Giles Fraser, the loose canon, has an op-ed today that recognises that advertising, selling and buying as part of an endless cycle of want is like religion, but then he fails to connect the dots. The op-ed, “Advertising promises us salvation but is designed to keep us feeling unhappy,” observes the parallel:
The atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has this remarkable criticism of Christianity. “To act as a physician,” he writes, “the priest must make one sick!” In other words, before
Christianity can present itself as the answer, it first has to generate the problem, or “poison the wound”. Before people can be sold salvation they need to be persuaded that they require saving, that their existence is miserable.
But he seems not to realise that it’s true. “Advertising does something similar,” he says remarks coyly. Not true. It does the same thing. First of all, an advertiser has to get you to want the wares being sold and get you hooked on buying, believing that the next thing you buy will really do it for you. “This will make me happy,” you think foolishly to yourself, all the time knowing that you’ll be a patsy for the next toy that comes along. The queues outside Apple stores to buy the latest iPad or iPhone are all the same: people eagerly awaiting the next incarnation of whatever electronic device holds the secret of happiness. But when they get their hands on it, they can’t wait for the next, more sophisticated, version, the one that does the 101 things that the brand new one can’t do, the added thousands of pixels added to the camera, the new, bright, sharp screen that makes the old one look like a London peasouper by comparison. It’s all a bit like eating chips. One won’t do, and a few hundred grams later and you still feel hungry and wanting more.
Sure, but religion is just the same thing. It’s no accident that religion is strong where social bonds are loose, and life is more uncertain than living through the latest barrage on the Western Front. Nietzsche knew a thing or two. He recognised that going to church was just like buying things. You have to want to go, and what’s better than getting you needing to go to keep the pews full. As Fraser says:
Advertising wounds us with the message that our current life is rubbish, and then asks for our credit card number as way of making things right.
And what, pray tell, is all the haranguing about? All that about sin and desperation and the perils of hell fire? It’s about creating want. Signs outside churches tell us that life is the problem, Jesus is the answer. Jesus is like the iPhone or the faster computer. It has the answer to what ails us. Ever wait for Windows 95 to open on the first Pentium computer to hit the market? It was like waiting for hell to freeze over! And that was faster than the operating system and the 33 GHz computer with its 20 MB hard drive and 2 MG of memory. Remember the days when you could go make the coffee, sip your cup of Java for a few minutes, just waiting for Pagemaker to complete an operation. It wasn’t hard to convince the consumer then that a faster computer was like going to heaven — when, when it came, it was!
How much more desperate you have to be, then, to buy into what the experts at obfuscation had to tell you on Obfuscation Day (thanks Corio), whether for you that was Friday, Saturday or Sunday. And so you’d troop off in a gang to listen to your friendly neighbourhood Pentium Guy to warn you of the dangers of hell and the peace and wonder of heaven, or whatever the corresponding obfuscation was at your chosen Obfuscation Parlour, whether it was to grovel before an invisible Allah, who penned one of the most boring books on the planet, or before a Roman instrument of torture and torment, where someone died, you are told, without an idea how it such a thing was even done, for you, just you. How much alike is that to buying the latest fashion and being told, “That’s really you!”
It’s all a lot like economics. As the loose canon says:
Keynes was roughly right in his forecast of economic growth. But completely wrong about a return to Eden. Explaining this, the father and son combination of Robert and Edward Skidelsky – distinguished economist and philosopher – point to a simple distinction that Keynes overlooks: that between needs and wants. Needs, they argue, are potentially limited. There are only so many meals you can eat in one day. Only so many rooms you need in a house. Only so much warmth you require to survive. In need terms, there is such a thing as having enough. Wants, however, are insatiable.
Keynes wasn’t completely wrong, for people who do have disposable income and can buy that new set of golf clubs or a new car or the latest technology seem to be more contented than those who can’t. Of course, it’s not Eden. We still live in an environment full of snares for the unwary. But it’s better than working 16 hour days, and having only thin gruel at the end of them. Anyway, who said life was about satisfying needs? When has that ever been enough? Religions are like coyotes, living allegories of want, as Mark Twain said. And so are we. Our needs, as the Cynics showed, are very slight. Our wants are legion. And unsatisfiable. How do you satisfy an aching for more, when the thing that is really driving you to the next accomplishment, the next, newer, shinier car, the latest electronic gadget that will transform your life? Or that inextinguishable fire from which you seek some relief. And does religion really give it to you? To be told that you are really alright, that the shaming fire all those nasty memories of deeds left undone, or too plainly done and irreversible, can be wiped off the record of your life, and be as if they had never been: that may be enough for now, but still there is more. To be told that there really is an Eden, the earnest of a Paradise yet to come, where all is pure and good and true, and everything that you strive at here so desperately and so unsuccessfully — always just a shade off true, always far from the goal — will be simply be the way things are. No more desperate striving. No more expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Of course, as those words remind us, there will be no sex there, for life itself will be an orgasm.
What I wonder is why Giles Fraser recognises the parallel and then does nothing with it. Shopping fills the very same emptiness in our lives that religion fills. They just do it in different ways. And in both cases, advertising is what it takes to get you to interest yourself in the brands that convince you will be the solution to all your problems, the goal of all your seeking. Of course, just to keep you moving in the little rails along your preordained path, the religionist will tell you that it’s not the goal that counts, it’s the Way. That’s what Christianity was first called, the Way (η oδoς). And those who shop know that it’s not the answer, shopping itself is the answer! And, you know, it really is, very often. Being on the way to a distant goal that recedes as you approach it is a mug’s game. It’s like being lost in a desert, and dashing desperately for the mirage in the distance. But shopping actually works. It may not satisfy you forever, but tomorrow is always (well, maybe not always) another day. Religion is just the same. That’s why there are so many fanatics around.