Authored by: Tricia Sheffield

The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture

Print publication date:  March  2015
Online publication date:  March  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415638661
eBook ISBN: 9781315724478
Adobe ISBN: 9781317531067


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“We’re not that smart.” So said my friend who works in the advertising industry after he surveyed my bookshelves full of advertising theory. He went on, “All we really want is to land the contract, keep the client happy, and sell the product so we can make some money. There’s no grand cultural scheme behind it.” I replied that, as true as that may be, what was interesting for me, and obviously all the authors on my bookshelves, was how advertising functioned in our culture of consumer capitalism. How do people consume advertising? What is its role, and what aspects of religion does it use to be culturally relevant in today’s world of high-speed, noisy clutter? How does advertising function in American culture? I told him that there may be no grand scheme today for advertisers, but that was not always the case. In the early twentieth century, advertisers were Protestant ministers or the sons of Protestant ministers. They brought to their craft a type of Christianity that is present in modern advertising, a survival, if you will, of their understanding of what Christianity and capitalism were for the newly industrialized United States. 1 As President (and Congregationalist) Calvin Coolidge (1926) assured advertisers at the American Association of Advertising Agencies, “Advertising ministers to the spiritual side of trade. It is a great power that has been entrusted to your keeping which charges you with the high responsibility of inspiring and ennobling the commercial world. It is all part of the greater work of the regeneration and redemption of mankind.” 2 Indeed, humanity thought itself redeemed with the purchase of ever more enticing products, as the United States found its foothold as an industrialized nation. It is this sense of redemption that is most compelling today in American advertising, for, as much as Americans love to hate advertising, and hate that they love it, American culture is still very much an object driven society, beholden to things that tell a story about ourselves, who we desire to be, with whom we are affiliated, and perhaps, more importantly who we don’t wish to be. 3 As theologian Vincent Miller (2003: 189) states, “We expect the things we consume not only to meet the various needs of daily life in our affluent world but also to help us establish our personal identities and to signify and support our social standing.”

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