Invitation to Paradise: Cult Marketing
"Post-modern advertising assumes the function of religion and reveals the spirituality of consumption.. What is involved is self-fashioning, a kind of trendy self-invention. Life puts itself on stage and invents its identity..Meaning becomes lifestyle.. Capitalism succeeds in elevating commodities into our gods." The kingdom of goods always threatens the kingdom of God, liberation theology warns.
Invitation to Paradise
Cult Marketing and the Mysteries of the Commodity World
By Kuno Fussel
[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.phil.uni-sb.de/projekte/imprimatur/2000/imp000109.html.]
Whether involving jeans or beer, cars or perfume, insurances or running shoes, the advertising is full of religious symbols and motives. This is not new. The skillful appeals of marketing strategists to our sub-conscious are clear to those who never heard or read anything from Sigmund Freud or Theodor W, Adorno. They follow those appeals without resistance and feel good even if it costs them their money and their lives. Microsoft proclaims the word. "Word" is my text-processing program. Who still mourns this if not an incorrigible lover of wondrously beautiful ancient texts like the Gospel of John whose sublime beginning was:
"In the beginning was the Word"
The Douglas firm whose cosmetics advertising is more familiar to modern students than the story of Adam and Eve courts customers with an "invitation to Paradise" possible with a short but targeted jaunt around the shops. Should we be morally indignant and break out in loud complaints about this shameless exploitation of religious resources or plunge into deep meditation on the unsatisfied religious longings of people lucratively manipulated by marketing and then proclaim with a diffuse satisfaction the indestructibility of the religious? Other possibilities certainly exist.
The new gods of the market
Whoever has time and a certain frustration tolerance towards an orgy of equivocations, lingual sleight of hand and intellectual break dance should read a book that develops a justification discourse ("theory"), concrete trends and strategies with amazing openness and self-satisfaction. The 1995 book titled "Cult Marketing. Two marketing experts, Norbert Bolz, wrote the New Gods of the Market" professor of communication science at the University of Essen and David Bosshart, trend researcher at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute near Zurich. The subtitle was not meant critically but referred in anticipation to the Good News of capitalism proclaimed as an "ultimative religion" whose gods are worshipped eagerly in the temples and high-rise cathedrals of consumption by those masses that have turned away from western Christianity without pangs of conscience. According to these propagandists of cult marketing, this worship is right:
"The religious need grows but is no longer satisfied by Christianity." They are also convinced of a basic anthropological constant, the incurable need of people for meaning:
"Hardly anyone endures living without meaning and without religion. Therefore substitutes for God and the gods must help out - stuntmen of transcendence, so to speak."
The inalienable achievements of religion vital to pass on as a foundation of successful sales strategies are summarized in three theses: "Religion creates world trust... Religion is the management of disappointments... religion is an unerring form of speech advancing openly to the holy." The pier for the jump of the "stuntmen of transcendence" is prepared. They now champion the inscrutability of the market without claiming consistency by taking seriously the fetish character of the commodity. As befits a self-confident, post-modern blockbuster, striking distinctions in the emotional and cognitive powers of the new gods are hardly important. Consider the following short quotations:
"Post-modern advertising assumes the function of religion and reveals the spirituality of consumption."
"Today the showplace of the world is the shopping mall, no longer the church."
"Pop music is the irresistible faith propaganda of western civilization combining the energies of the cult and the market... Pop music is the new cult religion of consumers."
"Communication as religion replaces religious communication today... The divine is the network."
"The invasion of theatricality in everyday life shows that we have lost our fear of appearance and simulation... Media reality absorbs the life-world."
All this has nothing to do with ethics despite the ancient Greek reminiscences of Michel Foucault. What is involved is self-fashioning, a kind of trendy self-invention... Life puts itself on stage and invents its identity... Meaning becomes lifestyle."
Eternity for men
The lesson followed by the sales manager is:
"The economy responds to the invasion of theatricality in everyday life and the kaleidoscopic contingency of the market with cult marketing." In other words, only one thing helps in view of the super saturation or glut of the markets and the dissolution of life in its appearance. The market and consumption must be organized as a religion. Only a commodity stylized as an icon can be marketed. The beautiful appearance determines consciousness, formulated cryptically in "strategies of aesthetic re-enchantment". The perfume "Eternity for men" is saluted...
Whoever regards this as a malicious collage of quotations arranged for exposure should analyze the different contexts of the bewildering language games of the authors. Horrific crossbreeding between "holiness and vulgarity" awaits the reader, the Janus-headed characteristic of the shrewd "market communicator".
The Delusion of the fetish and its devious infinity
The authors insist that the Christian religion and its churches have failed in imparting assistance for life and stilling the eternal longings of people. The two "trend magicians" (as they understand themselves rather than scientists!) characterize the present religious situation as follows: "The need for gods is enormously great in our cool time."
"The gods which disappeared from the heaven of religion now turn up again as idols of the market. Advertising and marketing fill the heaven of ideas that became vacant."
The coherence and reasoning of deception will not be discussed here. Nevertheless the "hostile" takeover of the functions, institutions, achievements and motives of traditional forms of religion by the globalized market demands a comment. That the plausibility framework for their theses is adopted from thinkers like Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno more than from the arsenal of middle class sociology of religion and its master Max Weber is striking. Their analyses and theories are plundered as rigorously as the treasures of the religious traditions. Astonishingly the reflections of Marx critical of religion are exploited to put religion in service of increased sales and the capture of market shares. The capitalism-critical perspective and analysis of Marxist theories are not only completely ignored but also affirmatively applied, reversing capitalism criticism into an apotheosis of the status quo.
A brief summary of the fetishism analysis by K. Marx from the first volume of "Das Kapital" is essential. With Marx, our authors declare that our world is "a vast collection of goods". The double character of practical value and exchange value is adopted. Accordingly goods are not only consumer durables and bearers of value but develop independent life forms through exchange. A fundamental inversion of all relations and a re-evaluation of all values are central.
"The mysterious commodity form is that the social character of their own labor is reflected back to people as the character of the work products. The social relation of producers to the total work is a social relation of objects existing outside them... A certain social relationship of people takes the form of a relationship of things... Fetishism cleaves to work products as soon as they are produced as goods and therefore is inseparable from goods production."
Fetish and Domination
The products of human hands and human heads dominate over people who are transformed unaware from subjects to objects of conditions. People cannot live without participating in goods traffic. However capitalism is that social form that forces them as producers, sellers and consumers to submit to the fetishism of commodities or become uncoupled and mocked as iconoclasts or dreamers. Although exchange through money appears as a rational and just process, it ultimately leads to a life distorted by estrangement, exploitation and private property and threatened by exclusion and death.
The marketing strategy obviously comes to completely different conclusions. The mystery of the commodity shows that its exchange value dominates, not its practical value. This creates profit and becomes the motivation of the capitalist mode of production. In addition commodities as fetishes also embody the fulfillment of longings beyond immediate consumption. The supernatural becomes materially concrete and appropriated as an inscrutable surplus in consumption.
Simultaneously the visible, the useful practical value of the commodity - a pair of trousers is a pair of trousers and not "Jesus-Jeans", a running shoe is a running shoe and not an article of faith, shopping is a necessary act for our latitudes and not a confessional affair and so forth - becomes invisible and disappears from advertising and the stylized public consciousness. Marx wanted to make the invisible visible, namely the rule of capital over people hidden in the exchange value.
As a last deception, the fetish character of the commodity with its conflicting nature promises an apparent infinity of the market. While one cannot buy happiness, the fetish character of the commodity transforms basic human needs into desires that can never be definitively satisfied. This fetish character is kept permanently alive by new reinforcements.
"The great shopping malls are the new cathedrals of consumption... Consumer rituals and the fetish of market articles of all prices naturally fulfill religious functions. The strength of the religion of capitalism lies in its promiscuity. The vagabond... craving for new gods represents the return of Gentile polytheism. The gods of capitalist consumer markets produce endlessly and put their latest creations in the orbit of consumer longings."
Behind this oppressive and nebulous collection of bombastic metaphors is the assertion that the strength of the religion of capitalism lies in a supposedly direct satisfaction of deep-seated human longings and an ability to secularize or concretize the world to come through an endless extension of the supply of goods. In the past, religion had to shift its ultimate guarantees of happiness to the world to come. People are served uninterruptedly in the waiting room of the future since the customer is king. The customer gradually forgets that he was waiting for something very different. He confuses the instrumentalization of his desire with its fulfillment and approves the transfer of interpersonal values and emotions to the world of goods and their captivating appearance called design.
"Whoever really wants to experience something seeks this experience in virtual reality and no longer in empirical reality. Virtual reality is malleable and less sensitive or temperamental."
Eternity begins already in the bathtub when the fragrance of the cult lotion fills the space that has become the universe.
The Inheritance of Marx' criticism of religion: Uncovering true religion through dissolution of the commodity religion
In the 1997 volume of the journal "Junge Kirche", Franz Segbers and Otto Meyer argued with Bolz and Bosshart in a controversial discussion. After Segbers subjected the cult marketing book to vigorous legitimate criticism, Meyer criticized Segbers for missing the crucial problematic and languishing in moral indignation. As a friend of both, I do not want to play the arbitrator or mediator. I share with both the central objection against Bolz/Bosshart that Marx' criticism of religion is nearly castrated. Marx wanted to overcome capitalism, not perpetuate capitalism through transformation in a faith community. Our market radicals are very different:
"Capitalism... (and the commodities themselves) becomes the strongest of all religions... Capitalism succeeds in elevating commodities into our gods."
The marketing prophets refer to Marx that goods function in capitalism like fetishes. The consequences drawn by Marx are ignored. They proudly proclaim what they learned from Marx while announcing that "Marxism has collapsed worldwide". "The mystery of the commodity and the mystery of religion are the same." While Marx hoped that the incredible power of the commodity could be broken in a liberated society, he in no way wanted to remove religion in itself. Marx only wanted to create space for religion as a non-estranged human existence and salvation. For our authors, the commodity is a new "emergence", an index of an ontologically higher "stage of being that arose from the lower self through newly surfacing qualities." This ultimately amounts to a cynical affirmation of estrangement as the supreme stage of human happiness. The joyful march into irrevocable consumer willingness and consumer cult-communities under the fetish of Adidas or Mercedes would mean the end of history that has often threatened as the end of all need for redemption. "I consume, therefore I am." That would be an interpretation of Descartes' famous dictum that he never suspected.
In other words, I no longer consume; thus I am nothing!" The biblical fetishism critique by the prophets and the psalms (cf. for example Ps 115) would harshly denounce the whole marketing cult as idolatry and call to struggle against it. If we do not do this today, does that imply that we approve the cult?
What commodity worshipper hears the reproach of idolatry? What "normal person" feels obliged to listen to the grumbling of leftist theologians, let alone ascribe a "moral value" to their enlightened discourse?
Whether aggressive or resigned, the answer would be unanimous: Prophetic capitalism criticism interests no one any more. Allow me several references to opposite efforts. Since the beginning of the 70s, Franz Hinkelammert and other authors from Latin American liberation theology untiringly presented a theologically established critique of the "idols of the market". What should be done? Read, reflect and act accordingly!
O. Meyer declared: "There is something that can be recovered from the religion of past people insofar as it did not decay to complete masquerade. What is beyond compensation can emerge out of its misuse."
The longing of consumers must be taken seriously and not answered with a lie. This is true for the large department stores, the churches and other communicators of meaning. The imperative should be in effect for all who are entrusted with instruction, proclamation and teaching: Let us learn from the ideologists of marketing that great powers are latent in the religious traditions so that capitalism must monopolize them to survive. We can improve what the traditions did. "Drink from our own wells!" People must not be sacrificed; the idols of the market must be sacrificed. With all original corruption of the free will, the free decision of the will of every person is necessary here and now.
One last advice: no one should buy the Bolz/Bosshart book. If necessary, borrow it.
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