Ritual marketing may appear to be disturbing sacred ground.
In our commercial-industrial culture, the concept of ritual has been distilled, becoming especially intense and yet, rarified. We have come to regard ritual as a form of experience that exists only for very special occasions, rather than something that’s present in our everyday lives.
Anthropologists tell us that ritual is inherently liminal, creating experiences that are separated from ordinary events. Religious leaders warn us that rituals are sacred, not to be sullied with the mundane. Business leaders suggest that rituals are too “warm and fuzzy” to be integrated into their systems of rational management.
Ritual is hedged from all sides, pressed in, diminished. Ceremonies like graduations, weddings, and inaugurations are rituals that remain, it is acknowledged, but it is suggested that these are mere shadows of the rites of passage that once were… before the Enlightenment… before the Reformation… before the Industrial Revolution… before colonization… before Max Weber’s disenchantment… back in the golden age from which we are now irrevocably separated.
The more we look at claims of the reduction of ritual in our culture, the more they begin to seem like part of a mythological system, designed to explain, as so many mythologies do, how we are Special People, not subject to the same forms of experience as the rest of our species has been. In this mythology of the deritualization of our culture, commercialization has been cast as one of the strongest enemies of ritual, replacing sacred space with shopping malls wherever it goes. This myth has ancient roots, even beyond the tale of money changers defiling the great temple of Jerusalem.
From the perspective of ritual marketing, the very fact that sacred spaces can be replaced by shopping malls is a clue that there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the myth of diminishing ritual. The possibility comes to mind that commerce is a relatively new form of ritual, rather than a replacement of it.
Ritual marketing begins with the assertion that consumers remain full human beings. As such, they have culture. Consumer culture will of course be different from other cultures, but we should expect to find within it cultural mechanisms that are equivalent to those that are found elsewhere. Among those will be rituals.
If we believe our own culture to be ritually impoverished, that may be because we haven’t been trained to perceive the forms of ritual that we practice – and that we have been trained not to perceive them.
If the idea that rituals can involve exchanges of money and still be authentic is taboo, that is all the more reason for us to pursue it. If we are disturbed by the way that the concept of ritual marketing challenges conventional beliefs what marketing and ritual are, we would do well to remember that breaking the rules is a part of the traditional ritual process itself.
Commerce, though it is routinely dismissed as mundane, may have more of the sacred about it than we care think.