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Advertising Invites People to Cult-Like Devotion

Ad executive Douglas Atkin notes that a transformation has taken place in what's expected of the typical ad executive at a major corporation. Rather than being responsible for design, packaging, and promotion, the brand manager is now asked "to create … a meaning system for people through which they get identity and an understanding of the world.” Advertising is asked to induce devotion by investing products with transcendence.

So, Atkin asked himself, “What makes people exhibit cult-like devotion?” He thus undertook a study of cults precisely in order to figure out how brands could induce "loyalty beyond reason." When he heard people rhapsodize about sneakers or paper plates in terms that he described as "evangelical,” he realized that people join brands for the same reasons they join cults and religions: to belong and to make meaning. They ceased being merely customers and now identified themselves as disciples, as "members of the tribe" whether that tribe be VW owners, Starbucks drinkers, or Mac users. The advertisements for these products do not convey information about them; rather, they tell stories—they picture worlds of meaning and invite us to see ourselves within them.

The goal of such marketing, this (very secular) documentary concludes, is "to fill the empty places where non-commercial institutions like schools and churches might have once done the job." They amount to "an invitation to a longed-for lifestyle.”


James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Baker Academic, 2009), p. 102

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