media&religion), we shouldn’t dismiss religion in advertising as a “pop culture” phenomenon. We should try to understand what it tells about our culture, our society, our changing approach to what is sacred. And be prepared for what can happen next. After the Toyota commercial with religion in the Super Bowl to sell cars, maybe we’ll have soon religious leaders using football to attract more believers.

GE


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