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Brand Atheism

December 13, 2010

It is my shameful duty to confess that I have sinned, in the form of becoming a regular purchaser of the Wall Street Journal weekend edition.  I know all too well that a nickel in Rupert’s pocket becomes a penny in Sarah Palin’s, but there’s a lot of good artsy stuff in the weekend edition and it’s a “Sunday paper” available on Saturday while I’m waiting for the Sunday Times to hit town.  Just make sure to avoid the editorial pages, on which learned gentlemen are paid to shout OBAMA HITLER END OF DAYS in somewhat more sophisticated and allusive language.

What caught my eye this weekend was a blurb on “The Religion of Brand Names,” referring to a forthcoming study of shopping habits among religious vs. non-religious people.  (The WSJ says the article is “forthcoming” in a journal called, FSM help us, Marketing Science, but seems to have been published online – paywalled of course – already.)  I was able to find a PDF version of the paper from 2007, which seems different from the new one only in terms of the sample conducted, confirming the earlier results. 

As we already know, “consumers construct their self identities and present themselves to others through brand choices based on the congruency between brand-user and self-image associations,” i.e. you are what you buy.  Probably inevitably, the case in point used is Apple:

[t]he Macintosh brand has a community following that is equivalent to a religion in many ways. It can be characterized by a strong network of adherents, a belief in a “savior” in the form of Steve Jobs, as well as general enmity toward a common evil (IBM, Microsoft, etc.). Such relationships with brands have even led the popular press to proclaim brands as the “new religion”.

Using Apple’s Newton (hey, it’s 2007, mkay) as an example, they say that

the Newton community (centered around PDAs discontinued by Apple) reflects five key themes: (1) tales of persecution, (2) tales of faith being rewarded, (3) survival tales, (4) tales of miraculous recovery, and (5) tales of resurrection.

This ports neatly to the iPhone too, whether the true believer is suffering persecution at the hands of AT&Tila the Hun, or has saved a wet phone with silica gel packs. 

Their studies indicate that more religious people are less brand-identified, which I would have immediately associated with the fact that more poor people are religious than rich or educated people, and poor people can’t afford Polo or Apple.  But according to the study, “there is a statistically significant negative relationship between religiosity and brand reliance, after controlling for both income and education.” 

So what gives?

[P]eople who are high in risk avoidance or have a strong need for belonging may prefer the predictability and community associated with both religion and brands. Alternatively, there may be a negative relationship between brands and religion if they serve as substitutes for one another.  For example, religious people may have less of a need to avoid risks or belong to communities through brands if this need is met through their religious affiliations.

We most strongly speculate that religion and brands satisfy a common need, and it is this underlying need that links religiosity and brand reliance. For example, our findings may reflect differential strategies for maintaining a sense of belonging between religious and nonreligious individuals. For the religious, this need may be fulfilled through attendance at religious services. For the nonreligious, this need may be fulfilled by belonging to brand communities.

Shocking as it may be from an atheist, I am hard pressed to think that people are better off worshipping Apple than Yahweh.  Admittedly, people who worship Apple have not yet burned anyone at the stake, which can’t be said of…well, any organized religion that I can think of, except maybe Buddhism.  But the danger of both religions is in the machinations of their priesthoods:  those who manipulate the poor deluded saps via their need to believe or belong into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise, actions which benefit only those in the priesthoods.  By worshipping at the altar of Apple’s “coolness,” long discredited in my eyes by their censorious and controlling ways, the believer submits to the dogma of the Church – you don’t want Flash, anyway, and porn is bad for you.  The priests of marketing and advertising part you from your money more smoothly than Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson could ever do, though the only hellfire they can threaten you with (frightening enough to a large enough segment of the consuming population) is “uncoolness.”  I remember being dispatched in 1999 by a wealthy employer in San Francisco to the Sprint store, credit card in hand, to spring many hundreds of dollars for a cell phone that…flipped open!  They called it an “oyster phone”!  It was silver!  It was so cool!  Now if you have one of those, ten years later, it says “I am poor.”  Or, worse, that you’re the kind of hopeless person who only wants to make phone calls (which reminds me I need to go to Verizon and check out flip phones for Mom). 

I’ve used this Doris Lessing quote twice already on this blog, but I never tire of it, since it seems to apply to so many of the stories I read, and the lesson itself is applied so rarely in the world:

Imagine us saying to children: “In the last fifty or so years, the human race has become aware of a great deal of information about its mechanisms: how it behaves, how it must behave under certain circumstances. If this is to be useful, you must learn to contemplate these rules calmly, dispassionately, disinterestedly, without emotion. It is information that will set people free from blind loyalties, obedience to slogans, rhetoric, leaders, group emotions.”

But the Catch-22 is that nobody in power is willing to spring for programs that will teach people to resist the mechanisms by which those in power get there.  We are already facing a situation where universities are being retooled to “teach to the test,” offering classes that teach the skills corporations want employees to have, rather than on useless things like art history or resisting propaganda. 

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 25, 2011 9:44 pm

    Very sophisticated and calmly, soothingly refreshingly cool. Keep on writing if only for the benefit of a haphazzard reader of non-English background. Thank you

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