I learn from those that have come before me.
As an advertising student, I learn from the successes and mistakes of media campaigns in the past. I find inspiration in work that creates new cultures and perspectives while disparaging the copycats. As creative business strategists, we work to understand the primal desires of large groups of people. We study consumers' behaviors and attitudes in order to better understand their needs and desires. After our work is done, we're able to engage with them in the most effective and persuasive way.
Recently, I've found inspiration by looking through history at the most successful campaign of all time: Western Christianity. Though their methodologies today are very different from one another, both modern advertisers and the Catholic Church devote enormous efforts and resources to creating enticing experiences that either unconsciously or well knowingly engender emotional participation and the creation of new cultures. Madison Avenue owes its dues to the Church.
Today, we’re all connected through technology and we learn and grow as one larger community. But before YouTube or Twitter, how did we share original ideas? Way back before the Internet, the telephone, or personal publishing, there was no framework to hang our experiences on and general knowledge was very scarce by today’s standards.
That framework came in part through religious unification in the Western world. In ancient Rome, we can thank Constantine for founding for what would become humanity’s largest and most powerful tool of governance throughout history. After issuing the Nicene Creed in 325 A.D., Constantine and a think tank of religious officials began to lay the groundwork for the Catholic Church by identifying what half of all advertising today spends countless hours and millions of dollars crafting.
We talk in our Account Planning classes about user emotions and buying states. More simply, my fellow Ad students and I comb through culture and media to understand how people feel towards certain ideas and products, and what frame of mind they’re in when making purchasing decisions. As a result, at the root of any Ad campaign is a way to alleviate one of two innate human desires. Modern advertising assumes that either:
A. People will always want more love
B. People will always want more money.
Think back to any commercial you’ve seen, print ad you’ve read, or billboard you’ve driven by. Think about the messaging they’re telling you and try and guess which of the two wants they’re trying to massage.
Viewed from a business perspective, the Catholic Church sits on even footing with today’s corporations. Neither can survive in a social vacuum and both rely exclusively on the patronage and involvement of participants (either customers or believers). Anyone in business understands that humans and cultures are always in a state of flux and thus, the Catholic Church is subject to the same pressure at attracting an ever evolving consumer base and adjusts it's beliefs and practices as dynamically as companies do.
After establishment, the Catholic Church made the strategic decision tackle both: offering a way for their followers to better their lives by finding more love while increasing the Church revenue through monetary donations. By subscribing to their movement, believers were promised eternal love in exchange for exclusive church loyalty. By providing an answer to the human obsession with the afterlife and filling humanity’s oldest market niche, the Catholic Church made a decisive move that has since secured their status as a market leader in the minds of the faithful. In a similar way that millions of technology enthusiasts look to Apple to pave the future of technology, billions of spiritual believers look to the Christian Church to help guide their hearts and minds. After establishment, their user-friendly belief system spread feverishly through concerted and grandiose artistic campaigns, and the Catholic Church began to become recognized as the authority on the afterlife and salvation.
Artistic commissions greased this machine and as more and more impressive works were created, the Church began to earn a commanding status in society. Not far from the Church’s seat of power in Rome, Italian artist Masaccio stunned viewers with his work, the “Holy Trinity” in the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence in 1426-27. Masaccio was a pioneer in his time and by collaborating with architect Brunelleschi, he applied some of the first ideas of perspective into his artistic works.
The use of lines and math to convey three dimensions on a two dimensional surface makes the fresco come to life, and the imagery of Christ’s crucifixion seems almost lifelike in its time. Today, we’re so visually disillusioned that it takes complex computer graphics to impress us. So to imagine that the churchgoers screamed and had to touch its surface to realize the illusion seems laughable.
Nonetheless, Masaccio was the first artist to fully appreciate what advertisers now understand as media environments: the relationship of a physical space to a visual message and how both affect each other. Using mathematical calculations, he integrated the church’s natural light sources into his painting and was recorded to have sat in the church all day before starting, as to observe how natural light moved through the windows over time. Setting the course for modern art directors, Masaccio discovered that it’s not only what we see that convinces us, but also how and where we see it.
An account planner in his day was patron Bishop Bernward from Germany . Bernward fundamentally understood the inclusion of past cultural practices for a strategic goal. By borrowing Roman architectural styles, his commissioned the church of St. Michaels in Hildesheim, Germany built from 1010-1033, which piggybacks onto the Roman reputation of superiority and dominance and exalts church members associated with it. In addition to the clear Roman influences in the arches of the church, St. Michaels attempts to widen its base of appeal by including Islamic zebra striped elements of interior design. By commissioning this church, Bernward combined unlike elements for a completely new and remarkable user experience.
When I sit back and look at art history books alongside Communication Arts magazines, it’s clear that both advertising and organized religion are two diverging tips of the same iceberg. Both groups create persuasive messaging to help establish opinions and grow their group of followers. Either through branded consumer goods or religious iconography, both organizations create social badges (like logos or spiritual symbols) with which people can display their tribal allegiance or group membership. Take a modern day Evangelical and a fanatical Apple user, ask them about their dogma, and you’ll get somewhat similar programmed rhetoric about their beliefs.
Some might read this comparison and reply that the Church isn’t anything like an advertising agency. You might make the case that:
“Churches are straightforward about offering love. Churches aren’t anything like agencies because they’re honest about what they do. Advertisers aren’t.”
Just as there are scandalous or fundamentalist Christian churches that preach hate and discrimination (going against the general reputation of good will and brotherhood), there are countless advertising agencies that dedicate their talents towards preserving the environment, creating material for small non-profits, or advocating social responsibility (against the reputation that ad men are money-driven scoundrels).
“There’s no Buyer’s Remorse with Religion”
The inclusion into smaller intimate social circles is a primal human desire and one that Religion greatly benefits from. However, just like becoming a member of a church can identify you as a part of something greater, in today’s cultural economy, people use consumer goods to a similar effect. In the industry, we call it Tribal Consumerism and we look at how anthropological and psychographic trends can be followed along different brand lines. Simply put, people tend to hang out with other people that buy similar stuff.
Lastly, people often make both sides of the argument that the other is inherently evil and will ultimately cause the demise of humanity. I’m less inclined to believe the sky is falling because while I acknowledge that both groups have been used for dastardly intent in the past, both organizations yield incredible control over a significant percentage of the global population. While organized religion has been used to justify sectarian violence in some groups, it’s also brokered peace and emotional solidarity to others. Likewise, advertising has sold lots of useless junk in the past, but as business continues to drive our society, advertisers and marketers hold the unique power to influence and steer our culture towards environmental stewardship and conscious consumption.
Thus, it seems that both organizations stand at a crossroads. Conventional advertising is failing as old mediums such as print and television are loosing effectiveness. Meanwhile today's Church is reinventing itself for the modern believer, who is exposed to many more competing religions than in years past, and whom also has begun to use commercial goods as a way to establish cultural identity. Advertising and marketing is moving towards an economy of mass customization and religion might stand to take a tip from its former follower.
Perhaps the future of the today's churches revolve around a similar idea, as they find ways to use their expert knowledge to better the lives of individuals instead of entire congregations. Some contest that people don’t need the Church as a go-between with the divine, so perhaps new fortune lies in positioning themselves like spiritual personal trainers: providing a custom tailored way to get emotionally unstuck and help you to discover ideas that you wouldn’t find on your own. After all, the Catholic Church is subject to the same pressure of attracting an ever evolving consumer base as modern companies are, and adjusts it's beliefs and practices as dynamically as modern day brands.
How does that sound?