Oh come, let us adore Ravioli-Os.
Blessed are they who hear the word of Heinz and keep it.
Praise ye the Ford.
For years we have assumed that all Madison Avenue was selling us through TV commercials and print ads was the way to brighter-looking teeth, more lustrous-looking hair, and the gleaming, beaming, crowd-thrilling fitness that goes along with membership in the Pepsi Generation.
Now a California literature professor says we're being sold even more than that. We're sold heaven on earth, a joy that passeth all understanding, and a new kind of spiritual well-being one can only get from one's possessions.
Advertising, says Richard Simon, 33, is the new religion. Advertising copy frequently calls upon religious symbols and jargon in order to impart its persuasive message and view of life. In the new symbol culture that advertising has created, products are given the moral and beneficial qualities we once expected from loftier and less earthly sources. Ad claims in many commercials today. Simon thinks, have helped create a theology based on the worship of consumer goods and their allegedly life-giving properties.
"Advertising today creates a classic kind of utopian vision of the world, says Simon from the University of California at San Diego, where he is an associate professor. "Today in popular culture, whether it's a commercial or a quiz program or a hamburger stand, values and moralties are conveyed in the same way that traditional religion used to convey them."
In this new world, Simon sees the neighborhood McDonalds, with its "Golden Arches," as "a modern Gothic Cathedral" in the new religion of salvation through consumption.
Simon made his case in a lecture earlier this year before the students at the University of Toronto, and cameras from NBC's "Weekend" show were there to record it. Producer Reuven Frank ended the last late-night edition of "Weekend" on Saturday (it goes to an occasional prime-time slot in the fall) with some of Simon's provocation remarks. "Weekend" has been one of the few television shows that occasionally dares a look at television.
After the lecture, Simon found himself being "roundly denounced in the Canadian edition of TV Guide," which was "certainly not the kind of response I expected," but otherwise not causing the earth or the television industry to do much shaking. The exposure on "Weekend" may do more for his thesis, which he plans to turn into a magazine article. He ought to write a book.
Simon began noticing religious motifs in ads months ago - a Clairol ad with a huge "I found It!", which is the same slogan used by an evangelical sect: Volvo advertising itself as "Something to Believe In"; Ford selling Thunderbirds and Futuras with "thunder and lighting in the background."
And Simon hasn't even seen the hot dog commercial where Uncle Sam looks heavenward to the "higher authority" declares what goes into the kosher weenie. However, he has seen the Drano ad in which a booming basso voice, supposedly that of a talking house, but obviously God-like bellows at a housewife. "Would Drano let you hurt your pipes?
Today in commercials, products don't just make people happy or well-off or popular beyond all wildest dreams. They enhance and promote spiritual well-being and, what's more, they provide companionship. Ford "wants to be your car company," and when people say Thank You, Paine-Webber" or "Thanks, Tasty-Cake," they are establising friendships with their products.
"We didn't use to talk to hamburgers and play with them," Simon says. "We used to just eat them. Now the little talking hamburgers that surround Ronald McDonald supply moral lessons for how one grows up. One grows up to talk to hamburgers. Phillips' Milk of Magnesia promises people that it will be "their true blue friend."
"The theological language gets picked up, and the ads tell you that you can acquire through senses of sight and taste things that you used to get in other ways. You're supposed to get a feeling of 'powerful goodness' from Cheerios, and this feeling of powerful goodness comes from the way they taste."
Simon sees pseudo-religious patterns other forms besides commercials. "The 'Tonight' Show Starring Johnny Carson" is a nightly ritual that presents us with what can be seen as a symbolically political trinity. "You have Johnny in the middle and on either side you have, first a person who is more conservatively dressed (Ed McMahon) and then liberally dressed (Doc Severinsen). The three reflect a political spectrum, but only in appearance."
Appearance, not substance, is of course what television is all about.
Quiz programs are another ritualistic form of programming and no longer do they simply reward knowledge with prizes. In fact there are no more real quiz programs. There are game shows "thinking precisely like others" ("Family Feud") and undergoing rites of "humiliation" ("The Gong Show"), and these programs supplement television's output of "moral and ethical notions about how one is supposed to act."
The real thing breakthrough in TV commercials came, Simon believes, when people started relating to products as equals, as if they were other persons.
"I do see a historical progression of which the Parkay ad is the culmination," says Simon. "The Parkay ad was the first time, I think, that a human being in a commercial was shown talking to a pure product, not a little animated thing that came dancing off the product. Now we have the sons of Parkay. The other day I saw a commercial in which a head of lettuce starts talking to a housewife and telling her to put Bac-Os on her salad. She does, and the tomatoes becomes so happy they start talking, too.
Now looking at these ads purely as stories, and putting aside their persuasve intent and market research and all that, you see more and more people projecting spiritual needs onto foods and vegetables and margarines, and more and more people forming their most intimate relationships with consumer objects."
Simon traces the history of the new advertising this way: "First you had the Mrs. Olson ads (for Folger's coffee), in which our relationship to a product is mediated by a human being who represents that product. I call this a close encounter of the first kind.
"Then the second stage, where the character is not human, but is at least human-like - say, the Hawaiian Punch guy or the little talking doll that lives in the supermarket and sings about toilet paper. This is a close encounter of the second kind.
"And then finally the third kind, where we've actually gotten to the stage where we are talking to the products themselves. Now that it's been established that you can talk directly to a product in an ad, we have a Mobil commercial in which a sweet old lady holding a piece of pie is talking to her gas tank. She offers the gas a piece of pie but that's not quite what he wants."
Will there be encounters of - gulp - a fourth kind? Simon says he has already seen an ad in which a person is shown essentially having "sexual relations with a product" - a print ad for an aperitif. "A girl is lying by the swimming pool, and there's a big bottle coming out of the water, and the liquid gushes out of the bottle onto her abdomen, the most explicit symbol for ejaculation that I have ever seen in an ad."
He mentioned this one in his Toronto lecture "and it brought the house down," Simon recalls, but NBC edited the reference out of the excerpts that ran on "Weekened."
Where will it go from here? To "longer conversations between products and people and deeper relationships between products and people" in commercials and ads, says Simon.
And what does it all say about little old us and our little old society? "It doesn't say anything particularly good," says Simon. "Whatever psychological drawbacks there are to living in a world of abundance and material goods, this is the price we're paying - that we are preferring relationships to things to relationships to people.
"There's an ad now for Sony TVs in which you see a man and woman in bed, sort of a middle-aged couple, and the copy says, 'There's a time when you should be together with the person you love.' Each of the people has their own Sony TV, and they're sitting there back-to-back in bed, ignoring each other so they can be with the thing tey love - their television set."