The Narcissism of Commodification


“Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14).

“The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed.  It is about the character of the consumers of products.  Images of movie stars and famous athletes, of serene lakes and macho fishing trips, of elegant dinners and romantic interludes, of happy families packing their station wagons for a picnic in the country–these tell nothing about the product being sold.  But they tell everything about the fears, fancies and dreams of those who might buy them.  What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer” (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 128).

Advertising, at this point in our cultural development, is the proverbial straw that stirs the drink.  We know that.  Instinctively, somehow, it makes sense.  If consumption is the gas that drives the capitalist machine, we understand that somehow or another we must be motivated to go to the pump and do our part to keep the whole thing humming along.  Of course, advertisers do not want us to think of it in such vulgar terms.  Otherwise, the magic would be gone.  Rather, advertising is designed to keep us from thinking much at all, except insofar as it can get us to think about ourselves.  And in that sense, advertising is less concerned with selling us a new product as it is with selling us a new vision of ourselves as the sort of people who might benefit from buying a product.

In other words, commercials are inherently preachy.  Only the moralizing is so subtle that we hardly even notice it.  Later Postman says, “The television commercial is about products only in the sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales, which is to say, it isn’t.  Which is to say further, it is about how one ought to live one’s life” (p. 131).  The seduction happens so effortlessly that we hardly even feel it.

Why, though?  Why does it work so well?  I think commercials have the power to shape us because we are so preoccupied with ourselves.  It seems as though we care less about being good people, for example, than about being perceived as good people.  Why?  Because while actually being good takes a great deal of hard work, looking like a good person takes very little effort at all–just the right kind of aftershave and life insurance.  Nowadays, one doesn’t actually have to put in the grueling hours it used to take to be smart; one need merely stay in the right hotel.

Paul, however, suggests a way to release us from the relentless grip of commercial culture.  He tells us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.”  If what we are primarily concerned about happens not to be our own image, but that of the one who gives us a self with which to be concerned in the first place, then psychodramas about acne and sports utility vehicles will have lost their power over us.  By understanding that what we truly need is not the tweaking provided by the right brand of toothpaste or the coolest brand of beer, we begin to see ourselves the way Christ sees us, rather than the way Madison Avenue needs for us to see ourselves.

According to Paul, maybe being your own person isn’t such a great deal after all.  Living the life Jesus calls you to live . . . now, that would be true nonconformity.

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