Monday, April 24, 2023

An Advertising Specialist Diagnoses the Church’s Modern Communication Failure

The following remarkable speech was given in 1977 by Alex Periscinoto (1925–2021), the greatest Brazilian publicist of his time, to the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (Confêrencia Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil, CNBB). Only twelve years after the end of the Second Vatican Council, the bishops no longer knew how to evangelize and were looking for a way to stop the flight of the laity from the Church. They asked Periscinoto, the “pope” of advertising, to help them (source in Portuguese). Admittedly the speech has the limitations one would expect from a secular professional, but it’s another remarkable example of how both the educated and the successful—not only the “traditionalists”—were documenting how the Church after the Council was destroying itself through incompetence and infidelity.

Speech to the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (1977)

We—communication professionals—have found that there is a lot to thank you for, since all the working tools that we use today in communication were invented by religious people. If you don’t believe me, let’s consider it.

The first mass communication vehicle invented, the strongest of all, was the bell. The bell that had a message in its clanging reached, in the era of the villages, eighty or ninety per cent of the small towns. It not only reached the people but changed the physical and mental behavior of eighty, ninety per cent of the villages every time it rang, and spread its messages in a unique way. Before the bell came the town crier, who was nothing more than a very shabby direct mail.

After this great vehicle of mass communication (continuing in this analogy of ours), you religious people invented a tool that communication uses a lot today: the display. We use displays to highlight information. When all the roofs of the villages were low, you built a very high roof, four or five times higher and in the shape of a spike, and this was not to make it easier for the snow to drop off the roof because you continued to follow this architectural design in places where there was no snow. This was so that the church tower could be seen in the distance as soon as you entered the village. By this display, we could easily locate the church.

More than this, you invented the first logo, the happiest of them all: the cross. The cross that no one ever forgot to put at the top of the display and that allowed not only its identification as a church, but also its belonging to a “brand,” to that specific religion, and not to a competing brand. You invented a rich logo like that—a logo so good that Hitler took it for himself, put four tails on it, and almost won the war with that logo.

You have invented still more things from the world of communication. Today, one of the most precious tools to use in campaigns—useful at the time of planning, in order to find the right text to say, to the right audience, at the right time—is research; without research, it is crazy to venture to say anything. The first known research department was invented by you: the confessional. The confessional, my mother still thinks, was made only for forgiveness; you religious people know that the confessional was invented to gather information. It was then a holy research department. I say holy because today, when we do any kind of research, it is possible that the person will lie to us; but in the holy research department the information was not only spontaneous, it was necessary and true. That is why the priest, in the era of the villages, was the major advisor, greater than the political advisor. There, in the nave of the church, at sermon time, you could shape the message to the main complaints of that week, give a word of comfort, a reassurance.

Then my mother, who didn’t know any of this, gets something very rewarding from her research department. For example, if I want to rebuild myself from the inside out, I go to an psychoanalyst, I pay a thousand dollars, and he helps me a little bit; but my mother goes to a confessional, she comes away rebuilt from the inside out, she comes away relieved and forgiven—something that no analyst can do, even if you pay twice as much. This by-product that the confessional gives my mother is very helpful for its clientele.

There is more to this whole communication machine that religious people have invented. We could say that the promotional event was also a religious invention; what, after all, is a procession that closes down a country town with a festival, if not a promotion for the day of Our Lady, a promotion for the day of St. George, etc.? A religious promotion! We do promotions that have much of what you have taught us: there is a banner, there is a flag, there are special clothes, there is a commercial mystique.

You have changed the system of the Mass. The Mass is no longer in Latin and the priest no longer has his back to the faithful. I have very bad news for you. My mother never thought that you had your back to her; she thought that you were facing God, and she liked Latin (although she didn’t understand the words well) because it was a mystical language that made you understand God. In my opinion, this change was a tremendous mistake.

But my point is that all this communication machinery that you invented was not for nothing. You didn’t invent bells and all that stuff, which I call religious packaging, just for nothing. No, you had the same problem that we have now: you had something to propagate, your product was called faith.

I have good news for you: this product, faith, is in short supply in the market. But today you no longer propagate faith; today what we see is much more the fights between bishops, the fights between you and the government, than the product you manufacture. Faith was what my mother used to go to church for. Today, all the trouble in the Church is like an ice-cream company that stops advertising ice cream and starts advertising the fights of the board of directors. This leads to nothing.

This reminds me of a little story I heard some time ago in the United States. There was a guy who had a store across the street from another store. He would put nylon stockings on sale at $1.50, and then the other would put the same stockings on sale for $1.35, but neither sold more stockings than the other. They weren’t going to sell any more anyway, so long as they were running both stores at the same time. [I take it the meaning here is that putting faith “on sale” at a cut rate, as the Church seemed to be doing after the council by dumbing things down and letting up on requirements, was not actually going to succeed in “selling” the product more than if the price had been kept higher.—PK]

It is up to the government to do the government’s job. I think that the product you manufacture is independent of the economic class of the customer.

I want to propose to you another line of reasoning. You don’t look favorably on the consumer society, but maybe you should see television as the bell of today, because your bell does not work anymore in the cities. A mere observer can see that your tower—the display of the spire—is now hidden among many other towers with red lights on top. The research of the confessional is deactivated because the clientele has not been renewed; you have no fresh audience. If by some chance the young people discover that they can live without the Church, then things will get really bad.

Your audience is divided into three segments. The ones who need faith first, even before food, are the sick, but this, fortunately, is a minority. The second market segment is the elderly, over seventy or whatever; they change their behavior, and start to want to have faith. But the huge contingent that maybe you are having a hard time reaching are children, youth, and adults who represent eighty to ninety per cent—this public is the one that is more or less difficult because you have to figure out how to talk to them, where, and when.

That is why I keep repeating that maybe television is the proper vehicle. In this country where everything is of heterogeneous distribution, the only thing in common that spreads in a bigger way in the country is mass communication, because my Silvio Santos [Brazilian tycoon and television host] is the same as the man in the periphery. If this is true, some action must be taken. Through communication, we receive things that fill a void. Playboy was very successful in the USA because it showed Americans exactly what they did not have. In the USA, TV series about doctors are also successful because it is very rare to have a private doctor there; this is called filling emptinesses through communication. And it is a great communication trick. Another communication trick is used in wrestling: there is an ugly guy and a handsome guy, and the ugly guy already creates an atmosphere of terror. We identify with the one who suffers, the handsome one who is always losing, until the moment he turns the game around. Most soap operas are more or less like this.

All of that is a parallel to illustrate a little bit the tricks of communication. What to do? No X-ray plate tells you what you should do; it just tells you how things are. Spreading faith is not simply praying a Mass at 8 a.m. on Globo [a TV channel]; it is selling a content called faith. Something that makes the client believe in what the Church can do for him.

* * *

Periscinoto’s speech reminds me of the words of Joseph Campbell, a fallen-away Catholic who, in his interview book The Power of Myth, lamented the way the Church was undermining religion:
There has been a reduction of ritual. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, they’ve translated the Mass out of the ritual language and into a language with domestic associations. The Latin of the Mass was a language that threw you out of the field of domesticity. The altar was turned around so that the priest’s back was to you, and with him you addressed yourself outward. Now they have turned the altar around and it looks like Julia Child giving a cooking demonstration—all homey and cozy… They have forgotten that the function of ritual is to pitch you out, not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time.
Fr Dwight Longenecker commented as follows about the sad story of Campbell, which is the story of many others who left the Church for similar reasons:
Campbell was brought up as a Catholic, but after the second Vatican Council he left the Catholic Church in disgust. He had come to appreciate the power of myth with its ability to reach into the subconscious and connect with the deepest parts of the human personality. He also realized that the Catholic Church was the one religious body in the West that still maintained a ritual sacrificial system, a hierophantic priesthood and the ceremonies and rites of mystery. He understood how these rites were connected with and made applicable the truths and the symbols of myth.
       Then he said the Catholic Church went and threw it all out the window. Furthermore, they threw it out the window at exactly the time that it was needed most. He saw that America had been Protestantized and with Protestantism the religion of mystery, myth and ceremony that drew on the deepest recesses of the human imagination was emasculated. The ceremony was replaced with dull, literal Biblicism and the sacraments were replaced with a utilitarian, bland therapeutic Deism. The mysterious temples to the Divine Son of God were replaced with bare preaching halls devoid of symbol, devoid of art, devoid of beauty, devoid of the ancient faith.
       Feeling abandoned by his own religion he abandoned the religion.
       This story unlocks one of the most maddening and frustrating things about the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. At just the time when our culture needed the depth of Catholic worship, ritual, beauty, art and liturgy the Catholic Church went in the other direction. In an attempt to be up to date they were actually half a century too late.
If the rulers of the Church will not respect tradition; will not hear the cries of the faithful; will not pay heed even to the secular professionals who are pointing out their folly; what—who—are they listening to, and why do they seem bent on doing everything that will undermine their “product”?

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