Brand Worship as Idol Worship

"We refuse to be bystanders, even if we do not know exactly where our actions will lead." 
- Howard Schultz, CEO, Starbucks, in his book "Onward"

I was not the most studious kid in yeshiva. But I remember the Biblical story of Abraham and the idols well.

If you're not familiar with it, here's a summary of the story, which comes from the Jewish text Midrash Bereishit 38:13:

In Abraham's day, people worshipped idols - physical representations of G-dly power. His father was in the idol business (let's put aside for now the contradiction of manufacturing the things you worship.)

One day Abraham's father went away and left Abraham in charge of the idol store. Big mistake as Abraham thought the whole idea of idolatry was ridiculous.

A woman comes in one day and asks him to offer a basket of bread "to the gods." Then he really gets fed up.

Abraham handed the bread to the idols all right. But not before he broke them all to pieces, except one, then gave it the hammer. 

When his father came back and asked the equivalent of "What the hell happened here," Abraham calmly replied that the largest idol had smashed all the other idols up in a fight over the bread. 

Father said, basically, "What are you, a wiseguy? Idols don't have minds." 

At which Abraham retorted, "Listen to yourself - they have no power at all! So why should we worship them?"

I always thought the smashing-of-the-idols story was kind of funny. In a ha-ha-look-how-backward-they-were-back-then-kind of way.

But then I read an article by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach about the royal wedding as a form of idol-worship. His thesis is that celebrities have replaced the idols of old, and that we put them on a pedestal for absolutely no reason - elevating them to a status they don't deserve.

I read the article and thought yeah, yeah, I know that already, what's new.

Yet it stuck in my head. Boteach had something there, beyond the obvious, I just wasn't sure what it was.

Then it hit me: Brands are the modern equivalent of idolatry. We are as stupid as the people in Abraham's day. And it is just as heretical to attack brands as it was back then to question the power of idols.

Brand-worship is more dangerous than celebrity-worship. Because most people know that reading the gossip papers is just a pastime. But they are far more sucked in by the allure of the marketing industry.

How can I write this, as a marketer? It's almost shocking to me that I would be this honest.

Let me be clear - I'm not against brands per se. What I am against is tricking people into buying them.

At their very best, brands offer us a real promise that makes our lives simpler. They offer better quality than their competitors. They offer a certain style that we feel comfortable with. They offer a fantasy that helps us get through the day. As long as we're aware of what we're doing and buying, all is good.

But the dark side of branding is to make the kind of promise that can never be kept. A promise that by buying or using a particular product or service, you will somehow be complete, connected, more of a person than you were before.

Have you ever noticed that you feel "naked" without your favorite brands on? Almost like you're wearing a shield that protects you against the bumps and bruises of life? That's what I'm talking about.

It wasn't always this way. I'm pretty sure I know when the trouble started.

No, it's not about the birth of the modern advertising industry. Mass media. Etc.

What it has to do with - don't shoot me - is the exodus of mothers from the home.

Fathers we need, of course, but they have always had to go away to earn the daily bread.

But when mothers left home en masse - and yes we had to do this, and yes it was healthy for us and the children in many ways (I'm not advocating a return to Revolutionary Road) - the children paid the price.

Very specifically, I believe that the Freudians are correct: The presence of the mother (or another extraordinarily close and giving caregiver) in the child's earliest years is critical to its healthy mental development.

The child requires the caregiver to be there, to attend to its needs, every single second. This is how the child knows that it is alive and secure. Attachment theory explains this very well: When the child's needs are responded to, it has existential peace. When the child is ignored or abused, it cannot form that all-important primary attachment. It is floating in space, so to speak. It has no anchor.

I believe that the entire generation known as Generation X, of which I am a part, suffered from a lack of proper attachment to a primary caregiver - due to the fact that both parents began to work full-time during this period. It became the norm. 

Without parents at home, we had substitute caregivers. But it was not the same thing. 

I'm not blaming anyone here, please know that - and I have worked myself, continuously, my whole life, even as I chose to be physically home before my kids went to school. I wouldn't change anything. 

But I feel compelled to talk about what I see as the truth here. In the absence of the kind of "home and hearth" attachments that people seemed to have in earlier generations, I did become very attached to brands. I looked to them to define me. And as I look around at others, and at the proliferation of brands, and the obsession with product brands and personal ones, I see the effects of this early wound.

Close attachments, early and later on as well, prevent us from being sucked in by brands. And they help us to distinguish between real connectedness and the fake kind. 

Brands can be awesomely helpful and powerful. But getting too enmeshed with them is idol worship. 

Which was silly thousands of years ago. And remains silly today.

Think for yourself - you can handle the truth!

Have a great day everyone.


Photo source here.