How the consumerist, media-advertising-complex functions like a religion in giving people meaning in life. Part A
The complex of consumer business, marketing, advertising, the media -- and an underpinning capitalist philosophy -- forms a structure or web that functions like a religion. Media-orchestrated imaginations of what life should be like are projected and these have a significant influence on the way people think, develop values and behave. This part of culture needs critical evaluation; and education and religious education can have an important role.
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Domus Dei et coeli porta means "The House of God (the Church) and the gate of heaven:

What does O M G stand for?

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Brief overview of content of this section

The film and drama studies term mise-en-scène, while normally not applied as an analytical construct relevant to spirituality, is used here to expand an understanding of contemporary secular spirituality – particularly in the way it is expressed through visual imagery. 

Another unusual element in this material is the comparison drawn between contemporary secular spirituality and traditional medieval Christian spirituality.  While in two very different cultures at distinct periods of history, both have been dominated by a universal visual iconography that mediated powerful cultural sources of meaning and values;  these were like the pillars that structured a unified social reality for the people of the time, shaping their views of meaning and purpose to life.  The dominant cultural imagery in both situations conditioned the perceived underlying narrative or mise-en-scène for life. 

In addition to providing educators with a way of interpreting contemporary spirituality, the approach illustrates a religious education pedagogy for exploring spiritual and moral dimensions to contemporary living in contrast with the way life was interpreted in the past from an almost exclusively religious perspective.

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Each of us, in his own life, must seek ways of resisting and transcending technological determinism. . . The first act of freedom is to become aware of this necessity

Jacques Ellul  1954

The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture of 29 minutes duration)

Use of the term mise en scène as an analytical construct
Emerging understandings of relationships between media, religion and secularisation
Writings in marketing/advertising hinting at the rise of consumerism as the dominant contemporary religion


In secularised, Westernised societies, the dominant cultural theme is consumerist and capitalist and this has become the principal shaping influence on people's thinking about life – and therefore on their spirituality (Hamilton, 2003).  The term secular spirituality has been used to describe the situation (Ashley, 2000; Crossman, 2003; du Toit, 2006; Mason et al. 2007).  However, many would be unlikely to characterise their thinking as a form of ‘spirituality', particularly in the sense of the conscious cultivation of ‘reflectiveness';  the more relevant concern for them would be ‘lifestyle'.  But because all lifestyles have embedded values, one could still use the term secular spirituality by default.  This usage is helpful for drawing comparisons with religious spirituality.

Appraising the health of people's spirituality thus becomes one of the important evaluative roles of education generally and religious education in particular.  Hill (1990) summarised this critical role as the interrogation of one's cultural conditioning – the educational context for this Section.  It proposes an analysis and interpretation of contemporary secular spirituality with particular reference to the way in which it is mediated by contemporary cultural imagery.

This material gives special attention to the role of the visual in mediating and shaping spirituality.  The trajectory of the arguments also implies a pedagogy that can be useful in the professional development of educators, in engaging them to think through the issues.  Similarly, it could inform pedagogy for school students in investigating how cultural change has affected spirituality, and for learning how to ‘read' the visual clues that show how people are interpreting the meaning of life.

Use of the term mise-en-scène as an analytical construct

The term ‘mise-en-scène' is used in film and drama studies to interpret the meaning of the story being told (Bordwell & Thompson, 2003).  It is the framework or subtext that helps make sense of the actions of the characters – like the ‘fabric' or ‘trajectory' of the story (Monaco, 2009).  It is a commentary on what is happening in their lives, an interpretation of why they are responding to their situation in the way they do.  In particular, it is about the way people respond to the cultural visual cues and clues that condition the way they think and feel about life.  The mise-en-scène involves a dynamic interplay between story, clues that give meaning to the actions in the story, and presumptions about social reality that underpin the story.

One brief example illustrates the complex notion of mise-en-scène:-

Picasso:  If one looks around a gallery of Picasso paintings and drawings, you do not fully appreciate the angular distortions, exaggerations and disjunctions in the artist's language unless you understand the underlying mise-en-scène out of which he operated.  Life in Spain and elsewhere in the world in the 1930s was becoming increasingly fraught.  Picasso felt unable to paint in a naturalistic way because for him such naturalism would not reflect the anxieties, problems and tensions that he and others were experiencing.  He was trying to say something about what lay beneath the surface depiction of life. Click here or photo for the video example of a gallery of Picasso paintings.

This brief explanation of mise-en-scène would not satisfy film studies academics;  but it is sufficient for the investigation undertaken here.

Shifting the focus of the term from film/media studies to trying to identify and read the mise-en-scène of people's everyday lives can help with the interpretation of contemporary secular spirituality.  It identifies the framework or story line within which they search for and articulate goals and aspirations for life.  This approach illustrates the ways people refer to, and interact with, cultural meanings that end up having a shaping influence on what they think about life and how they behave.  Mise-en-scène can be a useful analytical lens for investigating spirituality.

While the principal concern here is contemporary, relatively non-religious, secular spirituality (Smith & Denton, 2005; Hughes, 2007), mise-en-scène will be used historically to contrast this with traditional, medieval Christian religious spirituality, highlighting how and why spirituality has changed so much.  The reasons for the comparison are threefold:  firstly, the visual plays a prominent role in each;  secondly, many people have a complex mixture of the traditional and the contemporary in their spirituality;  and thirdly, most of the religion curricular in Catholic schools (the area of application of special interest to the author) tend to be traditional in orientation.  How this analysis might apply to other religions like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism etc. will not be considered here.

There have been fundamental changes in Christian spirituality since the middle ages, but especially over the last 60 years.  But basically, human beings are the same across history, drawing on culture to help them make sense of the world they live in and of their own experience.  They need some sort of meaning to serve as a moral compass and to help them articulate their goals and aspirations for life.  As noted in Section 3, in their own ways people work out practical answers to the questions posed in Paul Gauguin's painting entitled D´où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? allons-nous? 1897 – Where have we come from? What are we? Where are we going?  There is a fundamental, genetic human need and aspiration to construct a mise-en-scène about life – even if this is not articulated as such by the people themselves, because some values stance is always implied in human behaviour and lifestyle;  and even if the meaning that some despairingly choose is that there is ‘no meaning'.

Why start with medieval spirituality?

The reason for the surprising starting point of the analysis with medieval Christian spirituality needs to be explained – as well as the need to show how this might help elucidate contemporary secular spirituality.  To elaborate on the first reason noted above:  In medieval times and today, visual imagery made/makes a significant impact on people's mise-en-scène for life.  Medieval Christians, most of whom were illiterate, learned their beliefs from stories at home and in homilies and through liturgy, and in cultural productions like morality plays.  But what was enduringly prominent was the visual depiction of their faith in the architecture and religious art of their churches.  As explained in more detail later, through the geographical dominance of the spires of village churches and city cathedrals, the awe inspiring structure of these edifices, and the church frescoes, statues, paintings and relics, their beliefs and aspirations for life were taught, assimilated and continually validated and reinforced.  It was estimated roughly that in 12th century France there was one ecclesiastical structure for about every 200 people.  Their churches were like the first ‘picture theatres' and their art like the first ‘powerpoints'.  Here, visual elements were fundamental in shaping and sustaining their religious mise-en-scène.  For many, this may have been the only visual imagery they were ever exposed to.

Today, the visual remains important for the construction of meaning and purpose in life for both religious and non-religious people.  But in Westernised countries, the culture is saturated with visual imagery.  People have instant digital access to exponentially large volumes of imagery that can affect their imagination of what life should be like.  Just as medieval Christians could not escape the dominance of the religious mise-en-scène of their time, people today cannot really avoid the atmospheric presence of the consumer lifestyle complex attested to by media imagery;  they have to take it into account as they chart their way through life.  Some will go along with the cultural flow in a passive way;  hopefully, education can persuade others to take a more discerning stance.

Contrasting the ways people in these two periods related to the visual aspects of their culture will show up significant differences in the focus, emphasis, beliefs, values and presumptions about life and the spiritual dimension.  It will show how the different ‘iconographies' generated very different estimates of what the ‘good life' means.  It will be argued that the centrality of the visual imagery in both contexts justifies the comparisons;  and the results suggest that in many ways, contemporary consumerist lifestyle functions like a ‘religion', one which projects a coherent, global social reality, and which holds a dominant sway on the way people think about life and a powerful conditioning influence on their values and behaviour.

So special attention will be given to ‘decoding' the ways personal meaning is mediated by the visual.  This can also be described as ‘decoding the iconography', showing how visual elements have meaning-making symbolism, and which propose values and validate beliefs.  This involves critical interpretation of the meaning of imagery.  It borrows from the generic use of the term iconography in the visual arts where it is a study of how artists use visual elements as references and allusions that generate meaning (Panofsky, 1983; Van Straten, 1994).  Also, the word has a secondary specific meaning referring to the production of religious icons in the Byzantine and Orthodox Christian traditions (Cormack, 1985; Kenna, 1985).  Both of these usages are pertinent here because artifacts in both the Eastern and Western Christian traditions have long been regarded as icons which were considered to connect believers with the religious world and the realities of salvation history (Schiller, 1971);  they made salvation history present again and they drew the believer into that realm promoting reflection, devotion and prayer.  This still happens for religious people today.  But for many, even those who identify themselves as religious, the images in popular culture that dominate their mise-en-scène are very different.

The pervading Christian world view encapsulated in their art helped Medieval Christians interpret their world.  Today people also have a pervading visual imagery about life;  they have to reference their personal meaning to the globalised, intimate visual culture that is everywhere around them and to which they can have instant access.  In the contrasting situations, there are significant differences in the types of visual items and how people relate to them, and in how they communicate meaning.  Understanding these differences is not only important for comprehending the evolution of secular spirituality, and how people can have various mixtures of religious and secular elements in their spirituality, but, as noted above, it can also be used fruitfully as a pedagogy in religious education.



Marshall McLuhan 1911 - 1980

McLuhan and media studies:  How the new media, especially Television, can shape people's thinking about life.
From the 1950s, Marshall McLuhan impacted media studies through his view that the new electronic media were like ‘extensions' of the human being or like new languages that opened up fresh possibilities for interaction.

The medium is the messageThis is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.

The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village. (McLuhan & Powers, 1989)

He tended to regard the developments as inevitable and positive.  Rather than talk about the ways in which media might influence people personally in both healthy and unhealthy ways, he described how they would learn, communicate and act through the media.  For McLuhan, electronic media (especially television) became the "great educator" (McLuhan, 1956, 1970;  Beale, 1987).  He discounted formal education:

The school system, custodian of print culture, has no place for the rugged individual.  It is, indeed, the homogenizing hopper into which we toss our integral tots for processing.” (McLuhan, ND 2013C)

McLuhan, and other media researchers from the 1960s onwards established beyond doubt that the new electronic media would have a shaping influence on how people got information, how they communicated and how they were entertained, as well as on what they thought about life – this affected the ways in which they constructed personal meaning, and ultimately this would flow over into beliefs, values and behaviour. 

Television seduces us from the literate and private point of view to the complex and inclusive world of the group icon.  Instead of presenting a private argument it offers a way of life that is for everybody. (McLuhan, 1964, p. 245).

Pierre Babin 1925 - 2012

The Audiovisual Man -- published in 1970

Pierre Babin -- How media studies and McLuhanist ideas can enhance and inform Religious Education

The French scholar Pierre Babin quickly responded to McLuhan's ideas applying them to religious education (Babin, 1970).  He conducted two national programs for Catholic religious educators in Australia in the 1970s.  He introduced Photolanguage (1969) which was used for many years in Australia in school retreats and adult professional development programs.

There were two principal elements to his approach.  Firstly he proposed a fundamental need to understand what he called "audiovisual man" (sic);  in other words, education needed to take into account the changed ways in which individuals construct meaning and values as influenced by new media, especially television.  Secondly he proposed that an understanding of how media work should inform pedagogy.  His practical work with students usually involved the development of the "audiovisual montage" together with a special emphasis on SYMBOLISM, which used colour slides, music and commentary.  He proposed that the best in audiovisual techniques and content should be used in the service of educating in the faith tradition.  More recently, he reflected on what this meant in an internet age. (Babin & Zukowski, 2002).

Harvey Cox 1929 --

Harvey Cox a United States theologian who tried to make sense of the growing secularisation of Western cultures and who identified the people's popular religion is something that was not always congruent with official, 'organised' religion, and he saw how elements of culture could seduce people away from a healthy spiritual identity.

William Kuhns

William Kuhns, US Media Scholar in the McLuhan tradition, looked at he semi-religious functions of film and television.
Kuhns followed up the work of McLuhan and other media researchers, looking into the way that television appeared to be taking over sociological and psychological functions that were formerly performed by religion
– especially as regards myth, ritual, magic and priesthood etc. (Kuhns, 1969A).  He situated his analysis within a broader study of the social influence of new communications technology.

He considered that both religion and the entertainment media acted in society and in people's lives as an environment or milieu – to the extent that each provided an enveloping web of meanings within which people could make sense of their experience.  For religion it was oriented towards a spiritual/religious way of ordaining and living one's life.  For film/television it was more existentially focused on the pleasant experience of entertainment.  His comparison of ‘religious milieu' with ‘entertainment milieu' showed elements that seemed to function in the same way.  There were significant functional links between religion and entertainment.

Kuhns saw fantasy/myth as central to the entertainment experience: “It is a kind of temporary redemption from the tensions of daily existence in a technological culture. … There is indeed a direct ratio between the growth of technology and the intensification of fantasies.” (Kuhns, 1969A, p. 155).  While the fantasy/myths of religion were intended to be instrumental in conveying lasting truths about the purpose and meaning of life, those of film/television were ends in themselves, for entertainment and not about trying to communicate values or purposes for life. 

But because of the dominant theme of narrative in film/television, meanings and values were always embedded parts of the story;  and the widespread and free availability of these meanings/values made them readily accessible to people even at a relatively unconscious level.  Hence it is not implausible that film/television could serve a religious function for people to varying degrees.  For example:  In a sense, the talk-show hosts have become the new priests, presiding over people's review of persona life.  Morality is presented but usually in a simplistic good-evil polarity with the middle ground missing, the very place where in real life most moral decisions are made.  The celebrities and TV personalities have become the new ‘saints'.

Kuhn's ideas from the 1960s about the personal influence of film/television and how the Christian church might understand and relate to the electronic media showed both an astute diagnosis of culture in his own time as well as a prophetic insight into the developments that would unfold into the 21st century.  For example he addressed each of the following issues:

Issues identified

Comments by Kuhns, 1969A

Best role for the church in relation to the entertainment media

“[the church could be] a vital force in society for creating a critical awareness of the entertainment milieu.”

using the media themselves to comment on the nature and meaning of the media; ..analysis of themes and techniques.” (p. 163).

“[The church should] be a community, but not a highly structured authoritarian organisation.  Its key concerns would not be proselytising and converting others, but educating people to the languages and techniques by which their lives are being shaped. ... church authority would emerge from the social concern which the community exerts, the depth with which they care about the present and the future.” (p. 164).

The critical role of educators

promoting the kind of self-awareness so imperative today.”

“As the [electronic media] become increasingly potent in shaping society, someone should be capable of maintaining the critical distance necessary for judging the moral and aesthetic directions which people take as a result" (p. 163)

Focus on morality

“Morality [should be transformed] from a sensitivity to sin and virtue to a large sensitivity to freedom.  [In electronic media] new kinds of freedom become available, but too often at the cost of new forms of manipulation.”

“The entertainment milieu tends of its nature to take on the task of the religious milieu in times past – of reasserting the popular moral beliefs.” (p. 164)

Cultural postmodernity: The natural level of uncertainty in spiritual/religious knowing

“The entertainment milieu has transformed the ways in which we believe and are capable of believing.  An absolute kind of belief, as well as a belief in absolutes, becomes increasingly difficult as the entertainment milieu trains people to believe tentatively and with elasticity.” (p. 165).

Postmodern problems with religious belief

“A total belief in God must be rooted in a total belief in something tangible, but in a world of plastic furniture and television commercials, the tangible realities are cause more for disbelief than belief.” (p. 165)

“In the future a total belief may be virtually impossible (and similarly undesirable): perhaps the only viable belief in God will be riddled with doubt, and constantly shifting with the fluctuations of the reality-fantasy ratios created by the entertainment milieu.” (p. 166).

Raymond Williams 1921 - 1988

Raymond Williams the Welsh sociologist differed from McLuhan primarily in the way he considered that the media needed to be appraised within a broader cultural framework including the economy – media studies needed to be part of wider cultural studies.  He saw an important need in a 'critical' role for education.

Whereas McLuhan saw the personal influence of media as inevitable, Williams singled media out as a social construction that needed to be evaluated critically (Williams, 1974, 1976, 1980).  He pointed out that if cultural meanings were taken-for-granted as ‘reality' rather than as ‘consciously constructed reality', they would remain invisible and not open to critique and evaluation.  Precisely because culture (including media) was socially constructed, it should therefore not be treated as something that is a given and inevitable, and whose consequences and implications had to be accepted relatively unquestioningly.  He proposed cultural agency:  that rather than being ‘passive consumers' of culture, people should become ‘active constructors' of culture (Williams, 1980, 1995).  This meant the critical interpretation and evaluation of cultural meanings, and consequent action flowing from this evaluation, even if this was just within the boundaries of individuals' own small life worlds.  They had the capacity to change and develop their own attitudes and values.  They did not have to just drift along blindly accepting what the popular culture was proposing in terms of ideals, imaginations, beliefs and values.

Taking elements of culture as givens in an uncritical way was simply giving in to the power of those who were principally involved in shaping the main contours of contemporary consumerist culture.  The cultural critique proposed by Williams resonated with the thinking of the critical theorists dating back from the 1930s. Williams' treatise on television from 1974 was remarkably prescient in that it remains pertinent today in the issues it identified, some of which could even be applied to contemporary internet social networking (Williams, 1974).

Michael Warren

Michael Warren, US scholar, used Williams' cultural agency in his theory for religious education and church ministry, suggesting that educators should help young people scrutinise the imaginations of life that were being orchestrated for them through the complex of film, television, marketing, advertising and consumer industries.

Both Williams and Warren considered that it was not just the media that required critical evaluation, but the web of interrelated cultural and economic activity that permeated the media – this network will here be called for convenience the consumerist lifestyle complex.  Their concern was larger than McLuhan-like media studies;  it was the interpretation and evaluation of contemporary culture.

Neil Postman 1931 - 2003

Neil Postman: US scholar focusing on entertainment and education -- the need for educational critique.

Concerned about the potential personal influence of media, Postman, at New York University, was another voice like that of Williams proposing that the relatively rosy picture of media/technology painted by McLuhan was naïve;  it needed systematic cultural critique

One of the significant differences between McLuhan and Postman was in their views of the role of school education with respect to the mass media.  Aware of the potentially negative influence of mass media, McLuhan predicted that “Education will one day become civil defence against media fallout” (McLuhan, 1964, p.326).  But generally he felt approvingly that television was the ‘great educator', that its educative influence was inevitable and that schools were too wedded to an outmoded book-literacy culture (McLuhan, 1956, 1970).  His contemporaries noted his dismissive view of education that included the well-known phrases:  School education is “marching backward into the future” and “children interrupt their education each day to attend school.” (Collins, 1971; Benedetti & DeHart, 1997).

Postman was conscious of this influential educational role of television which in a sense had its ‘own curriculum' which revolved almost exclusively around living for the moment, on entertainment and on being immediately and intrinsically gratifying.  In his book Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in an age of show business (1985), he argued that television was skewing people's perceptions of life through its overwhelming orientation towards entertainment: “Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, colour it, argue a case for what the world is like.” (Postman, 1985, p. 10.). Note the parallels with the earlier ideas of William Kuhns. Because it shapes people's conditioned expectations for entertainment, television tends to have a trivialising effect on politics, education, religion, journalism etc.  That courtroom trials could become public entertainment is an example.  Wolf (1999) wrote about the ‘entertainment economy' and how media conglomerates were conditioning people's life expectations.  The genre of reality television and the social media are developments that illustrate Postman's argument more forcefully these days.

Postman considered that television was young people's ‘First curriculum' with school coming in second.  TV was (at that time) the main component of an information environment which resulted in a culture ‘overdosed' on change.  While the prominent co-author of the famous book Teaching as a subversive activity (1969) which highlighted the critical role of education, Postman felt that the evaluative role of education needed to be complemented with a conserving role.

One may call it ‘future shock', ‘culture shock', ‘technology shock' or whatever.  The plain fact is that too much change too fast for too long has the effect of making social institutions useless and individuals perpetually unfit to live amid the conditions of their own culture ... we have reached the point where the problem of conservation, not growth, must now be solved.  We know very well how to change but have lost the arts of preservation.  Without at least a reminiscence of continuity and tradition, without a place to stand from which to observe change, without a counter-argument to the overwhelming thesis of change, we can easily be swept away – in fact are being swept away.   (Postman, 1979, p. 21.)

This concern about the potentially damaging aspects of rapid technological change (Postman, 1993) was the basis of Postman's (1979, 1996) ‘thermostatic' view of education.  It meant that school education should help counter-balance the current biases of the culture.  When the culture tended to be tradition-bound, promoting innovation was a valuable educational contribution;  conversely, when the rest of the cultural environment is changing rapidly through technology and electronic communications, it is important for education to help conserve tradition.  An appreciative, historical perspective on cultural traditions is not necessarily contrary to being critical;  rather, it can provide an informed diagnostic view on how best to adapt to change, and it can help people understand the cultural forces and events that have a subtle shaping effect on their personal development.

In a culture of high volatility and casual regard for its past, such a responsibility [for cultural conservation and perspective] becomes the school's most essential service.  The school stands as the only mass medium capable of putting forward the case for what is not happening in the culture. (Postman, 1979, p. 21-22)

Referring to the critical perspective that hopefully schools might engender in young people, he claimed that “What has the most relevance to students is that which the information environment least provides them.” (Postman, 1979, p. 131).  This was consistent with his earlier colourful statement that all children were born with “inbuilt crap detectors” and that a key role for teachers was to help refine this instrument (Postman & Weingartner, 1969, p. 16).


1. General literature on marketing/advertising
2. Marketing/advertising concerned with 'selling' religion -- religion as a 'brand'
3. Marketing/advertising learning from religion about how to
make consumers into 'true believers' in their favourite brands.

1. (Example) Jonah Sachs

Jonah Sachs (Marketing/Advertising). Successful marketing/advertising taps into fundamental myths about life that are currently powerful in the culture. Marketers can function as myth makers. There can by mythic deficiencies that astute people can try to fill. And there can be 'story wars' as myths struggle for traction in the culture and therefore try to gain holds over people's souls -- and their potential retail value as consumers.

2. Phil Cooke. Selling religion as a 'brand' and similarities between religion and brands.

Phil Cooke (Marketing/Advertising) Recent thinking about the way consumer culture functions like a religion – especially in ‘branding' The title of chapter 4 of Cooke's (2012) book, Unique: Telling your story in the age of brands and social media, is "A new religion?"  Cooke considered that commercial branding functioned like a religion;  it created a receptive 'resonance' in consumers by propagating the following feelings:  sense of belonging; being part of a select community;  experiencing collective rituals;  and, having a shared belief system.  These are characteristics of religions, and hence Cooke considered that branding was "becoming a type of religious experience in America." (p.64).  He added that there were "some intriguing parallels that are difficult to ignore.  In many ways, corporate America is subtly attempting to replace religion with branding, at least in the West."  The parallels can be identified;  but the claim that business corporations are part of a conspiracy to replace religion seems unrealistic.  The religious function of consumerist advertising is more an unintended consequence.

Cooke's interest in this question stems from his work as a media consultant to religious and not-for-profit organisations.  His view of branding was not as strongly focused on the problems with commercial/consumer branding as was the case with writers like Klein (2000).  Refer to the discussion of branding in the second part of this Section.  He regarded branding as a broader phenomenon that operated across many sectors including the national, political, sports, religious, and volunteer etc.  For him branding meant using the media and advertising with integrity to ‘tell the story' of a particular organisation, person, service or product in a compelling way.  In a world where there was both hyper-connectedness and hyper-distractedness, he sought ways of helping organisations to get their unique message across where the message was not always held in high regard by the popular culture.  In short, he was working for a better branded Christian church.

Cooke's argument is as follows:

Today, brands are the tool for defining our place in the culture, and they have given our capitalist society markers for determining who we are, where we belong and our status in relation to othersBranding helps us express ourselves to the greater community of believers.

Brand communicates ideas, values and standardsWhat was expressed a generation ago through religious affiliation is now communicated through what we wear, the car we drive and the pen that sits in our pockets.
To a secular culture brands and religion have merged.
. . savvy marketers and advertisers have tapped into our global human aspirations for a sense of belonging, value, meaning and worship, and have turned ordinary, everyday products into brands – and eventually brands into religions.
In a secular society, brands are worshipped as gods . We value them, express loyalty to them and associate with others of like-minded belief. (Cooke, 2012, p. 66).

Beaudoin, in his book Consuming faith: Integrating who we are with what we buy (2003), claimed that the 'brand economy' could give people some sense of meaningfulness to life in the same way that religion did in the past.  His interest was in encouraging Christians to take a more discerning stance in their engagement with consumerism.

Hanlon (2003) was also interested in the way that consumer brands functioned like belief systems.  In his book Primal branding, he proposed a "Primal code" in which he identified seven key areas where he felt that consumer branding intersected with religion:-

  • 1. Creation stories.  Successful brands need a distinctive aetiological myth – the story of their origins that mythologised their history, uniqueness and popular status.
  • 2.  Creeds.  Top brands need iconic belief statements, like the Nike "Just do it".  These short creeds encapsulate their cachet and values;  they are universally recognised;  and people can readily identify with them, reinforcing their consumer faith.
  • 3.  Icons.  Instantly recognisable logos function like religious symbols for successful brands.  Words are unnecessary;  consumer logos are invested with symbolic meaning that can even become part of individuals' sense of personal identity (see Montoya & Vandehey, 2003, The brand called you.)
  • 4.  Rituals.  While shopping either in-store on online has become ritualised, this is intensified in branding where marketing, advertising and the purchasing experience itself seek to engage consumers in living out their consumer faith in a regular patterned way.
  • 5.  Pagans and non-believers.  These are the people who do not use a particular branded product or who follow the belief system of a rival.  Belief polarities are therefore common: Coke vs Pepsi, PC vs Mac, i-Phone vs Android etc.
  • 6.  Sacred words.  Great branded products tend to develop their own language or distinctive ‘lingo'.  This contributes to a sense of ‘in group' or brand loyalty that meshes with product cachet and which is projected and reinforced by creeds, icons and rituals.
  • 7.  Leaders.  Great brands are often associated with their founders, brilliant developers and smart entrepreneurs.  The cult of the leader can contribute to a brand's following and commercial success (E.g. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs).  For faithful consumers, they exercise an influence that is comparable with that of religious leaders.  A related cult of leaders is also evident in the celebrity endorsements of brands.  Here, the cachet and popularity of endorsing movie and sports stars hopefully rub off onto the emotional association between consumers and brands.

Lindstrom (2007) too wrote about links between branding and religion.  He thought that the activity of marketers and advertisers engaged in commercial branding was directly influenced by their awareness of the functions of religious faith.  He proposed 10 areas where there were parallel functions between religion and branding – as if the former provided a useful template for consumer branding to follow.  His 10 characteristics overlapped to some extent with Hanlon's seven;  Cooke (2012, p. 79) referred to them as the Ten Commandments of Branding.

The focus of the writers noted above has been on relationships between religion and commercial branding.  The project here has a larger scope – it is concerned with the way in which the advertising-media conglomerate mediates a global religion of consumerism.  For Catholics, it is interesting to note that this theme resonates with comments about critical interpretation of culture in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium by Pope Francis (2013).  The Pope used semi-religious imagery to highlight the economic imperative that drives consumerism:

In the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional.  What is real gives way to appearances. . . The culture of prosperity deadens us;  we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase.  [There is] a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of . . . the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.  (#62, 54)

The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.  The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings;  man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption. . . . [in] the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule. #55-56.


While there is not time or space available here, what might have been logically considered now is other writing about the church/religion as a commercial business. Some churches seem to profess that "Jesus wants you to be wealthy."

Religious consumer spirituality emerges where religion becomes ‘business oriented'.  For example: the Christian minister Rick Warren referred to himself a ‘Stealth Evangelist'.  He saw himself capitalising on a “new great awakening spiritually in America”.  “I'm not a bureaucrat … I'm a spiritual entrepreneur” promising to “reduce your stress, focus your energy, simplify your decisions, give meaning to your life and … prepare you for eternity” (Baird, 2004, p. 18).  The newspaper article on Warren said that he “encouraged ministers to think of their churches as businesses and congregations as customers.”  It concluded that he was appealing to a notion of “a comforting God who acts like a great therapist in the sky” – thus compromising religious concerns for social issues and social justice. (Baird, 2004, P. 18).

3. Douglas Atkin Make consumers into 'true believers'. What can advertising learn from religion and religious faith

Douglas Atkin researched the way religious cults developed a strong hold on the beliefs and allegiance of their members to see if this could be transferred to brand advertising.

Can advertisers learn from religions and cults how to help turn brand consumers into the true believers, with a customer faith that has a type of religious fervour to it.

The Study continues in Part 2. Either follow the link here or start from the part 2 file in the Section

Additional resource and reference
click here to download the follow-up resource text: Decoding the mise en scène of contemporary spirituality. Research monograph about decoding the iconography of contemporary spirituality and evaluating media-orchestrated imaginations of what life should be like.

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