Spirituality Sells

Attaching a transcendental or religious dimension to a product satisfies our craving for both God and Mammon, with potentially lucrative results, says Mark Vernon.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Few would have predicted in the free-love years of the 1960s, or the loads-a-money 1980s, that at the start of the 21st century spirituality would be a big seller. However, 100 years after Nietzsche declared that God was dead, advertising campaigns are increasingly aimed at linking spiritual values with a variety of goods and services: for them, the association is better than 'chocolate', 'new', 'free' - or even sex.

There are the banks and insurance companies that don't just offer financial services; according to their ads, if you put your money with them you'll find existential freedom and domestic heaven. There is even an insurance and credit-card provider called 'More Than' - an extraordinarily abstract and transcendental phrase for such a numbers-game business. And there are the oil companies that wouldn't be photographed dead near a drop of the black stuff. Instead, their ads feature the wind and the waves, and scientists tapping not underground reservoirs of hydrocarbons but the wisdom of the planet to meet humanity's energy needs.

Or take bottled water. No longer is H2O just a means of quenching your thirst. Now it offers spiritual renewal, derived from natural sources of purified rain that fell long before modern industry could pollute it. Even my breakfast cereal claims it 'revitalizes the soul'.

In fact, it seems that there are few things that wouldn't benefit from a spiritual makeover. Pick a household product at random - say, shampoo.

Sure enough, the current campaign of beauty brand ghd describes itself as 'a new religion for hair'. Its ads call the women who use its hair products 'urban angels'. With a series of commandments, they instruct them on how to live according to the 'gospel of ghd'.

Or take another product - say, an alcoholic beverage. Sagatiba is a sugarcane-based spirit, widely drunk in Brazil. The campaign to develop a worldwide market, devised by Saatchi & Saatchi, uses Brazil's most famous icon - Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer - as its principal advertising motif.

In the ads, the same pose of outstretched arms and raised palms is imitated by human models and then superimposed on a series of urban scenes.

What then is going on here? How is the spiritual convincingly associated with this wide diversity of goods and services, and why?

Steve Dixon, executive creative director at Propaganda, the company that made the ads for ghd, explains that the brief was to come up with something that was 'on brand', that came from 'rich insight', was an international theme, and was clearly differentiated from any other hair products. Most of those focus on having healthy hair as opposed to beautiful hair.

'But our research demonstrated that girls don't really care about the health of their hair, as long as it looks fantastic,' Dixon continues.

'Our research led us to a one-word brand essence of "belief". Research shows that hair is so important to girls that they honestly believe that ghd has changed their lives. Giving them the professional look that they crave increases their self-esteem and boosts their confidence.'

According to Alex Pinedo, marketing director of Sagatiba, who oversaw his company's campaign, something different is going on in these ads.

Although Sagatiba means literally 'a search for purity and quality', he believes the religious imagery of the crucifix is treated in a purely cultural manner in his ads to associate the drink with Brazil. Any religious reading, let alone offence, would be mistaken, he says.

Spirituality is common currency in contemporary culture as a whole. Robert Craven, author of Customer is King, points out that religious themes permeate films and bestselling books - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, to name but three. 'Is it any wonder that this overflows into the advertising industry?' he asks.

Alternatively, one might look to broadcast media. The Channel 4 series Spiritual Shopper, for example, was based on the premise that although attachment to formal religion is rapidly declining, the desire for spiritual fulfilment is increasing and can be satisfied on the high street, if not in church. Bray Leino, a marketing and communications agency, is currently working on the brand development of what it calls a new 'spirituality' TV station, launching in the UK later this year. The remit of the channel is to tap into and provide content for what has been identified as a 'spiritual anchor', which many consumers apparently seek.

Advertising spirituality is particularly potent because, as Tim Diplock, client services director at Maxim Marketing, explains, the western mindset simply cannot resist the offer of contentment for cash - despite the fact that psychological research data going back 50 years or more indicates that there is no direct relationship between increased financial prosperity and greater contentment.

'Attempting to satisfy a vacuum of need with more possessions is commonplace,' says Diplock. 'However, there is the associated guilt trip of having more possessions but still feeling poor in spirit. Assuage the guilt of that desire by adding a lifestyle or spiritual edge, and you are offering a solution that hits both the God and Mammon in everyone.'

So, if the trend among 21st-century consumers is to be ethical, spiritual, honest and 'to live better' - perhaps in reaction to the overt materialism of previous decades or because of rising environmental concerns - then adland will mirror that too.

So much for why spirituality is big in advertising. What of the how - how is it that spiritual themes can so readily be attached to material things? Jeremy Carrette, senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Kent and co-author with Richard King of Selling Spirituality, believes that a key issue is the separation of spirituality from religion. 'Spirituality works in the market because it can function in a vacuum,' he says.

'It is exactly what Naomi Klein understands by "Brand X". Spirituality is a way of life or a value. It carries and evokes a whole set of qualities about the good life and mystery. So you get echoes of the general idea of something valuable for living. But the vagueness of the spirituality means it can separate itself from the difficult bits of old-time religion, with all its oppressive ways, and what you are left with is the mystery of otherness, particularly in Eastern traditions, which can evoke the exotic.'

A similar point can be made from an economic angle. In his new book The Culture of the New Capitalism, Richard Sennett of the LSE points out that consumers today are interested in buying goods for the potential they offer, not merely the things they will actually do with them. He takes the example of fast cars: they are never going to reach 150mph down the Euston Road, and yet City bankers buy them by the dozen with their bonuses, just because they can. Personal computers come loaded with data-processing power and software that users rarely need, and yet people want the latest generation of microchip and memory. In this age of shopping for potential, the spiritual possibilities of goods and services might be thought of as the ultimate choice. After all, they promise to do nothing less than save you.

However, it is not just individuals that are fooled. Carrette believes that spirituality is being sold at a bigger price than that. 'What does it say about a society that has products like "Spiritual" body spray, "Zen" deodorant or whatever spiritual repackaging?' he asks. 'It shows how the market wants the mystery of images and ideas of religion to sell a product without the ethical way of life found by living these traditions. This is the selling off of the assets of the old religions in a takeover by the religion of capitalism.'

Religious imagery can also be profitably exploited as simply a 'cool' aesthetic, devoid of any social values. James Layfield, managing director of experiential marketing agency The Lounge, which targets the 18-to-30s market, explains how the shock value of religious imagery is adopted as a way of differentiating in a marketplace already crowded with products that have a cult following.

Recently, his company asked 1,000 young people if they practised a religion: 71% did not. Since many are not interested in religion, then religion-related associations work best if they are ironic or mocking - so suggesting nonconformity.

'Channel 4 using the connotation of The Last Supper in its advertising of its TV programme Shameless, or Mini Chedders asking the "Sister or Sinner?" question of women dressed in nuns' habits, is meant to shock the minority and, ironically, appeal to the disinterest of a younger consumer,' says Layfield.

On the other hand, spirituality is not simply a win-win association for brands. There is evidence that companies adopt such motifs at their own risk; they need to be careful if all they do is adopt a spiritual veneer - as if all that is needed is a spiritually minded advertising campaign to make them ethical or socially responsible. Rather, in our media-savvy days, these values need to be carried right through the business for the association to work.

Cred (Corporate Reputation Diagnostic) is a study of thousands of brands run by Millward Brown. 'BP's ethical campaign, for example, is perceived more positively than Esso,' says Peter Walshe, a senior director. 'This is likely to be because BP is actively trying to do something about a social issue and being realistic and open about it.' Esso, on the other hand, has a brand positioning based largely on price that many would take to be at odds with a profound ethical concern.

Walshe also questions whether spiritual or ethical factors weigh that heavily with British consumers at all. Although a poor ethical reputation is bad for business, a good reputation does not make for loyalty either: only 5% will buy for ethical reasons rather than price or familiarity. 'The Cred survey shows that price, trustworthiness, honest advertising, quality products and customer care are more important to consumers than ethics.'

Spiritual ads can backfire too. Although not many firms will worry if marginal fundamentalist religious groups take exception, sometimes the thought that an ad is sacrilegious can affect a surprising number of people. Dave Jones, creative director at marketing group JJ, cites the Christmas 'Immaculate contraception?' campaign for the morning-after pill Levonelle: it caused widespread offence.

Not that he is averse to the risk. 'One has to bear in mind that if every advert was created with the church in mind in 21st-century Britain, companies wouldn't sell very much,' he says. Moreover, the church can flirt with controversy to make noise too. The Church of England's use of the image of Che Guevara might be thought a good example of that.

Steve Jenkins, head of media relations for the Church of England, believes that the interest in spirituality at a cultural level is good news for the church. He suggests that clergy are now seen as real people in adverts rather than as the butt of a joke. He also points to the revival of 'corporate spirituality' evident in the Make Poverty History and Live Aid campaigns.

However, Dr Lloyd Pietersen, a lecturer in the religious studies department at the University of Bristol, believes that spiritual ads are deeply troubling.

'They turn spirituality into another consumer commodity,' he says. Like Carrette, he believes that the appeal to spirituality with no concomitant attention to ethical issues is particularly worrying.

However, he goes a step further, predicting: 'The attempted marriage of spirituality and advertising may reap commercial rewards, but from the viewpoint of practitioners of spirituality, this marriage of God and Mammon will inevitably lead to a very quick divorce.'



What it is: shampoo and haircare products

What it says: 'The Gospel according to ghd', 'A new religion for hair'.


What it is: perfume brand by Guerlain, named after the Buddhist cycle of birth and rebirth.

What it says: 'Samsara is the symbol of harmony, of osmosis between a woman and her perfume'. The stopper evokes 'the eye of Buddha'.


What it is: Sugar cane-based white spirit drink from Brazil.

What it says: Sagatiba means literally 'a search for purity and quality'. The ad campaign features models copying the pose of Rio de Janeiro's famous statue of Christ the Redeemer.


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