Rowan Williams resembled a lamb being led to the slaughter when his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury was announced last week. Before he even had time to speak to the nation in whose name he was appointed supreme spiritual leader, he was reading seemingly damning extracts of his own book Fallen Icons, which were serialised in The Times newspaper last week.
Williams claims the newspaper had not told him about the serialisation of the book – published two years ago. The Times claimed the extracts were from a “forthcoming book” and said it was publishing them exclusively. A front-page splash described comments from the book, which criticised marketing to children and singled out Disney, as an “opening shot” from the new archbishop, even though they had been written two years previously.
Williams had sailed straight into a showdown with one of the world’s largest and most powerful marketing corporations, and his appointment reignited a debate on marketing to children which had all but died down. To make matters worse, much was made of the fact he wrote an introduction to a book on The Simpsons, which claimed the cartoon series demonstrated the power of the Gospels, serving as a warning of what would happen to those who strayed from the way of the Lord. The Simpsons is aired on Sky, part-owned by Rupert Murdoch who has a controlling interest in The Times.
Williams fleetingly appeared to be the country’s first pro-Murdoch archbishop. Aghast at the way things had slipped way beyond his control, he was forced to admit his naivety about the world of mass media in his first press conference as the latest heir of St Augustine. “It is a curious experience to have your future discussed, your personality, childhood influences and facial hair solemnly examined in the media, and opinions you didn’t know you held expounded on your behalf,” he told the media the day after The Times’ “exclusive”.
Having a beard like a cross between an Old Testament prophet and a member of ZZ Top might explain why his facial hair has been so solemnly examined. But whatever corners The Times may have cut in the way it used his book, the extracts appear to indicate that England has its first anti-advertising archbishop.
Williams’ straggly beard seems to confirm the view that he is kicking against the tide of modern communications (New Labour used to force ministers to shave off their beards). Just as the printed word was the medium that spread the doctrine of Protestantism across Europe with mass distribution of Bibles translated from Latin into languages that people could understand, modern media have been the vehicle of religion’s demise. Church attendances have fallen steadily over the past century in inverse proportion to the rise of the consumer society. The Church of England has lost much of its credibility, while brands have built up powerful positions of trust in society.
Williams stands by the views expressed in Fallen Icons, which are damning and potentially dangerous for the marketing industry. His main contention is that children need to grow up free from the pressures of commercialism, that children have very different needs from adu
lts and should be allowed to develop in their own world. “There is a peculiar horror and pathos in children not [being] allowed to be children,” he says.
Exploitation and manipulation
He believes that there are increasing pressures on children to be consumers and cites Disney as one of the chief culprits. He says that Disney has perfected the art of selling goods designed to stimulate further consumer desires, through its tie-ins between films, television serials and comics, sweets and toys. Children need protection from advertising, he claims, because ads “suggest that decisions can be made without cost or risk”, and while adults may understand this, “children are not likely to be aware of it”.
Williams sees marketing turning children into “economic subjects” and manipulating their desires in such a way as to make them – consciously or not – “sexual subjects” by equipping them with a “whole vocabulary of choice and gratification”. Things are “desirable to make you desirable, even before you quite know the nature of the desire in question, the language is learnt”.
Hugh Burkitt, chairman of agency Burkitt DDB and a member of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s Watchdog Group, which monitors controls on advertising, says of the extracts: “One of the advantages of being a theologian is that you are allowed to assert without any particular evidence. It is a great long rant without being very well argued.”
Disney issued its own defensive statement following The Times’ story. “We are proud that over seven decades Disney has earned the trust and admiration of millions. Community, decency and optimism are the centrepiece of what the Walt Disney Company strives to achieve in all that we create,” it says.
However, this does not address Williams’ main concern: drawing children into a cycle of demand by providing one piece of a collectible set and tempting them to buy the rest. In reality this has happened for many years, dating back to examples such as Typhoo collectors’ cards. But the concern is that today the sheer weight of marketing directed at children is such that it must be viewed as a threat.
Disney is the originator of the idea of “synergy”, now a watchword for so many brands. It leverages the tie-ins between its films, toys and merchandise sold through shops, trips to theme parks and cruise liners, and the company has even built a Disney-branded town called Celebration. Brands from Virgin and Nike to McDonald’s and Microsoft long to exploit the synergy between their different products and services, so that each tiny representation of the brand serves to confirm the power of the overall brand name.
Disney may sell dreams to turn a profit, but the methods of modern marketing can be applied to various endeavours. New Labour has attempted to restate social democracy through shamelessly raiding the marketer’s box of tricks – direct marketing, TV ads, celebrity tie-ins and aggressive press rebuttal and promotion.
Perhaps the Church needs its own version of synergy – a way of providing a complete set of experiences across different age groups, all tied together through a common religious theme. The success of the synergy approach is that it offers so many different “entry points” to a brand. The Church only offers a big, foreboding, oak-panelled door which appears gothic and scary to many people today.
Alpha Courses, brought to public attention as a result of attendances by celebrities including Geri Haliwell, offer dinners with discussions about Christianity and are much more user-friendly. They use many of the techniques of modern marketing, including seductive advertising, celebrity endorsements, and user-friendly language, which addresses people’s fears of getting involved in religion – the courses are about “communicating religion in non-threatening situations”.
But those who believe it’s time for the CofE to adapt to modern communications methods are likely to be disappointed with Williams at the helm, given his self-proclaimed innocence in such matters.
Even so, Williams’ disdain for marketing to children taps into a widely held view in society that advertising and marketing are rapacious, manipulative, untruthful, amoral, misleading and prepared to sacrifice all principles in pursuit of profit – even if it means damaging the interests of children. Fortunately for the industry, these views are generally muted and confined to down-page corners of the broadsheets.
But with a radical new archbishop installed in Canterbury who is far from afraid of speaking his mind, such anti-advertising views could take a firmer hold. A bit like some of the industry’s most successful ad campaigns, such as anti-drink driving, the constant drip, drip of negative messages can have a long-term effect.
Ian Twinn, director of public affairs for advertisers’ trade body the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, agrees that views such as those expressed in Williams’ book are fairly widely held. But he adds: “We have to make it clear that the industry already takes advertising to children seriously. The rules are strict and tough; the industry wouldn’t want it any other way.” He attacks Williams’ views as “idealist” in a world where commerce is the reality, saying it sounds like “a view wanting to withdraw from the world”.
Speak the same the language
But some believe that his comments offer grounds for future discussion between the Church and the marketing industry. Shell International vice-president of brand communications Raoul Pinnell says: “I see his stance as a desire to be involved in and to contribute to the discussion and debate on these issues. There are many areas of life where religion is trying to understand how it reconnects with the problems of today.
“He has expressed a point of view very strongly, and my hope is that the marketing and advertising industries see this as an opportunity to have more dialogue and get informed.”
After the Times story, Williams conceded he has a lot to learn about modern media, telling journalists: “I now have to learn a good many new things as well – how to speak of God in this very public position, in the middle of a culture which, while it may show a good deal of nostalgia, fascination and even hunger for the spiritual, is generally sceptical of Christianity and the Church.”
It is a culture that has embraced the branded synergy of Disney, Virgin and McDonald’s, where each small part confirms the image of the whole, thus strengthening loyalties. If the Church of England adopted a similar approach – though with “spirit” replacing “profit” – maybe it really could be brought back, Lazarus-like, from the dead.