- Advertising as Religion: The Dialectic of Technology and Magic
Jhally, Sut. 1989. Advertising as religion: The dialectic of technology and magic. In Cultural Politics in Contemporary America, ed. by Lan Angus and Sut Jhally, New York: Routledge, 217–229. Reprinted with the permission of Routledge.
The Magic of the Marketplace
In contemporary America, we are immersed most of our waking hours, in a world and a discourse where all normal physical and social arrangements are held in abeyance.
• from deep in the ocean depths, swimming alongside sleek and dangerous sharks, taking on their shape and form, emerges “a new species” of automobile — a Chevrolet Baretta.
• as a woman passes behind him, a man is overcome with desire and immediately starts to pursue her in a blind passion, pausing only to snatch up some flowers that he presents to her when he catches her. We are told the spell is cast because the woman uses Impulse body spray.
• a young male adolescent stares in horror at his pimpled complexion in a bathroom mirror. As he applies a magical lotion, his pimples immediately disappear, even as we watch.
• a young attractive woman boldly enters a pool room where she announces she has had enough of Mr. Wrong and that it is time for Mr. Right. As she sings this she throws a can of Right Guard antiperspirant to individuals with the faces of grotesque monsters. They are immediately transformed into handsome young men who crowd around the woman.
• young woman walks by groups of men; a “sea breeze” is unleashed by her that envelops the young males.
In advertising, (the commodity world interacts with the human world at the most fundamental of levels: it performs magical feats of transformation and bewitchment, brings instant happiness and gratification, captures the forces of nature, and holds within itself the essence of important social relationships (in fact, it substitutes for those relations).What is noteworthy about such scenes is not that they are concerned with the role of objects in the social lives of people. Such a relationship is one of the defining features of what it means to be human; the relationship between people and things is a universal one.
What is noteworthy in the modern period however is the extent to which goods enter into the arrangements of everyday life. Much more so than in previous societies, in the consumer culture it seems that every aspect of life is permeated by the presence of objects. Karl Marx, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century and in the early phases of the development of industrial capitalism, perceptively pointed to what would become the main features of the developing system. In the opening lines of Capital he stated that: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’.” 1 Unlike all previous modes of production, capitalism discovered the “secret” of material production and proceeded to install it as its central and defining activity. While Marx did not witness the emergence of the institution of national advertising, he was able to penetrate to what would become its essential feature:
It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production (if commodities … the labor of the private individual manifests itself as in element of the total labor of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the product, and, through their mediations, between the producers. To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labors appear as what they are, i.e. they (to...