The Idolatry of Brand Names

As I was standing outside the Apple store on Regents Street waiting for my friend to finish his shift there, I couldn’t help but notice the looks of reverence and awe on the faces of those who passed by. There seemed to be a widespread recognition by all who gazed across the threshold that this was hallowed ground – one of the sacred sites of the Western world which rivals any ancient temple. Us sophisticated modern people look down our noses at the naivety of the ancient world who trembled before their pantheon of gods – we’re far too educated for such superstition! And yet it began to dawn on me that maybe we’re not so different after all. They look rather different and we call them by different names – could it be that our Mount Olympus is occupied by the imposing brand names of large corporations? The gods and goddesses Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Nike, Pixar, Google? Just as the gods of old dominated every aspect of life for those who worshipped them, from agriculture to childbearing, so too the modern brand name deities exert their influence over all walks of life, from what we buy to where we work. Below are three big similarities that I thought of – perhaps you can think of more!

Image by strangeaeons

1. They give us a sense of belonging

When talking about his new book “Tribes“, marketing guru Seth Godin said this:

“Harley Davidson and Apple are titanic brands for the very same reason. They sell a chance to join a group that matters”

If you go to a web community conference like BarCamp or the Google Developer Day, you can’t help but notice that 90% of the people there seem to have a MacBook on their laps. The message is loud and clear: “if you were really a part of our club, you’d have one too.” It’s the same thing that causes school kids everywhere to spend such large proportions of their income on brand name clothes – worshipping the right branding gods shows that you’re a member of the tribe.

2. They cast a large shadow

Brands are held in awe – consumers flock to them, competitors fear them, employees find security under their wings; brands stand immovable and unshakeable, at least they like to think they do. I’ve long known my own idolatrous heart has been drawn to big brand companies when looking for work because of the prestige that working for one seems to convey. Buying your DVD player from Sony somehow feels safer than buying some unknown brand – you feel confident in the quality of your purchase, whether or not that’s well-founded. As the saying goes, “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”

3. They own their part of the world

Just like the idols of the ancient world were restricted in their field of influence, so it is with modern brand names. Where Demeter was in control of your crops succeeding or failing, so Microsoft dominates your office productivity; where Poseidon ruled the seas, so Google rules the world of the internet. To guarantee success across the board, the ancient pagans were forced to offer sacrifices to as many different gods as possible to make sure they covered their bases. After all, what if the one god you missed out ended up being the very one you ended up needing a favour from? Equally, it is not sufficient for the modern man to wear the right clothes if he does not not also own the right television or have the right job with a sufficiently well-recognised City firm.

The pressures of idolatry facing us today really aren’t that different from those faced by the Israelites back in the Old Testament. They were eager to avoid standing out from the nations around them, for example when they begged Samuel to appoint for them a king, “that we also may be like all the nations”; they feared that limiting their worship to just one God, the Lord, might incur the disfavour of another to their detriment; they often sought to make alliances with other, more powerful nations by worshipping their gods.

The antidote: worship the all-powerful Creator

The Bible’s antidote to their idolatry was to show how ridiculous it was in the face of God’s amazing bigness:

“Hear the word that the Lord speaks to you…: Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for their cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good… they are all the work of skilled men. But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. At his wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure his indignation… It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning for the rain, and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses.”

Whereas their false gods were limited in their sphere of influence, the Lord made the whole world and has ultimate power and authority over every inch of it. At the end of the day, our modern brands are but the creation of human hands, who were themselves made by the one, true God. Our fear is often really just the fear of men – how foolish it looks when confronted with the almighty God?

So let us not fear the false gods of this age, but respond like the Thessalonians: who “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” – the one who made the earth by his power.