I want to start out with a provocation: In our current age, television has become a form of religion, with the screen our altar and actors our saints.
This is, of course, not to say that television supplants other forms of traditional religion (and I would go further to suggest that any antagonism or dissonance between these types of worship says more about you than it does about the strains of belief themselves), but merely that our relationship with the medium has come to reflect many of the qualities that we associate with institutional religion as television has come to assume a pervasive, public, and central part of our lives, with our identities constructed, in part, around our position to TV. We form rituals around television viewing, regularly sitting down in front of our sets to watch True Blood instead of in pews. Or, if we judge importance through money spent instead of time, we might consider how a television is likely the single most expensive appliance we own or just how much we spend on cable per year. And, for some of us, television is the venue through which we connect to foreign others, supplementing the worship of God with a steadfast belief in Albus Dumbledore.
And what is religion, anyway?
I’ve always found it slightly ironic that my name alludes to the support of a religion that I often find myself at odds with; growing up, I had always associated the term “God” with a prominent figure in Western monotheistic religions. When I was younger, I recognized that, on some level, this notion of the Christian God was being forced upon me and I spent much of my life forming my identity in opposition to this conceptualization—I needed to escape from the oppressive and pervasive nature of the theology in order to attempt to craft my own sense of self. It has been difficult to learn that there is more to Christianity than evangelicals and that not everyone is trying to tell me how to live my life. Kant has had a large influence on my worldview and I do not think that God’s existence can be proven (or disproven); I also do not believe in a God that created the universe or exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden. This does not, however, mean that God’s existence does not have any impact on my life—God exists for those who believe in Him and the actions that result from those beliefs are very real to me. Moreover, many of the tropes that inform my work in identity and narrative derive from Christian tradition; religion, along with myths, fairy tales, and a host of other informal stories, all shape the way that we learn to view ourselves and our relationships to the world around us. So, although I continue to refrain from identifying as Christian, I would argue that I am closer to God today than I have ever been and that part of this process has come about through critical reflection on the incredible amount of television that I watch.
And stories, whether they are found in religion or on television, possess the ability to convey incredibly complex ideas to us in a way that we cannot always fully articulate. For example, take the story of Caprica’s “There Is Another Sky,” which is a familiar one if you’ve been exposed to any amount of entertainment growing up; it is the story of Alice, of Dorothy, of Neo, and of many others who have gone on a quest to become a hero. And, although he would not have described himself in terms of heroics, it is also partially the story of Jesus. Throughout the episode, various characters were admonished to “wake up” or expressed a desire to return home. Each has been ushered along by guides who have demonstrated that the power to change, to belong, to be, or become, existed in us all along. These heroes have all ventured into the darkness and found their way back to the world of the living; each of these heroes has woken up and tapped into the power that this revelation brings.
This journey is the same one we undergo when dealing with grief and death: when our loved ones die, we travel with them to the land of the dead; for a time being, a part of us dies as well. We hear the call to come back to the world of the living but also whispers from the underworld. We are scared to embark upon this path because we fear that we will become lost and will not be able to make our way back to the land of the living; we fear that we will lose ourselves in the darkness. (As a side note, this is also what the “There Is Another Sky” of the title refers to via an Emily Dickinson poem.) Funerals, whether experienced in a church or through a screen, act as rituals to transcend the everyday, allowing us to learn a script for letting go of the dead and returning to the surface.
So if we take a step back and consider Berger’s argument for the cyclical relationship between society and human beings through a process of production/externalization and consumption/internalization in conjunction with Gerbner and Gross’ Cultivation Theory, we can readily see a case made for television fulfilling some of the same core functions of religion. Television, as a product of man, follows its own internal logic and, through its existence and subsequent consumption, forces an in-kind response by its audiences. Television’s logic, then, structures and orders the world in a fashion similar to that of religion, with Gerbner and Gross suggesting that the process of identification is proportional to the amount of television consumed. In short, television, like religion, helps us to make sense of our world.
1) Reality television, in particular, provides a fruitful arena for further exploration of these concepts due to its current popularity and ability to blur the line between authenticity/fabrication. Borrowing from a heritage in documentary film making, the genre assumes a sheen of objectivity while nevertheless evidencing elements of manipulation by editors and writers. Moreover, the accessibility of its “stars” (due to their status as “normal” people) make the salience of their behavioral scripts that much more evident for people who would wish to use them as models of successful/unsuccessful behavior. Although dangerous due to a general lack of situational information/context, viewers might be tempted to repeat behavior that they see on screen, hastening the process of internalization, for it was undertaken by someone “just like me.”
2) Making a similar case for advertising’s ability to act as religion, James Twitchell contends that, “like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996). While some might object to the mixing of influences in areas such as advertising and religion, a certain amount of comingling is inevitable if we classify each entity as a belief system—a certain way of seeing the world complete with its own set of values—and understand that individuals might incorporate multiple elements into their particular worldview. (I might also suggest that a large part of the Catholic church’s growth was due to its efforts of self-promotion and advertising.) Aspects such as religion and advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996). Each characteristic also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, these forces play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, with a common thread being that followers can classify themselves in terms of the external: God, works of art, name brands, etc. Although the attraction may assume different forms, it survives because it continues to speak to a deep desire for structure—advertising works the same reason that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers.
The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how advertising can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process also evidenced by marketing techniques’ ability to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu. The concurrent horizontal and vertical spread of advertising is reminiscent of memes, a concept created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins, memes represent discrete units of cultural knowledge that propagate in a particular society (analogous to genes) through a number of transmission methods (1976). While the concept of memetics certainly spans across areas other than advertising, Dawkins notably included, as examples of memes, catch phrases (i.e., slogans), melodies (i.e., jingles), and fads. Consequentially, although advertising inevitably forms a new type of culture in societies, ads also serve to broaden exposure to, or strengthen the connections of, existing aspects of culture for those subjected to it as they burrow deep into our collective society.
Despite the intricate and multi-faceted nature of its impact, we can use the narrative characteristics of advertising as framework for understanding its influence. On a basic level, the format of advertising typically takes the form of a loose narrative, complete with implied back-story—television spots, in particular, provide a salient example of this. Yet, the messages present in advertising can also cause us to question our sense of self as we evaluate our belief systems and values as previously mentioned. Consider how personal identities can result from narrative or actually be narrative; sentences containing “to be” verbs can be unpacked to reveal a larger narrative structure that can help us to “cope with new situations in terms of our past experience and gives us tools to plan for the future” (Sfard & Prusak, 2005). Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of Adcult is felt where we least expect it: in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, p. 124). Advertising, it seems, not only allows us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of youth in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. The Journal of Communication, 26(2), 172-199.
Sfard, A., & Prusak, A. (2005). Telling identities: In search of an analytic tool for investigating learning as a culturally shaped activity. Educational Researcher, 34(4), 14-22.
Twitchell, J. (1996). Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.