Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Religion, Advertising and Production of Meaning

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Religion, Advertising and Production of Meaning

Article excerpt

Abstract: An important part of the world we live in is represented by symbols, and mediated images and mass media are the main sources of the symbolic material used in the process of shaping the postmodern self. The cultural industry and the communication technology are growing rapidly and they capture important areas located until recently under the tutelage of traditional social institutions such as the family or the church. If we think of the contemporary society in terms of the weak theology proposed by John D. Caputo as a de-secularized space where the individual's need for the sacred is strongly revealed, the crucial role played by the media in the construction of the contemporary world becomes obvious. Certainly, within this vast territory represented by the media culture, advertising is one of the most relevant areas for analysis of the manner in which symbolic structures are reintegrated in contemporary society. Therefore, our paper focuses on advertising as an important force that creates symbolic meanings in the contemporary culture. Along with the symbolic content of advertising, a significant part in augmenting its cultural force is attributed to the way it succeeds to contain religious dimensions in its mechanisms.

Key Words: advertising, religion, mass media, weak transcendence, weak theology, sacred, profane, symbol, myth, consumer culture

Religion and Media Culture

Regardless of the judgmental or apocalyptic tone that accompanies the analysis undertaken by specialists of the media phenomenon, what transpires is the idea that we live in a world of symbols and mediated images, and that mass media is one of the relevant tools in shaping the postmodern self. The rapid development of the cultural industry and communication technologies is taking over important areas which used to belong to traditional social institutions such as the family or the church. Mass media understood as "a cultural system that creates reality through specific elements of symbolic rationality" uses functions held in traditional societies by institutionalized forms of religion, myth and ritual.1

Mihai Coman, proposing an anthropological approach, conceives mass media as being "a central component in the process of the social construction of reality, as an institution that generates discourse and a particular logic" regarding not an argumentative rationality, but a symbolic one.2

A similar anthropological perspective is offered by Timothy deWall Malefyt and Brian Moeran in their analysis of advertising. Highlighting the similarity between the two fields, they consider that "if anthropology is understood as "writing" culture, what advertising 'writes' ends up producing culture."3 By referencing numerous case studies they establish the conversion of anthropology into a methodology relevant for marketing research, while advertising becomes the avant-garde of ethnographic research.4

Despite the belief that there is a fundamental gap between religion and media, they should be understood as a whole because "media and religion have come together in fundamental ways. They occupy the same spaces, serve many of the same purposes, and invigorate the same practices in late modernity."5

The media-religion relation is open to numerous interpretations. In order to understand this relation, one should understand media's ability "to be both shapers of culture and products of the same culture"6, a definition which can be also used in the case of religion. This double articulation makes it harder for us to establish the impact of both religion and media and to offer an analysis of their relation.

At the same time, with the idea that media takes the role and some of the functions traditionally belonging to religion, S. Hoover proposes another perspective according to which media symbolizes a cultural forum, an essential part of culture which cannot be ignored by the religious views and practices. Religious leaders, institutions, practitioners, symbols, values, practices, and ideas would all find themselves involved in this ongoing discourse, rather than separate from it. …

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