I once had a religious experience in a shopping centre. Driving into our local Ikea, we parked under the building and proceeded to join the happy throngs in ascending to the showroom. On arrival, it was like an epiphany, I became aware of the religiosity around the act of consuming. Like in many churches you follow some set rules to ensure that your experience is as smooth as possible. There is a certain order that you observe. The order encourages you to think a particular way about the goods and services you are encountering. Of course at the end of your experience you pay your money and proceed to the café for fellowship.
What happens after the ‘service’ it could be said is where we see the most striking resemblance occurring. This resemblance relates to our motivation in seeking the religious experience in the first place. Both consumerism and religion seek to fill a gap in our lives, inject a sense of meaning in what Victor Frankl refers to as the ‘existential vacuum.’ Think about it for a moment, how do you feel as you are making a significant new purchase for example a fridge, washing machine, surround sound home theatre, a car? If you are like most people there will be a rush of endorphins as you purchase the new item, get it home, unwrap it, set it up etc. There will be a sense of satisfaction, the world will feel right for a time. Your drive for meaning will be usurped or fulfilled by the joy of the new thing.
Similarly for many as they go to church and enjoy the ceremony, they leave with a sense of fulfilment, their longing for meaning fulfilled by consuming the religious goods and services on offer. The search for fulfilment quenched.
Advertisers have picked up on this vacuum of meaning and are perhaps the prophets of this not so new religion. Many of the ads we see on TV are dripping with value laden language and concepts. The ads tend to sell the lifestyle that the product promises as opposed to the product itself. Vicki Cosstick in her article Hijacking the Holy: The use and abuse of Spiritual Language in Advertising, Believes that the search for meaning in our culture has been diverted by the advertisers. Ultimate questions such as Who am I? What am I here for? How and to what do I belong? How can I achieve wellbeing, happiness or fulfilment? Are answered by a new car, a soft drink or a fantastic insurance package or holiday.
Traditionally religion and particularly Christianity has sought to answer these ultimate questions through an explanation of creation, election, salvation, ecclesiology and eschatology. However in the new cultural landscape that we find ourselves, advertisers have the jump on most expressions of religion. Advertisers know that in order to entice people towards their goods and services, they need to bring them to a state of desire and then provide the answer to their longings.
According to Caroline Cat and her animation on YouTube Religion and Advertising we are drawn to this state of desire through our emotional connection to the familiar. However there comes a point where the familiar becomes ineffective and so advertisers have needed to invest in new strategies to continue to draw us. This has seen the rise in the use of religious concepts and imagery to ‘shock’ us and point us towards the solutions to our longings (https://goo.gl/HQ4bLd). Thus putting religious values on what would have traditionally been seen as non or even anti-religious. One of the earliest examples of this was a Xerox ad where a monk pens the copy of an important religious document. He takes it to the head monk who then asks him for 500 copies. The next scene is the monk in what seems to be a copy shop of some sort, where the copy guy sets up to do the 500 copies. The end result is the monk receiving the 500 copies, looking up to heaven and saying ‘it’s a miracle.’
Since these humble beginnings advertisers have melded our search for meaning, belonging, community, transcendence, wellbeing, flourishing, even generosity (https://goo.gl/iZqkvy) with the selling of their products. An old Honda ad says it well. You may remember the encouragement to dream the impossible dream. It was particularly spectacular when played at the cinema (https://goo.gl/L13obE).
So what are we to do with these competing ‘religions’ both offering us, and to a certain extent delivering similar qualities? Perhaps this guy sums it up, https://goo.gl/j05GSa. On a more serious note, an Erasmus article from 2014 (http://goo.gl/skLx9g) draws some distinctions. Pope Francis sees the advertisers promoting a consumerism with its capitalist roots that gives priority to the outward, the immediate, visible, quick, superficial and provisional. I guess its appeal is the promise of a quick fix, but like any quick fix, pretty soon another is needed and then another. Sociologists tell us that our happiness increases with wealth and the more we have, up to a certain point, usually around what we need to adequately survive. After this the curve flattens out dramatically and our levels of happiness do not increase.
So perhaps a more sustainable future is to strive towards some of the values that religion and advertisers hold out to us. Values such as connection, belonging, purpose, meaning, generosity, compassion, forgiveness. I suspect however we are not going to find these in a product, even a very good one or specifically in a particular religious expression in and of itself. Though together as we work towards a society with these values, we may just touch the divine.