American Demographics, June 1997


Advertising Joins the Journey of the Soul

by Jennifer Harrison

While connecting with the spiritual values of a market may make sense for some companies and products, it may also desecrate a bond of trust with the consumer. The lesson may well be-advertiser be wary.

A twenty-something woman sits in church contritely "confessing" her miserly ways. The pretty penny-pincher just bought a new car. Before she can even finish her tale, the preacher proclaims, "It's not a sin to be frugal!" She rejoices in her prudence, released from guilt to enjoy the performance and sporty looks of her Chevy Cavalier. No, it's not a religious message. It's an advertising message that's joined the journey of the soul.

"Spirituality is in," says Sam Keen, author of Hymns to an Unknown God. Is it any wonder that advertising reflects this cultural reality? More and more ads are drawing on the rich possibilities of religious and spiritual themas and schemas. From cars to beverages, and health care to sports teams, we see signs and portents that Madison Avenue has jumped on the spiritual bandwagon.

IBM's Solutions for a Small Planet campaign features several ads using religious themes. Catholic nuns walk to vespers while speaking of OS/2 networks and surfing the Net. Eastern monks "meditate" telepathically about Lotus Notes on a rocky hillside. Gatorade has Michael Jordan running through Tibetan mountains where he meets an Eastern holy man who imparts this stirring wisdom: "Life is a sport; drink it up."

The new Nissan campaign, designed to reclaim the automotive manufacturer's heritage and redefine its image, is a study in advertising as entertainment. The common thread of the campaign is the Zen-like wisdom provided by an aging Asian hero, and the ethereal, other-worldly feeling evoked by symphonic bells, harmonics, and Eastern mysticism. Two seemingly unconnected phrases repeat themselves: "Life Is a Journey, Enjoy the Ride," and "Dogs Like Trucks." Profound or silly, you decide.

In the celebrated "Got Milk?" campaign from the American Dairy Association, a nasty businessman dies when he steps in front of a truck. He finds himself in a light-filled world with giant chocolate-chip cookies on a table. When he opens the fridge to wash one down with some cold milk, all the cartons are empty. Maybe he's not in heaven after all.

Great Awakening or Cultural Renaissance?

Religious pundits tell us we're experiencing a "great awakening"-a prolonged period of religious interest that occurs periodically in American history. But this awakening is different. In the past, great awakenings were largely spurred by religious revivals. The current one reflects an increasing separation of spiritual values from the constraints of dogma and denomination. "We are experiencing a rise of spiritual individualism and uncorseted spiritual experimentation," says Keen. The institutions of religion are becoming less important, while the spiritual values, disciplines, and ethics they represent have grown in significance.

Watts Wacker, futurist with SRI International of Menlo Park, California, goes a step further. "It's more than just a neo-awakening, or a reawakening. We're at the point in history of the fifth renaissance. About every 500 years, there's a change in the perspective of truth. The last time this happened was when Columbus came here in 1492."

"A culture is composed of five components," says Wacker. "One is a belief system. The second component is day-to-day existence and lifestyle. The third is how we communicate. The fourth component is how we treat other members of our species. The fifth is our orientation to spirituality. Belief systems are usually exclusionary, but orientations to spirituality are inclusionary. The founding fathers saw God as a clockmaker who made the clock, wound it up, brought it down here, and left. I would argue we may be moving to something more akin to God as co-conspirator, which would be a fundamental change in orientation to spirituality," says Wacker. And just who is this God as co-conspirator? "It's the God within you. It's turning your life over to a higher power, but recognizing that higher power lives within you," he says.

"The pendulum of human nature is that you either move toward consensus into the middle, or you pull in opposite directions at the same time. Right now, we have people who are on the edge of making religion what it will become in the future, like Unitarianism, and we also have incredible strength in Fundamentalism. They both happen at the same time."

A recent Snickers commercial plays on this cultural diversity. A football team is in the locker room getting ready for the big game. The coach tells them: "This year, we've got to be more politically correct in the team prayer." Turning to a Catholic priest he quips: "Hit it, Padre." The priest says a short prayer. He's followed by a rabbi, who's followed by a Native American, who's followed by a Buddhist. As the camera pans the room, we see a whole lineup of spiritual leaders waiting to bless the team. The tag line says, "Not going anywhere for awhile? Grab a Snickers."

Books as Soothsayers

The share of Americans who believe in some sort of divine power has remained constant for decades. Likewise, churchgoing rates haven't done anything noticeable in recent years. So how do we know a spiritual renaissance is underway? In a word, it's books.

Booksellers have reported big gains in the sale of religious and spiritual titles in the 1990s. "Religion books are the fastest-growing adult tradebook category," says Lynn Garrett, religion editor of Publishers Weekly. One Spirit, one of nine specialty clubs of the Book of the Month Club, is the fastest-growing club in the company's history. Ingram Books, the nation's largest book wholesaler, saw a 249 percent growth in this genre in mid-1994.

This exponential growth of religious publishing has slowed, says Phyllis Tickle, recently retired religion editor of Publishers Weekly. "What looked like malignant growth 18 months or two years ago has now settled down into controllable growth," Tickle told the 1996 American Booksellers Association annual convention. She says that religion "product" is now growing at 27 percent annually.

Books are good cultural soothsayers because "human beings are slow to change their public and social ways," says Tickle, author of Rediscovering the Sacred: Spirituality in America. "We are especially slow to express aloud religious beliefs or visibly pursue religious patterns that are too divergent from those of our community. Books are private. Books don't tell, especially in matters of the spirit."

Tickle groups religious books into four rubrics: ancient wisdom, self-help, near death and other psychic phenomenon, and religious fiction. "In aggregate, books can expose a landscape. And what books currently are establishing about our landscape is a burgeoning and generalized absorption with spirituality and religion in America today," says Tickle. "Books are diagnostic not of what we say we are doing, but of what we really are doing with our time and inside our respective interiors."

Connecting with Consumers

If it's true that Americans are looking into their spiritual selves more intensely these days, it only makes sense for marketers to key in to these deeply held beliefs and values. Striking a spiritual chord is delicate work, though.

Some advertising uses traditional religion as fodder for lighthearted mini-dramas, such as the "Chevrolet Confessions" and "Got Milk?" campaigns. Other ads use spiritual themes to create or recreate memories, sensations, or emotions that are experiential in nature. These ads cue feelings that marketers want us to connect with their products. Experiential ads are largely positive, feel-good messages. A recent television commercial for Campbell Soup uses joyful gospel music to suggest how its premium soups will make you feel.

The cotton industry's ongoing campaign is a good example of how a spiritual theme can powerfully connect with consumers on an experiential level. During the 1996 holiday season, one of its TV commercials shows a family gathered around the table, everyone dressed in their Sunday best. We're told "joy is not like a pie; the more you share, the bigger it gets." The message cues us to experience our own sense of connection to our families and the satisfaction of sharing happiness with them.

But if a person's family is less than warm and nurturing, ads like this may unintentionally trigger feelings of sadness and loss. Sometimes sadness is deliberately evoked. An American Express commercial used John Lennon's song "Imagine" and images of the downtrodden and poor to stir people's compassion and encourage their use of its credit card in a "Charge against Hunger."

The Chevy Tahoe campaign is cast in the values of eco-theology. The ads extol reverence for the natural world and show us images of idyllic natural beauty. One commercial uses a Zen-like quote from John Muir; another quotes Teddy Roosevelt. Both messages suggest that regard for the natural world leads to inner peace. The imagery and words suggest the vehicle will connect you with nature, your higher self, and provide you sanctuary.

Car ads tend to be experiential, says Tim Keaton, truck account supervisor at Campbell Ewald, the Warren, Michigan, advertising agency that created the Tahoe campaign. People tend to see their car as an extension of themselves. "How they feel about themselves is how they see their vehicle. A car is like a cowboy with his horse; it's a trusted friend," says Keaton.

Traditional and more formal religion has its place, too. An animated television spot shows St. Elizabeth's hospital in Ohio and cuts to a close-up of a large cross on the building's exterior. The voice over tells us the hospital has a long tradition of values and they "haven't forgotten what's important." A print ad for the hospital shows a stained-glass image of Jesus Christ with outstretched hands. The caption reads "For 84 years, we've turned to medical science for knowledge and to a more powerful source for guidance."

Catholic nuns founded HM Health Services and the two hospitals it owns in Ohio. "Their religious affiliation and motivations are part of who they are," says Joanne Kim, vice president of IRA Thomas Associates, an advertising agency in Youngstown. The target market is middle-income women aged 25 to 54, in a heavily Catholic market. Consumers who evaluated advertising storyboards told the agency they felt reassured knowing the health-care provider is grounded in a spiritual mission. The ads clearly and unapologetically communicate the religious identity of the organization.

Then there is a heaven-made match of two of America's greatest interests-spirituality and sports. The San Diego Padres went through a losing streak, big changes in its team roster, and a change of ownership. The baseball team needed to rebuild and regain the support of its demoralized fans. The Di Zinno Thompson advertising agency of San Diego created a campaign asking fans to "Keep the Faith" and resurrected the team's old mascot, a friar, as its new logo. Television ads introduced the "Gospel of Baseball" according to different players, a retired baseball legend, and even a priest. The soundtrack used gospel music with the refrain, "Support the Padres and keep the faith." The result? Attendance has doubled, fans are happy-and so are the new owners. Although San Diego is religiously diverse, the ads resonate with core values that cross denominational lines-namely faith, loyalty, and hope.

Crossing the Offensive Line

Some ads go for shock value, such as the Colors of Benneton print ad of a nun and a priest kissing. A radio spot for a used-music store in Cincinnati features a "confession" by a young man to a priest that he has sold his CDs, for a rare Madonna. The priest asks for clarification: "A rare Madonna and Child?" The young man replies, "No, it was before she got knocked up." While the target market may find such humor amusing, others are likely to find it over the top and offensive.

When does an ad cross the border of poor taste? Some people find any use of religious themes or symbols to sell products a mockery of the sacred. Some ads even poke fun at religion. The Snickers "Team Prayer" commercial makes light of the plurality of our religious beliefs (although not any particular faith) and the politically correct movement. The ad makes some people laugh, it strikes some people as weird, and others find it offensive.

Jerry Winans, the 42-year-old editor of a nonprofit religious magazine, finds the Snickers ad annoying. "Ad makers are out of touch with mainstream America," he says. "Religious practices are an important aspect of life for millions of Americans. Many men, especially boomers, are seeking God. This ad seems to be made by creative types who don't believe in anything religious, so it's okay to make fun of those who do. Isn't tolerance supposed to be the holy writ for the high priests of political correctness? Would Mars 'snicker' at people's racial differences? Unlikely. So why is it okay to show football players suffering through a series of spiritual messages?"

"By their very nature, spiritual and religious themes in advertising are high profile, which means they draw a tremendous amount of attention to you," says Watts Wacker of SRI. "Part of that attention will be negative. That's the big thing I would say to caution people. Be careful what you wish for, because you're going to get it. You may not know what the consequences are."

"Spiritual and religious themes should be relevant to the client or the product, or they just don't ring true," says Kim of IRA Thomas Associates. The Colors of Benneton ad with the kissing nun and priest used religion for shock value, something Kim says she'd never do.

Whether the goal is to antagonize, amuse, or inspire, marketers need to be in spiritual synch with themselves as well as their customers. "You have to understand your own corporate mythology-Who are you? What is your belief system?-before you start delving into the realm of spirituality as part of your message construction," says Wacker. "Do spiritual motives work? Yes, but you really have to know what you're doing."

About the author

Jennifer Harrison is a freelance writer in Indianapolis, Indiana. 
Copyright 1997 © Cowles Business Media. Reproduction for other than personal use without the permission of Cowles Business Media is prohibited.

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