Souls for sale

Once in a while you hear an idea so remarkable you can’t believe you didn’t think of it. The light bulb (Edison), telephones (Bell), telephone soliciting (Satan), teaching grade six kids vaginal lubrication (Dalton McGuinty). But the one I’m currently kicking myself for missing is Canadian Anglicans’ plan to cope with declining membership and revenue by soliciting corporate advertising. Why didn’t Jesus think of the Sermon on the Billboard? Yea, verily. Michael Valpy wrote in Tuesday’s Globe and Mail “The Anglican Church of Canada is inviting corporate sponsorship of its national convention this year, selling space for brand logos on delegate documents, advertising signs in its meeting spaces and a private lunch for executives with the church’s senior archbishop. It’s the first time in its 117-year history that the Canadian church made its governing synod available for a mess of pottage... Asked about the genesis of the sponsorship idea, Vianney Carrière, the Anglicans’ national director of communications and information resources, said: ‘The genesis is the need for money.’... The synod agenda is described as ‘timely, relevant and important and includes debates, resolutions and presentations on major global issues such as poverty, human sexuality, the rights of indigenous peoples and the care of the environment.’”

OK, that’s a tough sell. But I still think turning religion into an advertising rather than a spiritual venture has enormous untapped potential that not even Bruce Barton recognized when he depicted Christ as the world’s greatest ad man back in the 1920s.

Start with ancient Egyptian religion. Among the advantages here is it won’t offend anyone because no one worships Ra any more (at least I don’t think so; I suppose I could steal one of Dan Brown’s ideas and write a thriller about a journalist pursued by a secret Ra cult because of a sacrilegious column but I’m going to get so rich with this other stuff I won’t have to bother). Now you may think a lack of adherents limits the commercial possibilities even if the whole justification for the Anglican initiative is that they, too, are running out of parishioners. But Horus, Isis and that crowd offer a spectacular advantage unrelated to bodies in pews: pyramids.

That’s right. Pyramids. A marketing dream beyond compare. First of all, they’re famous and evocative. Just as writing a “vampire-themed” book where the vampires aren’t evil, smelly or allergic to sunlight still rips off the mystique painstakingly crafted by Bram Stoker et al., so pyramids automatically entrance people.

Secondly, they’re really big and obvious. The great pyramid at Giza was the tallest building in the world for almost 4,000 years and progress has yet to surround it with ugly cement or glass-and-steel boxes. What a spot for a billboard.

Following the Anglican inspiration to try to squeeze money out of companies that already do business with the church, I suppose you’d start trolling for pyramid sponsors among embalmers or goldsmiths. But since no one knows much about ancient Egyptian religion anyway (I mean honestly, who even in Cairo has much of an opinion about Osiris today) I expect you could hawk breakfast cereal as well. “Ptah says start your afterlife with barley bits!”

I realize some people think the pyramids were built by aliens with a strange sense of humour. But since I’m not too worried about them returning in wrath or for five percent of net revenue, I think a few cute ET-type product spokesmen are also a strong possibility.

As for the sphinx, why should it sit there mute and mysterious when it could be dressed up as everyone’s favourite hamburger clown? Talk about product placement. OK, the Anglicans might consider it in poor taste as they’ve sort of gone off salt of the earth. But hey, even the best idea involves some challenges.

Like marketing with Osama bin Laden types. Other than “blows up real good” it’s not obvious what a jihadi values in an airplane, building, car, pair of shoes or person. A belief that attractive clothing on women leads to earthquakes is a godsend to cartoonists but a nightmare for marketers. But there’s already an Easter Island statue Kleenex dispenser and I’m sure those babies could also push headphones or pillows. And let’s use all those smiling buddhas to peddle enticing terrestrial pleasures not boring spiritual calm. Fancy microwave entrees, say, or skin care products.

Now we’re all rich, I have one final wacky idea for you Anglicans. Ordinarily you seem content to dwindle and vanish in a comfortably sanctimonious, socially just manner. But if you’re desperate enough to consider advertising, why not try using your convention, churches and social groups to sell people this “Bible”, the dead Nazarene carpenter and salvation in return for virtue?

Nah. Too crazy.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson