Madi-Zen Avenue marketing: When ads look East, some get offended

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The pillaging of religious stories and symbols, long a staple of advertisers and marketers, is taking another twist, this time targeting Eastern religions.

Comcast and Yellow Book USA are each running “enlightened guru” television ads, while retailers are selling home decor products advocating certain fabrics, colors and woods as peaceful, tranquil and Zen-inspired.

Feng shui? Good karma? That’s the “exotic,” “healthy,” “mystical” way of the East, advertisers say.

And now you can have it, too.

“They’re exploiting, commercializing and trivializing terms such as ‘guru,’ ‘karma’ and ‘enlightenment’ that are deep beliefs in Eastern societies,” said Arran Stephens, founder of Nature’s Path Foods, which produces organic products.

Nature’s Path makes energy bars and cereal called “Optimum Zen.” Stephens said the products’ name reflects his lifelong involvement with Eastern spirituality.

“In our case, there’s a real consciousness and value system connected to the product,” he said. “That’s a big difference.”

Watered-down Buddhism?

Zen Buddhism was linked to the 1960s counterculture, but by the mid-1990s, Eastern spirituality had taken hold in the mainstream. Books became bestsellers, the Dalai Lama became a superstar and meditation centers became neighborhood staples.

The Rev. Bryan Sieburh of Midwest Buddhist Center said American-style Buddhism is often a watered-down version of Eastern practices. The commercialism both capitalizes upon and fuels the ignorance.

“The Western version of Buddhism is very narcissistic,” he said. “People reject the theology and the discipline. They think it’s all about meditating and getting enlightened.”

Comcast and Yellow Book USA both refer to their spots as “guru” ads, but insist they aren’t playing off any spirituality or religious icons.

‘Playful and lighthearted’

In one Comcast ad, a robed Asian man asks viewers, “Are you enlightened?” In the Yellow Book ad, actor David Carradine parodies his old Kung Fu show, playing a “guru who enlightens” a young seeker.

“These ads promote Yellow Book’s directory and online search offerings in an obviously playful and lighthearted way,” the company said.

There’s often a fine line between what’s funny and what’s tasteless, said Lonnie Nasatir, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“We evaluate on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “For us, you cross a line when you play on stereotypes of Jews that has led to mistreatment or persecution.”

He said they may not complain about TV such as “South Park” or “The Simpsons,” because they mock all religions. In general, they evaluate who’s making the comment and the context.

“It’s one thing for an individual to poke fun at their own religion,” he said. “It’s another thing if you do it.”

‘The erosion of sacred images’

While Urban Outfitters is selling a whiskey flask with an image of Jesus above the caption, “What wouldn’t Jesus do?,” Christian outlets are selling Jesus tattoos, bobbleheads and even a “heavy drinker” T-shirt.

The T-shirt includes a reference to John 7:37: “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. — Jesus”

The commercialism of religious groups has contributed to the blurring of the lines over what’s acceptable, said Michael Budde of DePaul University in Chicago, who has written about religion and marketing.

“The days are gone when matters of religion were mostly off limits,” he said. “The cumulative impact is the erosion of sacred images.”

Mara Einstein, author of Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age, said Christians, Jews and Muslims have media watchdog groups that protest when advertisers offend. But Buddhists and Hindus generally don’t have such groups.

“There’s a sense in advertising that Eastern religions are fair game,” she said. “There’s no fear of reprisal.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Chicago Sun-Times, USA
Aug. 3, 2007
Susan Hogan-Albach

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This post was last updated: Dec. 17, 2013