Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

It is the fourth week of November, and we know what happens every year at this season. Thanks giving? Oh, sure, there’s that. But I’m referring to Buy Nothing Day.

Yes, for the 11th year in a row, the same organization that brings us Adbusters magazine is using the traditional kickoff of the holiday buying season to trumpet its anti-consumption message. Over the years, BND’s global high jinks and grass-roots stunts on post-Thanksgiving Friday have been a godsend to news reporters with lots of space and time to fill on a slow news day. The event even survived the post-9/11 ethos, when its anti-shopping message verged on treason. (The organizers are Canadians.)

This year, marginalized but un bowed, BND is back with a tactical twist: enlisting religious organizations, old hands at the struggle between the spirit and the flesh, to help spread the word. Yes, the enemies of global capitalism are playing the God card. The attempt to cozy up to religion echoes the National Religious Partnership for the Environment’s campaign, announced last week, to pressure Ford and General Motors to stop pillaging and polluting God’s creation with fuel-inefficient vehicles. Clearly, the radical Islamists haven’t put a dent in American consumption. So maybe the Judeo-Christians can.

Judging by the number of SUVs in the parking lots of churches and synagogues, it is unclear whose views the Partnership represents. Nor is it a no-brainer that religion is the enemy of commerce. Certainly American Protestant tradition holds that God is on the side of the businessman. More than a few of advertising’s 19th-century pioneers brought the proselytizing zeal of their preacher fathers to the profession. In the 1920s, Bruce Barton, one of the B’s in BBDO, wrote a best-selling biography of Jesus called The Man Who Nobody Knows, the “What would Jesus do?” of its day. Barton’s answer: He’d be an adman.

But no one wants to be on the wrong side of God’s will—whatever it is. After all, the bright consumer researchers at the Big Three know that some of their most loyal customers fill the seats at Christian music concerts and have turned Chris tian fiction into an eye-poppingly profitable publishing niche. Thus, when a group gets press attention with an ad campaign that uses the slogan “What would Jesus drive?,” no matter how minuscule the budget, executives at General Motors are going to take the meeting.

BND could use some of the promotional help that religious affiliation can provide. Sure, when the organization first tried to place an ad promoting the event on the networks and was turned away, the story made the newspapers. These days, however, the networks’ rejection of the spot has a ritualistic feel—not that the organization could afford 30 seconds of network airtime anyway. The whole gambit is a little stale.

Even BND’s sister project, Ad busters, whose often witty and visually striking anti-advertising was in such vogue in mid-’90s creative departments, seems a little tired. The fact is, if Adbusters and Buy Nothing Day were effective tools of persuasion, neither would still exist.

Maybe BND’s problem stems from the hangover of the terrorist attacks. Maybe it’s the aging of Generation X, those from-the-cradle ironists who were both the inspiration of anti-advertising and its target market. Maybe it is the dot-com bust and the collapse of wealth-effect spending and logo fever, which, in their heyday, perversely made the BND cause more newsworthy.

But the real issue for BND and its fellow travelers is that consumer culture long ago absorbed anti-consumerism. The up scaling decried by ’90s books such as The Overspent American and Luxury Fever was about not only trading up materially but trading up from the material satisfactions to spiritual ones.

Remember the “voluntary simplicity” movement? These days you can find the virtues of simplicity touted in the generously ad-supported pages of O and Real Simple. And do we really need the measly $6,000 spot that BND plans to run off-hours on CNN to remind us that money can’t buy happiness, when Citibank has spent tens of millions over the last three years saying the very same thing?

So it is little wonder that anti-consumer groups are turning to religious organizations. For now that the marketplace has joined material and spiritual needs together, it will take a miracle to put them asunder.