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The Objects of Our Devotion: Spiritual-Need Marketing

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"I totally don't know what it means. But I want it."

Jessica Simpson

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A survey was just conducted to gauge the religious and spiritual propensities of Americans. As one might have guessed without having spent all the money and time, we are a fairly religious country. Diversely so, but religious nonetheless. The vast majority of Americans believe in a Supreme Being or higher power whom they call God.

So where did the road bend and twist? When did Americans go from a devotion to God to a devotion to things? In advertising circles, which is essentially the crank shaft of our economy, it is a truism that the American is a demanding consumer. "Give us what we want," is the credo. But it appears that what they want is a product. We have gone from one nation under God to one nation under Wal-Mart. We worry about extending youth and bodily life instead of considering the importance of making our limited time here meaningful. And the worst part as I see it and the point of this article is that we have come to believe that meaning and having are, if not entirely equal, then at least run parallel. This is a profound and pervasive delusion that is also both simultaneously destructive and systematically distracting. So much so that corporations have put their billions into marketing campaigns that specifically target and capitalize on these delusions.

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The delusions are:

1) The product can save me.

2) The product has meaning and therefore can give my life meaning.

3) The product can help me belong to a tribe.

4) The product or service or brand can make me lovable.

Of course, none of the products on the market today and none of the products anyonecan possibly conceive of will ever meet the deeper needs of a human being (which are distinguished from basic needs such as food, shelter, clean air and clean water) because those deeper needs are for love, belonging, and meaning. Who in their right mind would consciously believe that a pair of shoes or a car or a skin cream could ever do that? Yet, we buy and behave as if we did believe it.

Naturally, the marketing experts know this. They reach into our hearts to pull on the strings of our deepest longings so that we buy what they have to sell, knowing it will never satisfy those longings, secretly happy in that knowledge because it means we'll have to keep buying, scooping up more and more in a fruitless search for salvation that can never, ever come from this world. Ever.

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I am not a theologian. I'm a psychotherapist near Albuquerque, NM. But I think this is idolatry in the purest sense of the word. In watching and treating people who suffer from profound anxiety, ennui and depression, I have come to the conclusion that God did not forbid idolatry because He was petty or needy. An Omnipotent Being does not need our worship or devotion. He prohibited idolatry because it is, in fact, delusional, and it will make us miserable. It will never satisfy us or make us happy in the way He wants us to be deeply happy, which could never be accomplished with a short shot of dope. If my assumption is true, then what we are missing is not just happiness but a contentedness and emotional sure-footedness that is bone-deep and fills us with joy on each inhalation. What we are accepting in exchange for this soul satisfaction is a house full of gadgets we have no time to use, closets full of designer labels and lives littered with broken relationships.

But we keep saying "no" to joy and "yes" to stuff. It is more than ironic. It is befuddling and tragic. But it is true and made possible by an exceedingly savvy and complex understanding of human nature in marketing executives who keep leading us into their stores and away from the Promised Land. I would like to make clear, here, that I do not believe that devotion to God and a healthy economy are mutually exclusive. I think an economy based on deception and delusion, however, is.

How do they do it? There are principles that apply almost universally in board rooms around the world. Marketing a new product is approached in just about the same way whether the group is meeting in Tokyo or New York.

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Judith Acosta is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She is also a classical homeopath based in New Mexico. She is the author of The Next Osama (2010), co-author of The Worst is Over (2002), the newly released Verbal First Aid (more...)

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