Towards a Critical Theology of Advertising November 2018

image Published: Nov 28, 2018

A few years ago, I came across a fascinating article on the Australian Broadcasting Company Religion and Ethics website. Philosopher Thomas Wells was asking: “Is Advertising Morally Justifiable? The importance of protecting our attention.” (Http://   (Accessed 3 February 2016))

Prof Wells suggests that “advertising is a natural resource extraction industry, like a fishery. Its business is the harvest and sale of human attention. We are the fish and we are not consulted……advertising imposes costs on individuals without permission or compensation. It extracts our precious attention and emits toxic by-products, such as the sale of our personal information to dodgy third parties.”

This is not a new idea. In 1928, Edward Bernays wrote 'Propaganda', which founded the philosophy of PR and advertising; and, I would suggest, is very much the foundation of ‘Newspeak’ in Orwell's 1984. Ponder the opening of Chapter 1:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet. They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons—a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million—who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.”

It just so happens that none other than Joseph Goebbels (German Minister of Propaganda from 1933 to 1945) found Bernay's work 'helpful'. In 1958, Aldus Huxley followed up 'Brave New World' with 'Brave New World Revisited”, reflecting on what had happened in the real world since he wrote the original. In Chapter 6, he reflects on 'The Art of Selling'. It is horrifyingly prescient, bearing in mind it was written 60 years ago. Take for example:

“Singing Commercials are a recent invention; …........... Melodies tend to ingrain themselves in the listener's mind. A tune will haunt the memory during the whole of a lifetime. …...................... now set the words to a catchy and easily remembered tune. Immediately they become words of power. Moreover, the words will tend automatically to repeat themselves every time the Melody is heard or spontaneously remembered. Orpheus has entered into an alliance with Pavlov -- the power of sound with the conditioned reflex.”[1]

'Go Compare Man' immediately comes to mind, and, for those of us old enough to remember the 1970's, “Do the Shake and Vac!', I would thoroughly recommend Huxley's 'Brave New World Revisited', and remember it was written 60 years ago

We are now at the end of November, when we have 'Black Friday' and ‘cyber Monday’, American imports to induce mass hysteria and an orgy of consumerism. The cynic might suggest that this is mostly to sell off end of range products, and to induce in us the feeling that 'I buy – therefore I am!'

And then we come to Facebook and Twitter – which could be regarded as giant social surveillance machines with the ability to harvest your data and to sell this to advertisers. This is increasingly being recognised by advertisers:

“By effectively using analytics to combine both transactional and behavioural data to create a comprehensive three-dimensional view of the customer, businesses can fully understand the people behind the data point and in turn provide an enhanced personalised experience, cultivate more valuable relationships and generate results.”[2]

However, as was made clear in the SRT report on digital surveillance and social justice, Christian theology teaches that humans are much more than simply a compilation of our data points.

As Christians, I think we need to be alert to these issues. What I am suggesting is that we undertake a detailed and critical theology of advertising. A good starting point might be our Lord's words in Luke 12 v15:“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions”.

[1] Huxley, A, (1958), Brave New World Revisited, London, Vintage Classics, (1994 Ed.,), p.48


Barry Watson, Member of the SRT Project Committee

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