Idols of the Marketplace


This article originally appeared in Issue# 37

In the gospel according to Madison Avenue, what we buy defines who we are. A healthy spirituality can open our hearts to what is real.

"She said that the only thing she really wanted for Christmas was a pair of Sasson jeans." - a blue-collar worker, speaking of his nine-year-old daughter

"The human person cannot be relinquished. We cannot relinquish the place in the risible world that belongs to us. We cannot become slaves of things, shires of economic systems, slaves of production, slaves of our own products. A civilization purely materialistic in outline condemns the human person to such slavery." - Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominus

If we ask ourselves what values we would like to see illuminating the lives of our children, students, parishioners and co-religionists, I think that designer jeans would fall pretty far down the list.

We might speak of human dignity, compassion, a well-grounded individual identity and an ability to relate to others as people and not as things.

Our young friend has reversed this standard. Instead of basing her identity on her potential and qualities as a person, her value in her own eyes rests upon a purchased object. What is forming the life of this young woman? What is most profoundly educating her? Have the social system, the production system and the media system conspired to lead her into a condition of servitude and inhibit the various dimensions of her human personhood?

The answer is clear. Our social myths, our economic gospels and our revelation system of television, advertising and printed matter are a formation system, educating us towards certain values, attitudes and modes of behavior.

In the most general sense, values always are a function of the culture that forms them, since culture explains all the expressions of who we are.

Cultural Ground

Psycho-socially, culture is a tilling, an elaboration of the human. Like agriculture, culture yields the human product that in turn feeds and sustains us. The culture, in this sense, is our food — our social, psychological and corporate sustenance and nutriment. It provides the very sustenance of our self-understanding, our purpose, our meaning and our fulfillments.

Herein lies culture's danger. It can form us in its own image and likeness rather than in the image and likeness of personhood from which culture has its derivation.

As a child of media-centered late 20th century capitalist culture, this woman-child with her Sasson jeans is operating out of an already fashioned culturally determined belief and behavior system that has implications for every area of her life.

The things she buys determine her identity. The formation of her social identity is based upon commercial imagery and acceptance. Her relationship to her parents is fixated at this level. Sullenness and manipulation characterize her affect. Sensibilities for right order, simplicity, compassion are already deadened. A coalition of pressures from commercialism, advertising and social programming dominates her consciousness. She is manipulated, educated and propagandized. Much of that manipulation is attributable to media.

Before she had ever gotten to primary school - if she is an average child in the United States - she had spent as much time in front of a television set as she would spend in classroom lectures throughout four years of college. Her home life is dominated by television.

The preponderance of programming and advertising in the U.S. delivers a continual message to the viewer: human beings in relationship to each other (in soap operas, series, talk shows, game shows) are trivialized and alienated. People are most likely to be unfulfilled, unfaithful, unhappy, frustrated, foolish. The only times that persons are presented as uniformly happy and ecstatically fulfilled are in commercials: purchasing, collecting or consuming products that resolve problems, deliver self-assurance, win friends.

Television and magazine content is interlaced by the financial fabric of advertising and its covert ideology of happiness through commodities. A commodity-like identity is the end result of the cultural education system in North America.

If we are taught to relate to persons as if they were expendable objects and to relate to things as if they were substitute persons, we are led into the distressing inversion that the pope alludes to when he speaks of becoming slaves to products or slaves to production systems.

Objectified Values

Value formation is achieved by the very names we give to products. Merit is a cigarette. True goes up in smoke. We eat Life in a box. Joy and Happiness are perfumes. Love, Caring and Hope are cosmetics. New Freedom is a sanitary napkin. Spirit is an automobile. It is precisely the value that is commodified and sold.

As Joan Evans of the Evans Marketing Group in New York has said: "Any industry that sells hope is going to continue to grow. And that's what we're selling." Or as another advertiser said in Advertising Age, "Calvin Klein jeans are not blue jeans, they are a sex symbol. Miller isn't a beer. It's blue collar macho... Polo doesn't sell clothing. Polo sells fashion status." The marketers realize a fact we often repress: it is precisely value that is bought and sold, that has a price, that is quantifiable, that is reduced relative to the status of trinkets.

The only times that persons are presented as uniformly happy and ecstatically fulfilled are in commercials.

The valorization of objects is enhanced by the personalization of products that appears in so much advertising. Products are not "Just Born" - they have mothers and fathers. Affection is continually poured out over bottles of mouthwash, toilet paper, diapers, dogs, Mustangs and paint cans. "This much squeezable softness deserves a hug," the woman says to the toilet paper with a baby's face on the package. Your brandy or your blue jeans are called your "friends."

The language of family relationship is subsumed into corporate identity. "Think of her as your mother." (American Airlines). "World's Greatest Dad." (Seagram's Crown Royal). "We don't love you and leave you." (Xerox). "More dependable than a man." (Payroll Savings Plan). Fidelity and commitment are words describing our relationship to washers and dryers and car stereos.

While this personalization of products is taking place, the actual image of family life in advertising, young women's magazines, rock music and best sellers is severely fragmented. Soap operas, articles in Cosmopolitan, bubble gum and pre-teen music portray men and women as being unfaithful to each other. Sexuality is rarely related to covenant or committed intimacy or family. Married people are rarely portrayed as being fulfilled or happy. As an ad for furniture in the New York Times had it, "If your husband doesn't like it, leave him."

Buying Ourselves

For over two years now, the most significant advertising phrase for Saks Fifth Avenue has been "We Are All the Things You Are."

Wouldn't they love us to believe it? If everything we are is found at a department store, if we have to purchase our identity, then we are in a condition of servitude, the slaves of products.

The ultimate moral imperative is to consume as a matter of identity. Our very meaning is wrapped up in the economics of production and consumption of more products. Products are portrayed as the condition of happiness: "Nikon: what would life be without it." "Money buys everything." (Polaroid). The media and the economic system coalesce into a book of religious revelation. "Because she believes in us, she'll believe in you. Her Bible is your Bonanza," Seventeen magazine boasts to the corporate readership of Advertising Age.

Buying is theologized in products called "Spirit," "Jesus Jeans," in diamonds that assure possession of the supernatural, in perfection that can be bought with Beef-eaters, in Calvin Klein, whom women are said to "believe in."

The theological virtues have become commodified. Buicks are "something to believe in." "Hope (cosmetics) is all you Need." "Trust Woolite." Love is a diaper, a bottle of Amaretto, a carpet shampoo.

Value formation is achieved by the very names we give to products. Merit is a cigarette. True goes up in smoke. We eat Life in a box. Joy and Happiness are perfumes. Love, Caring and Hope are cosmetics.

Thus the media-culture-economy formation is complete. We have not only a philosophy of human identity and human relationship collapsed into the world of buying and selling, we have a full blown theological system. The result is cultural ideology as idolatry.

Cultural information system is religious formation system. We form our young in the image and likeness of the products and production systems we have created by our own hands.

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths hut do no' speak; eyes, hut do not see;
They have ears hut do not flea,-, noses but do not smell;
They have hands but do no! feel; feet, but do not walk;
And not a sound comes from their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
So do all who trust in them.

As Psalm 115 suggests, we become like the products we worship. Since our identity and fulfillment is wrapped up in the possessing and consuming of our commodities, we "style" ourselves after products, and where were not good enough, we are replaced or remodeled. The natural body is to be rejected in favor of the fabricated one.

Everything about our natural bodies is wrong: we're too fat, too thin, we have split ends, pimples, bad breath, body odor, our breasts or hips are too large or too small, we're not manly enough so we need a Brut's perfume or a diet macho beer. "Want a Better Body?" the ad for Formfit says, "Let us rearrange it for you."

Consumption as Fuel

In these references to advertisements I am attempting to suggest that there is an economics to issues of identity, relationship, family, commitment, human sexuality, human anxiety, the devaluation of chastity, the rejection of one's natural body. There is also a latent formation system in a culture economically based upon the continual expansion of products, consumer goods and productivity.

This formation system, whether deliberately constructed or not, has a tendency to educate human persons into a mode of thinking, believing and acting that serves the imperatives of the economic system itself.

Perhaps this may be suggested by a set of questions: In an economic system founded upon continually expanding consumption, in a society that already has a surfeit of goods, in a culture whose people are already over consuming, what kind of person will best fit, what kind of formation will be most appropriate?

How can people be convinced that they must produce and possess more? Is it better to have people with stable and happy lives or unstable and dissatisfied lives? Is it better for them to have a sound personal identity and fulfilling relationships, or 10 experience a personal and relational emptiness that must be filled in some way?

What kind of person would be considered an economic liability? One who is at home with himself or herself? One who has a sense of justice and compassion? One who is capable of delayed gratification for the sake of longer-range values?

Awareness of the effects of these messages on ourselves and our families is the first step in counteracting them, with efforts to educate a wider public and associated discussions a useful corollary.

Beyond that, however, we must consciously seek to help those we work with uncover cultural ideology and instill methods of solitude, self-understanding and experiencing of the interior life. A commitment to relationships, the reversal of the culturally taught insensitivity to human suffering and contact with whose the culture rejects as worthless, can help counter our built-in biases.

Only direct experience and self-discovery can help us reach beyond the limited script that our objectified values system writes for us. With this transcendence, we will better relate to each other as we learn to savor and appreciate — not merely collect and consume — the goods of the earth.

Author Bio: 

Fr. John F. Kavanaugh, SJ is professor of philosophy and Director of Ethics the Curriculum at St. Louis University. He is the author of "Following Christ in a Consumer Society" and "Who Counts as Persons".