Marketers Turn Monks Into Product Pitchmen

Even as lines are drawn in new clashes over religion in society, with flash points like the display of the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courthouse, Madison Avenue still turns to one set of the faithful to charm consumers on all sides of the culture wars: monks.

The men in hoods and robes are marketers’ darlings, having starred lately in campaigns for America Online’s broadband service, General Mills’Oatmeal Crisp Fruit ‘n Cereal Bars and PepsiCo’s Pepsi Blue brand. These followed appearances in commercials for companies like I.B.M. and Sony.

“They’re lovable,” said Len Short, executive vice president for brand marketing at America Online in Dulles, Va., part of AOL Time Warner. In the pantheon of widely appealing stock figures, “you have dogs, babies and monks.” he said. “Who hates monks?”

Monk characters recur in advertisements though real monks generally live sequestered in monasteries and often make vows of silence and poverty — sharing little with the free-spending, hard-charging consumers that marketers seek. But that disparity, according to advertisers and observers of religion and culture, is what makes monks work for advertisers.

Monks have been in regular rotation as stock advertising characters since 1975, when Xerox began its Brother Dominic campaign.

In the first commercial of that campaign, a comedian named Jack Eagle stars as a harried monk who finishes transcribing an ancient text only to discover he must produce several hundred more copies by the morning. He only gets the job done by sneaking through a secret passage from the monastery to use a copy shop’s Xerox 9200. “It’s a miracle,” his superior exclaims the next day.

The campaign was created by Needham, Harper & Steers in New York, a predecessor to DDB Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group. Consumers loved it. Mr. Eagle made hundreds of personal appearances as Brother Dominic for Xerox. The commercial was ranked No. 87 on a list of the top 100 campaigns of the 20th century compiled by the trade publication Advertising Age.

Once one company had found success with the idea, others were bound to try it.

Many times the monks’ role in advertisements is akin to Father Dominic’s: to show that the product is fabulous enough to entice even an ascetic, said James Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“Here’s a group that owns contemplation,” Professor Twitchell said. “So anything that gets them to throw it over must be a miracle.”

In that sense, most of these commercials could not work if they squared with the way monks actually live, said Robert A. Oden Jr., the president of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and a professor of religion there. In fact, the gap between consumers’ expectations for monks and what advertisers show helps these commercials get noticed, Professor Oden said. A commercial for the Sony Vaio PC features two monks in the Himalayas watching a Three Stooges DVD on the computer.

Monks can help establish a premise or joke quickly because many people already associate them with certain characteristics, like piety, contemplation and quiet.

The commercial for AOL Broadband, for example, reveals that monks bound by vows of silence are using instant messaging to chat about baseball. (The brothers are, of course, chatting about the Padres and the Angels.) The advertisement was created by BBDO Worldwide in New York, part of the Omnicom Group.

Similarly, a hushed monastery helps General Mills make the point that its new breakfast bar is crunchier than the competitors’; in that commercial, one monk’s enthusiastic bite apparently makes more noise than has been heard there in ages.

The Pepsi Blue spot, from BBDO New York, played on a different expectation of monks: chanting. It opens with monks slowly filing into an ancient monastery. Tension seems likely after vans pull up at a neighboring castle and disgorge a band swilling Pepsi Blue and ready to play loud rock and rap. But as the commercial cuts between the monks and musicians, the monks’ chant mixes smoothly with the band’s song.

One observer said the secular use of religious imagery could have broader benefits — as long as it is done with respect.

“To have a religious figure or icon appearing in advertising is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Steve Horswill-Johnston, executive director of the Igniting Ministry project, a $20 million, five-year campaign to increase first-time attendance at United Methodist Church services. “It can create a dialogue between people who are religious or spiritual and those who are not.”

Despite Madison Avenue’s interest in monks, hooded men are not likely to surpass the marketers’ longtime favorites, like supermodels. A future commercial for AOL Broadband, for example, will star Elle MacPherson.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New York Times, USA
Aug. 25, 2003
Nat Ives

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday August 26, 2003.
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