Saturday, May 19, 2007

Brand marketing and the veil of soul developing

Over the past couple of months, I have seen a couple of TV commercials that have caught my eye. An ING Direct commercial mocks a yoga instructor for telling his student that pain is the path to joy. A commercial for a Snickers bar covered in dark chocolate mocks two homely Neanderthal looking boys for asking their mother whether it really matters what’s on the inside, to which mom replies “it doesn’t”. These commercials are in the same family as a Tequila ad a few years ago which read “Lost – Restraint: disappeared late Fri.-early Sat. If found, keep...”

Of course, there are naive and not-so-productive ways that people can seek depth in their lives. It is not enough to say that these commercials are merely singling out naive ways to seek depth as the object of their ridicule, and leaving serious ways to seek depth unscathed. The humor that these commercials are trying to tap into is part of a larger zeitgeist that rejects the idea of eschewing material gain in order to seek depth. These commercials are simultaneously tapping into that zeitgeist, mirroring it back to the culture at large, and perpetuating that zeitgeist.

Of course, the commercial writers are not trying to comment on society, they are only interested in being cute and hip in order to draw fleeting attention to their product. But that is the semiotics of commercials – commercials are window into our culture when they are trying to be nothing other than cute and hip.

Everyone is aggressive and intense in the pursuit of some sort of perfection and some sort of self promotion. For those who might think that that idea is somehow anti-Christian, I delved into this topic on my post on Self Esteem and the Gospel. Jesus does not denounce promoting oneself, but rather lays out a Godly way to do it, a way that puts one at odds with the world and at the mercy of God’s executive direction. Jesus calls us to harness our God-given desire to evaluate ourselves in the pursuit of greatness, excellence and perfection by striving for the spiritual and moral perfection that he has laid out for us.

That said, promoting oneself in the realm of enlightened self interest is not a bad thing. Harnessing one’s God given desires to pursue truth and beauty is good. Harnessing one’s God given desires to pursue something less is bad. Since everyone has these basic desires for excellence and self-promotion, the only question is whether one is pursuing these ends with the ultimate goal to aggressively seek out truth and beauty.

The tragedy of vapidity is that one has directed ones intensity away from the aggressive pursuit of truth and beauty and toward banal forms of self promotion. It is axiom that self promotion that is not based on aggressively seeking that lasting pleasures of truth and beauty will be self promotion that is based on the realm of disposable pleasures. Being vapid is not the state of ignorance that is penultimate to knowledge by one who is seeking. Rather, vapidity is defined as a state of being casual and un-aggressive in the pursuit of truth and beauty. By default, vapid people become aggressive in the pursuit of banality, and in things that rot and do not last. In this way, what starts out as people being casual in the pursuit of truth and beauty, ends up as people openly rejecting it. As I explained in My Lust Makes the Word Go Round people bond the need that they have for some sense of purpose and meaning to the very act of rejecting purpose and meaning, and therefore become purposeful in their rejection of meaning.

As our culture has thought its way out of believing that truth and beauty even exist, it has become ever more the realm of militant, evangelistic vapidity where people find humor in poking fun at naïve attempts to find seriousness and depth – as reflected in our commercials. In place of holding themselves and others accountable for truth and beauty, vapid people pursue their excellence in banal things and hold others to account for measuring up to banality. It is the vapid people who become the “fashion police”, enforcing the standards of excellence in keeping up with all that is disposable.

The Identity Industrial Complex

It is in the interest of those who hawk products to encourage people to eschew a quest to find happiness and meaning in a realm beyond consumerism, since companies would loose money if people did not wrap their quest for happiness in it. The infrastructure of commerce and marketing depends on the vapidity of people and works mightily to encourage people toward it.

I introduced the “brand marketing worldview” in my Sign of the beast post, where I expressed my concern with emotion based brand marketing whose purpose is anything more than helping people build trust that a brand is a sign of quality and reliability. Emotion and identity based brand marketing is only the marketing component of a modern industrial reality, what I call the Identity Industrial Complex. The Identity Industrial Complex, the IIC for short, includes the whole industrial and commercial enterprise and all of its levels of decision making that seeks to create emotion and identity based bonds with people and their disposable products. To encourage this bond, the IIC promotes its worldview by trying to construct how people perceive the social marketplace in which new products and the pleasure of new products are continually traded for status, attractiveness and popularity. As I explained in my Sign of the Beast post, I think that the IIC is the penultimate sign of the beast.

As a social reality, the IIC simultaneously paints a picture of the social marketplace and provides the product or service as though it were something that one would need to succeed in the social marketplace. And when enough people believe it, it is so. In fact, to make one’s product an indispensable part of the social economy is the ultimate goal of the IIC. IIC encourages people to find their individuality by being “ahead of the curve” of the Joneses. By encouraging endless “one-upping” and “one-offing”, the IIC defines the enemies as boredom, loser-hood, and un-sexiness that it then will help the consumer dispatch with its product/service.

In this worldview, constant change is the only master and the brand marketers are here to show the consumers where the change is headed, so that one can find one's freedom and individuality by avoiding the abyss of being left behind by the change. In this way, the IIC encourages people to find their excellence in banality by introducing both the problem and the solution to that problem, which is their product.

In a service-based economy, when a product becomes a social currency, it becomes a currency of ones financial success, as one’s financial success is largely based on one’s ability to hang with people and make one’s boss, co-workers and customers feel good. Here, people’s emotional, social and financial insecurity and drives a need for people’s perpetual self-evaluation based on the system of evaluation that the IIC works overtime to carefully craft. The IIC does this with a powerful industrial and media infrastructure to ensure a presence of constant targeted images.

While the IIC is made of individual companies who are all competing for market share, the IIC is an economy of scale in the realm of values. As ostensibly competing members of the IIC sell some versions of the same basic worldview, the IIC operate with the intelligence of an ant-hill in advancing its values, even if each individual “ant” is not necessarily very intelligent.

The veil of soul-developing

It is the kingdom of God working in the unseen realm to shape the hearts of his chosen that is hidden to everything that the IIC represents. The IIC encourages people to take their attention away from the unseen realm of God’s veil of soul developing with a competing and contrary claim on people's need to be excellent and to find purpose, identity and meaning. Jesus calls us to promote ourselves and to seek truth and beauty within the parameters that he outlined in regard to the behavior of our heart, our behavior toward our brothers and sisters and to the poor.

It is the winners in the veil of soul developing who are the losers according to the identity based brand-marketing worldview. As the IIC marketers and their legion of fashion police hold us accountable to mammon, it is God that holds us accountable to His economy. God’s economy, all person to person transactions involving an exchange of value are to be routed through God and his truth, as each person interacts with another in Spirit and in Truth.

Jesus calls us to cast our insecurities and fears upon Him, while it is the IIC that would like us to medicate our fears and insecurities by keeping up with new products. It is for this reason that the IIC frowns upon one being still, as the Tequila ad mentioned at the beginning so instructs us and as a Bodies In Motion billboard once said, “You can rest when you’re dead!” In God’s economy, we are called us to be still and know that God is God, so that we can continually realign our lives according to the requirements of that economy. While the IIC would have one primarily fear falling behind the times and being a loser economically and materially, God calls us to fear being separated from God by remaining dead in our sins. While the IIC wants us to be afraid of being nerdy and uncool, God’s economy calls us to be uncool and nerdy to the extent that it is necessary for us to be excellent in God’s economy by paying the opportunity cost of not being cool in the realm of the IIC. It is being nerdy and uncool to succeed in God’s economy that we die to that part of ourselves that wishes to be endlessly pleasing to the world.

According the IIC one is rewarded with worldly/material social status; while in God’s economy one is rewarded according to the extent to which one has invested ones gifts and blessings to advance His Kingdom. The status that is granted in God’s economy is upside down from the IIC and is based on those who are least and on those who have done much with little. In God’s economy, ones' social network is made up of those who one has blessed with discipleship, mercy, faith and justice, particularly the poor. It is the upside-down nature of losers vis-à-vis winners that God’s economy is hidden from the realm of the IIC, and one who adopts the worldview of the IIC will be blind to God’s economy. That is why God’s economy is under a “veil”.

So what do we do in the year 2007 with the fact that many of us cannot escape the realm of IIC completely? As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5: 9-10,

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.”

We are to participate in the economy that involves mammon without bonding emotionally to it and we must live among those who are bonded to it, by being, as Paul says, “in the world but not of the world”. What this means, specifically is that we need and want clothes and products, and we should get what we need and even what we want. However, we must carefully take our wants captive and continually submit our wants to Jesus’ teachings and Jesus’ specific executive direction in our lives. In so doing, we must be careful that our wants are not being shaped by the IIC and its claims on our identity and emotional security found in ephemeral products.

As we give our wants to Jesus daily, in so doing we pick up our cross, and we should not be surprised that Jesus will often call us to make difficult and painful breaks from our bondage to the IIC as we walk with him and grow in our understanding of God’s economy. In a world in which we are surrounded by the IIC, we must often engage in one sort of “fast” or another from products, food and fashion as a gut check to see just how bonded to the IIC we’ve become.

The IIC is merely a worldly manifestation of a veiled spiritual power and principality that is making claims the battle for our hearts and minds. It is with this in mind that being vapid is not a spiritually, neutral act, since those worldviews that we do not question we will, by default, accept. Being vapid is an act of ratifying the default, capitulating to the IIC and avoiding the difficult and un-vapid mental, emotional and spiritual work that God calls us to for His Kingdom. Because everyone is intense about pursuing their self-interest, if one is not seeking to cast one’s intense self interest onto the Lord and seek the Lords interest, one will never have the impetus to face the discomfort of continually severing from the values of the IIC. It is in seeking truth and beauty in Jesus that we are able to see past the values that are advanced by emotion-based brand-marketing and see past the chimera of disposable products to see and track with God’s economy and the veil of soul-developing therein.

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