This study examines the use of religious imagery in contemporary advertising. An empirical study is reported here, examining religious imagery in advertisements appearing in three national magazines. This article addresses the contexts in which such imagery appears, the specific uses to which it is put, and differences between the representations of Western and Eastern religious traditions.
A common conception in American culture is that advertisers will use anything to sell a product. In the narrower world of academia, communication scholars have given great attention to advertising in recent years and detailed some of the cultural elements that have indeed been used to inspire consumption. Reichert (2003) and Kilbourne (1999) have both offered thorough investigations of the way sex has been used to sell everything from antiperspirants to varnish. Studies by Slater (2004), Hansen (2002), and Kilbourne (1995) have examined how advertisers have used nature and environmentalism to develop market identity. And Wilson (1996), Cole and Hribar (1995), and Baldwin (1992) have each investigated the way celebrities have been used to motivate audiences to buy a product. Missing from all of this has been a key facet of human experience: religion. Very little research has integrated whether advertisers use religion to pitch products and (if they do) how they use it.
Herein I wish to begin to give religion in advertising the attention it deserves by conducting an empirical study on the extent and nature of religious imagery in American magazine advertisements. Although some academic writers have broadly addressed this issue, they have done so in ways that leave many important questions unanswered. After providing a description of some of these background studies and an explanation of the methodology of the present research, I hope to come closer to answering those important questions.
Filling the Religion/Advertising Vacuum
The small amount of formal scholarship directly related to advertising and religion does not indicate a complete lack of interest on the part of scholars. Although those who do careful analysis of media and religion have left this specific area unplowed, those with broader theoretical interests have occasionally made reference to the potential fertility of this area of study. A few examples are introduced here.
Neil Postman, for example, has studied the relationship of media, technology, and ideology. In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992), he proposes that our current technological/cultural environment is such that few would object to the idea of Jesus being used as a pitchman for a new California chardonnay. An ad might even have the Messiah claim, “When I transformed water into wine at Cana, this is what I had in mind. Try it today. You’ll become a believer” (Postman, 1992, p. 164). To further support his thesis that using religion to sell products is increasingly acceptable, Postman anecdotally alludes to a Hebrew National Frank advertisement where the spokesperson points to the sky claiming the company has to answer to a “higher calling.”
James Twitchell, who takes a different tack on the role of the media in modern society, also suggests the importance of understanding the relation between advertising and religion. Twitchell might seem more attuned to this task, as one of his most widely read books is Adcult: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. In it, he suggests that little in our contemporary cultural environment can survive unless it can serve as conduit for advertising, and advertising is continuously becoming a greater force in our social lives. Given this arrangement, according to Twitchell, advertising has taken on some of the functions previously performed by religion. Moreover, advertising co-opts many religious elements of culture. Twitchell notes that many of the most influential executives of the early twentieth century—a period of tremendous growth for the industry—had strong religious backgrounds. In Twitchell’s own words, “It is no happenstance that the advertising executives, or ‘attention engineers,’ who helped bring about the rise of consumer culture were steeped in the Christian tradition” (Twitchell, 1996, p. 33). As regards to the adaptation of religious elements and magic within advertising, Twitchell notes that “[t]he power of Christianity (and of any...