It’s been a great couple of weeks for brands discovering how to get media coverage by setting up a stunt.
First there was the big Barbie/Ken Valentine’s Day split. I’d seen it coming; she’d been playing around with girls all over the place for years, and has quite a history of making an exhibition of herself.
Then there was underwear brand Ultimo’s masterstroke of dumping Rod Stewart’s current leggy blonde in favour of his ex-leggy blonde, causing the year’s biggest split-crotch brassiere modelling contract shock horror debacle. The episode generated front page headlines which actually incorporated the product name (“Rod’s ex delivers Ultimo insult”) and an important opportunity for some sober investigative journalism.
And now, after all this excitement, suddenly Christianity – one of the oldest brands of all – has discovered the power of the hardcore, hi-tech celebrity sell. Enter Braveheart, all spears blazing, with The Passion of the Christ, and a piece of symbiotic marketing which is serving the church and the movie in equal measure.
Controversy is one of the oldest and most effective tricks in the publicist’s book. If the morally righteous and socially responsible prigs and suits are up in arms about the latest children’s toy, if they’re apoplectic over a gratuitously offensive ad campaign, and if they’re puce with rage at an assault on respectable standards of taste and decency? Well, it has to be worth a look – and everyone will hear about it once the Daily Mail gets its editorial all aerated about the issue.
Similarly, when cynics start questioning people’s motives and vent disgruntled mutterings about dirty tricks, then everyone’s suddenly got an opinion – and product is sold on the back of a ferocious outbreak of word of mouth.
PT Barnum, the originator of modern PR, had an early exhibit called Joice Heth, a wizened old black slave woman who claimed to have been Abraham Lincoln’s nanny. At the time, that would have made her 160. Sceptics and believers came from miles around to hear her first-hand accounts of the great man’s babyhood.
When the takings began to dip, Barnum adopted a nom de plume and wrote coruscating letters to the local media, declaring himself an utter fraud and professing certain knowledge that Joice was a mechanical con, made of old animal hide and an intricate clockwork contrivance of wires and widgets.
Far from causing a collapse in trade, people flocked in ever greater numbers. They had to see for themselves whether Joice was real or not. Either way, they left satisfied, and served as ambassadors for Barnum’s business.
So, to The Passion. Is it a tasteless snuff movie, or is it a passionate, moving and brutally truthful account of Jesus’ death which moves us to re-examine what we’re all doing with our lives and why? And did production company Ikon deliberately kick up a media storm when they asked Jewish-Catholic experts to read the screenplay in advance – and then promptly leaked their demands for revisions? I don’t know. Well I do know, actually – Ikon would have been mad not to.
What I also know is the very fact that I’m discussing it at all makes me a participant in the process of hype, and a servant of the church, Mel Gibson and the studio. The Barnum principle at work once again. Mel Gibson was brazen enough to admit it.
He says “inadvertently, all the problems and the conflicts and stuff – this is some of the best marketing and publicity I have ever seen”. Inadvertently? Yeah, right. Do I hear the sound of laughter coming from the direction of the bank?
For the Christian flock, it’s a huge marketing opportunity. The brand’s been in the doldrums. This is equivalent to the extraordinary It’s a Royal Knockout – a thoroughly misguided attempt to modernise an image and reach out to the people, which presented the house of Windsor as a bunch of upper class pantomime clowns.
Any old brand manager will tell you that this kind of exercise entirely misses the point.
One of the royal family’s strengths – and one of the qualities the market demands – is gravitas, grandeur and decorum. We don’t want a coronation presented by Dale Winton, sponsored by Pepsi and sold to Sky, with a branded archbishop and ad breaks for washing powder.
The modernising of Christianity has been ramshackle and unfocused, and has dealt with superficial aspects of presentation. It’s been seen by an image and marketing savvy public as an especially cynical or just plain silly approach.
But the arrival of The Passion gives the church an opportunity to assert the core strengths of the faith, and to open up a debate about the need for a secure set of values in a materialistic, spiritually dead society that has gone berserk with the idea that, well, there’s no such thing as society. In the modern world, the church’s strength is that it’s not modern: when it tries to be so, it sells its soul – and since soul is what it’s all about, it’s brand suicide.
And no, it’s not foolish modernity to talk about Christianity as a brand. “Brand” is just today’s shorthand for any object, individual, product, service or organisation with a distinct identity that it needs to project. Brand awareness is just a current term for self-knowledge. The word is no longer one of those mystic terms whose meaning is known only to high priests from the land of ad: everyone knows what a brand is these days.
The release of The Passion is an opportunity for Christianity to put forward its case – but it needs to take care. The church needs to view the film as a platform for the cause. It must not get involved in an unseemly brawl over the minutiae of the movie.
It should embrace it, openly and with tolerance; it should respect the diversity of opinion the film has provoked; it should say that The Passion is an interesting and welcome exercise, and one which opens up discussion of religion, whatever people choose to think of the content. Then, after all of that, it should then move on to establish clearly what Christianity is about, and what Christian values – not, repeat not, Christian institutions – have to offer us today. If it’s presented as an appeal for bums on pews, it won’t work: the church will be seen as an opportunistic, exploitative organisation out to make a fast buck on the back of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Of course, proposing this approach is a total waste of time. After all, there’s no central communications control in the church. There’s no single media-friendly representative of the church’s viewpoint, and it has no strategy for presenting a coherent opinion because it’s in disagreement with itself so much of the time anyway.
Then again, this could be turned on its head to work to the benefit of both the church and society. After all, don’t we all detest the imposed unanimity of on-message, party-line, style-rich, substance-poor politics? And wouldn’t we welcome a diffuse, multifaceted, inclusive approach to faith that – whatever the internal doctrinal differences – is fundamentally based on a fervent belief in some kind of personal and public integrity?
Whatever the case, from the publicist’s point of view, this whole furore delivers one very, very clear message. Namely, there is nothing so powerful as a media event to create a platform for product. I’d never heard of Ultimo before (no, honest), but I know all about the company now. Why? Because they created a story that the newspapers couldn’t afford to ignore.
With The Passion, there’s a big story already, and Christianity is central to it. My advice to the church? For God’s sake – use it.