Technology, Advertising, and the Golden Calf

Have you seen the Chevy truck commercial where the “not an actor” guy actually falls to his knees in front of a Silverado? It’s one of the most literal examples I’ve seen of something Neil Gaiman pointed out in his terrific novel, “American Gods” — the modern version of idol worship.

It’s one thing to suggest that buying something will make you happy — that’s what most ads do — but it’s another to show a consumer actually adopting a submissive, prayerful posture to a product. If, as the commercial indicates, this was the man’s spontaneous impulse, rather than a scripted action, it’s even more significant. To be clear, I’m not saying that this man is some kind of idolator, I’m saying that he did what he thought would be appropriate for the situation. Clearly, he was right, because his footage made it into the spot, while the reactions of the other participants were left on the cutting room floor. But what does that say about our culture’s relationship to the things we buy?

Consider the American Express TV campaign in which comedienne Tina Fey wallows in mindless consumerism. This spot (one of twelve in the series) is called “Impulse Shopping With Tina Fey,” and features Tina picking up a variety of things that she obviously has no use for. The message of the ad couldn’t be more blatant: use your credit card to buy “things that catch your eye,” whether you need them or not. It isn’t even saying that buying a particular product will make you happy, it’s saying that the act of buying alone will make you happy.

Kinda disappointed in you, Tina.

“Shop ’til you drop” is apparently a message that Americans have heeded. Collectively, we owe$747 billion to credit card companies; that’s an average of roughly $16,000 per household. While not all of that is discretionary spending (stagflation: stagnant incomes + inflating prices is certainly to blame for part of it), it’s pretty obvious that our relationship to our material possessions is not a healthy one.

In “American Gods” (now a TV series), Neil Gaiman’s premise is that people have faith in, worship, and even make sacrifices to, all kinds of things that they don’t think of as deities. For example, last year 1,200 people gave their lives for shoes, and over 38,000 people were sacrificed to automobiles. So, really, you can see why such a powerful god might inspire a man to drop to his knees in awe.

An even more extreme example is our devotion to technology. We all carry around cel phones, which we gaze at in oracular wonder many times a day, and many of us spend the majority of our waking hours in front of screens of various kinds. Certainly, it is no great stretch to equate corporate-controlled internet porn with the cult-controlled temple prostitutes of the ancient world.

Speaking of cults, have you ever really looked at an Apple store? It is 100% modeled as a religious sanctuary. As you enter the space, the first thing you see is the giant Apple logo (in place of a crucifix), you walk past tables arranged like pews, where worshippers browse in quasi-religious ecstasy, and — if you are worthy (i.e. you have an appointment), you may approach the Genius Bar, where the holy emissaries of Apple Inc. will minister to your technological needs.

Cue the angel choir.

For the past two decades, the idea of combining religious symbolism with consumerism has been used to great effect by The Church of Stop Shopping, led by self-ordained preacher Reverend Billy. Through a variety of live events (e.g. conducting exorcisms at shopping malls), Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping choir have been working to snap American consumers out of the hypnotic trance promoted by advertisers, industrial-leisure merchants, and globe-smothering multinationals.

If you’ve read my other posts, you may find it odd that a loud-and-proud libertarian would be critical of consumer culture and corporations. In actuality, it makes perfect sense; I am in favor of individual freedom, and if I am being mind-controlled into acting against my own best interests by “impulse shopping” with credit cards, getting ecstatic at the Apple store, or dedicating myself to the car gods, then I am not free. We don’t need unsustainable consumption and production in order to have a thriving economy; we could replace quantity with quality, have a lot less stuff, and enjoy it a lot more — without having to worship it or make sacrifices to it.

In the Biblical story of the Golden Calf, the Israelites lost faith in the God that had delivered them from Egypt, and turned their veneration to an idol of their own manufacture. In much the same way, we as a society have diverted our attention from things that are meaningful to things that are … just things. We have become addicted to the temporary buzz of latest-and-greatest, and it not only affects our lives, it sometimes takes our lives.

All of which begs the question … This stuff; what does it really cost?

Digital media guru by day, writer by night.