Close Encounters of a Religious Kind

  • Author(s): Laurel Arthur Burton
  • When: 1983-11
  • Where: The Journal of Popular Culture
  • With the advent of market research tools of the psychological variety, there is a new medium of religious revelation: the advertisement or commercial. The religion of Madison Avenue is a slickly packaged (and well researched) blend of doctrine and sacrament. The primary tenet of the new faith is salvation through social acceptance, an eschatology of "happiness," with the "means of grace" ranging from deodorant to toothpaste to feminine hygiene aids to automobiles. Few are the men who—unconsciously at least—can resist the attraction of the rewards of "ultimate transformation" promised by the lovely, French "preacher" in the Mercury Cougar ads. It takes little imagination to understand what is being sold along with that particular brand of automobile. Obviously any religion operates out of and within a specific belief system. It is this belief system that provides the cues for the religious messagee. John Wiley Nelson of Pittsburgh Seminary says there are five things that constitute a belief system: shared views of what is unsatisfactory about our present experience; about the source of the trouble; about the nature of the delivering force; of what a resolved situation would look like; and of "the way." Reduced (or elevated, depending upon your perspective) to theological language, Nelson has described our shared concerns with the doctrines of evil, eschatology and salvation. The mass media have constructed an amazing message of salvation which fits the American belief system perfectly. "Television's mythology," says William Paul Newsy, "assumes that all the world's supermarket and all the men and women merely buyers .... Commercials are prepared for viewers as carefully as any Vestal was ever prepared for her consecration."

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