an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

The Meaning of Street Advertising “Icons”

Part I

A nice-looking, interesting, yet toothless, forty-something, Russian male acquaintance of mine walked out of a Russian Church on a Sunday morning, and confusing my standing at the adjacent trolleybus stop with church attendance, asked if I had been in the Church service. “Nyet”, I said, trying to think of a good excuse for not having done so, remembered the words of Goethe that I had read the week before:

“Thus they are now pulling to pieces the five books of Moses; and, if an annihilating criticism is injurious to anything, it is so in matters of religion – for here everything depends on faith, to which we cannot return when we have once lost it.” (February 1, 1827, Conversations with Goethe)

I am certainly one of those who “once lost it” years ago – as a serious, searching scholar in religion, philosophy, history, science, etc. – for whom these recently-read words of Goethe were a real consolation of my heart and mind. There is no way back for me, and probably many more millions than perhaps prefer to admit it. I am convinced that there are deep truths “inside of” the Orthodox Church: the cosmology and anthropology of Christianity, the ideas of the centuries old Liturgy service, the iconography, etc.; and yet they are somehow too old and distant for me, requiring some impossible acceptance and belief, a faith “once lost”. I can visit the Church, with wonder and hope and reflection, but not with acceptance and faith (that it is the only true place and path of God’s Truth on earth).

Nescafe bus stop advertisement in Moscow
Nescafé advertisement
at the bus stop in Moscow.
Photo by author

The discussion moved from his earlier (as I learned, passing) interest in Jungian psychology (which, as I started to say to him, in America tends to turn people into strange solipsists, they come to find in all other people, the world and their experiences, only projections of their own psyches’ “archetypes”), to his description of the “magic” power in and of advertising. And, as we stood beneath a street sign for a German chocolate new in Moscow and a nearby “Nescafe” bus stop advertisement, he claimed that Russia would never fully accept this Western advertising, nor the life it represented. The “Russian soul” would reject it as a joke or nonsense (especially those for whom life is very difficult, the benefits of the reformed economy still distant); and probably, he claimed, Russia’s historical propensity to social disorder would undermine those whose human hopes and ideals are represented by advertising and consumer civilization.

“The more ‘horizontal’, physical, material life in the West, especially in America is such,” I said to him in my simplistic Russian, “that for most people the ideas and ideals of man presented in advertisements are now most often just uncritically accepted and passively viewed, as the natural, unquestioned, true idea of life and humanity. Americans may be annoyed and irritated by the number, character or omnipresence of the advertisements and commercials (on TV), but they rarely question the ideas and ideals of human life present in them.” Enjoyment, comfort, the physical-earthly existence of man – these advertising images are seldom-questioned goals, and are often assumed as sufficient for man. (And yet they are still considered – incongruously, unsystematically – to somehow exist separate and apart from the very popularly believed ideas of “God or a universal spirit” (93% of Americans), which are nonetheless somewhere, somehow true also.) He contended that this purely physical view of man and life would over time not satisfy even the average man in Russia. “I hope you are right!” I said uncertainly.

One of the most venerated Orthodox icons “Theatokos of Vladimir” (c. 1130)
One of the most venerated Orthodox icons “Theatokos of Vladimir” (c. 1130)

And, as we stood near the advertising signs of and from the “new economic system”, his prior presence in the Russian Church Service brought up to me a clear comparison, which I had been mulling over since I had come to live in Russia. The icons inside of the Church obviously present a very deep religious, spiritual view of man, and its meanings and ideals of human life. The commercial street signs, “ads”, present another, quite different, but no less definite, idea and ideals as to the meaning and goals of human life and existence. In one, the images of the Biblical story of Man, from Creation to Apocalypse; the halos of the saints; the Mother of God; the Life, Transfiguration, Death, and Resurrection of Christ on earth; etc., all under the sight and life of God, are the understanding and ideal of the life and world. In the other, the pleasures and satisfactions of the often merely earthly, bodily-physical man (with all of the material possessions to buy, and pleasures to enjoy) – generally undisturbed by any metaphysical worries, or thoughts of other-worldly heavens or hells are the “ideal”. Both are “icons” of definite ideas and ideals of life, world and man – very different, but very real. The ad of the woman’s face smiling beside us, with a cup of Nescafe coffee as it were “realized” in her hand, and the German Babylon Chocolate (of 40 types) over us, were, really, colorful street “icons”, representing their view and ideals of life, man and world.

“Old Holy Russia” (as pre-Revolutionary Russia is sometimes described in English), is, after the officially atheist, Soviet ordeal, obviously not going to come back again in the same way. To recall Goethe: “in matters of religion . . . everything depends on faith, to which we cannot return when we have once lost it.” Some people argue that this is a spiritual and national tragedy for Russia – so was “the Fall of Adam and Eve”, and the secularization of life, culture and society has occurred in the USA, and increasingly much of the rest of Europe and the world. But whether there was, or was not, some inevitability or necessity to this “fall from faith”, and more traditional society in Russia (as in the rest to Europe); many today are often unconvinced by “holy” religion, unable to have any simple or full faith, after they “have once lost it.” How could Russia return to its pre-revolutionary past? (It is worth noting again here that the author of the USA’s “American Creed”, Thomas Jefferson, had also “lost” such a simple, religious faith as Goethe mentions, before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, though he did believe all of his life in God, and that life on earth was under the wise providence of God (Deism or Theism).

Photo by author
Photo by author

The Soviet period, anti-religious though it was, did have ideals and ideology. Regardless of however true or untrue, actual or theoretical they were, its collective (enforced) ideology did exist throughout most all aspects of the society. (Far different to social pluralism, which can lead over time – as America shows today – towards the cultural disintegration of a society.) The religious icons were, many, destroyed by the new power of the “Bolsheviks”; and replaced with their political/social icons and ideals. But, after “perestroika”, the new power of the “free market economy” (a. k. a. capitalism) seems basically to have merely let the old communist icons slowly decay, and let the Holy Icons rest in post-Soviet peace. The dollar sign gradually replacing the Soviet “Hammer and Sickle” which had replaced the Orthodox Cross.

When I moved to Moscow to live in 1994, on a large avenue near where I lived, there was a street pole (with lights and trolleybus wires) which had a metallic array of “shooting stars” (with red plastic stars atop), representing I suppose, as one might say it, a Soviet socialists’ “Hoorah”. These stars still conveyed a lingering idea and sense of striving to the heights, of socialist ideals, of collectively celebrating social accomplishments; yet the metal was painted (apparently many times) with a dark and dull gray paint, and not in very good condition at all. As the slow work of reconstruction on a nearby Russian Orthodox Church proceeded, on the opposite side of this pole to the stars, there was a new, illuminated sign, advertising a well-known soft drink from the West, which showed only a part of a man’s face with the mouth, and a hand pouring the drink called «Краш» into his mouth. Here were, “back to back”, two “ideals” of man and society; one political, the other material (“economic” in a way). The old, battered, ignored socialist stars of the street and parade decorations of the Soviet “idea”, confronted by the new, colorful temptation: an ideal to, as it were, drink one’s way to earthly paradise – a new social ideal. In fact, the first represented social ideals, even if untrue in fact; the other represented more the human being as a solitary body, and earthly life as the joyous accomplishment and fulfillment of consumption. We will drink, drink and consume our way to earthly heaven, to the stars.

Part II

Advertising’s Cosmology and Anthropology

Advertisements may claim to be somehow merely neutral in culture and society (“just business”), but in fact they do have an inherent anthropology, cosmology – a view of man and world to them. They may, directly or clearly, present no such ideas – though many in fact do, but they are nonetheless “advertising icons” which are real only within a certain view of the man, life and world. In a secularized culture and agnostic time – when the secular life is hardly now counterbalanced by the broadly-ignored and -disbelieved religious life – these “icons” tend to try to create and convince the person to be a mere happy, earthly consumer-being. The “free market economy’s” businessmen of the trans-national (and domestic) corporations (all wearing their obligatory, business uniforms: suits and ties) and those who create the “magical” advertisements, do not even necessarily know or have any idea that they are presenting a certain, definite view of man, life and world in their work. But they are none the less. (Making man in their own images?) They probably think it is “natural” for the human being to live this way: “Listen, society doesn’t know whether there really is a God, whether Christ was resurrected, or whether there really are the heavens or hells after death that many people believe in – or whether life and man are just combinations of ultimately meaningless matter. We don’t know, care, or think much about whether there is any higher spiritual meaning or purpose, or mission to human earthly existence (like the “saints” with their other-wordly halos in religious icons). But we know that we can satisfy (and create) the physical desires and pleasures of the human being; that the human being can enjoy ‘the good life’ as a consumer and citizen. And we see clearly that altruistic state communism failed to do this. Life is to be enjoyed! Why worry about God, serious, deep literature, and all of that?!”

I recall the story of some 19th century Russian thinker, who – if I remember correctly – refused to go to lunch, until he and his “interlocutors” (as Russians often say, though the word is seldom used in the West) had decided the existence of God. The ideal or thrust of “consumerism” – the word does not have any ancient, deep origin and history, but is, indicatively, American English from only 1944 – of which the ads are tempting “icons” (as to its meaning of human life), is to avoid such senseless, disturbing topics as the existence of God and human meaning. “Consumerism” is, in deep ways, an “ideal”, earthly opposite to metaphysical and philosophical seeking, thought and feeling. Comfortable kitchen consumption (new, expensive, “kitchen designer-furniture”; a new microwave oven; fancy refrigerator; new electric items galore; Nescafe coffee; chocolates; Rama butter; Coca-Cola; etc., etc., etc.) is the answer of the Consumer/Advertising/Business View of Man, to any troubling Russian questions and metaphysical concerns of “kitchen philosophy”. Relax and enjoy – this is the ideal. Consume – you are a human being who can enjoy all of these earthly material things, why think and worry unnecessarily about God, history, literature, human depth and meaning, life, and so on? You will be surrounded by many convenient material possessions, which you can enjoy; isn’t that enough? Yes, the advertising Icons often try to say.

The advertising ideal of “consumer man” does not include much in the way of deep thinking, “divine discontent”, or metaphysical worry – nor is Russian (or American, or any other) literature, poetry, soul, or culture of any necessity to its view and use of man – people might buy less, if they thought too much or deeply about it. The earthly ideal of happiness (and human purpose and meaning) is obviously seductive of multi-millions worldwide; especially when it becomes so pervasive (as it has in the USA, the world’s “Number One” consumer society) and unquestioned, that the people live and pursue these “ideals” not so much as clear and conscious ideas and goals, but as if they had forgotten that the human being is (potentially) more than a mere earthly body (with a self) to feed and house as “richly” as possible. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

“When you say, ‘As others do, so will I: I renounce, I am sorry for it, my early visions; I must eat of the good of the land, and let learning and romantic expectations go, until a more convenient season,’ – then dies the man in you, then once more perish the buds of art, and poetry, and science, as they have already died in a thousand thousand men . . .”

It is the implicit “anthropology”, the unconscious, unreflective element – the unspoken ideas of man and life in the advertising “icons” – that is perhaps the most insidious to man’s potentially nobler soul and spirit, be the ideal that of the richly-educated or -cultivated individual, or a religious follower of the saints. It lulls man, into such an earthly, bodily, materialistic sleep, so that he comes to not even reflect or realize that he is intellectually befogged, soulfully dimmed and spiritually asleep. It turns man (mens- to think) into less than he could be, into a human (dhghem- earth) body. It presents unthinking, un-metaphysical, bodily, earthly, consumer life and enjoyment, as the height of human social and personal achievement – and because it is a “magic” (Indo-European root magh- to be able, have power; related to may, might, machine) of unconscious ideals – many of its followers (especially is this clear in large portions of the US population) do not even realize they have been essentially converted to a merely earthly nature of man, life and world. The advertising world less answers the metaphysical, spiritual questions of human existence, than it beclouds, avoids or denies their very existence. Yet street “icons”, and television commercials, do present their “ultimate” earthly view of man and life.

Russia’s religious icons were replaced by political Soviet “icons”, which are now being replaced by “consumerism’s” “icons”. If the Grand Inquisitor of The Brothers Karamazov is a good psychologist of the masses, then it seems likely that this spiritually-sleeping, earthly, consumer ideal of man and life will lull many Russians to cultural, intellectual and spiritual sleep, as is frankly the case with multi-millions in America and world-wide. The symptomatic, widely-acknowledged American problem of “cultural illiteracy” (lack of knowledge – or interest? – in even American cultural and literary history) is coming to Russia (also about its own culture), as the ideal of “consumer man” competes to replace the ideas and ideals of communist man, the cultured man, and, of course, the idea of the holy man. While problems of money are the daily preoccupation of many, many Russians, the best they can do to preserve Russian culture and character – or so this author sees it – is to consciously, deliberately and socially continue to pursue, treasure and develop ennobling (from gno- to know), intellectual and cosmopolitan culture (Russian, and American, German, etc.) as a contrast to mass, global consumer culture.

Advertisements on the streets of the cities, towns and villages of Russia are indeed “icons”; television commercials (which the West had had for decades) are like subliminal, mantric sermons and songs; stupid and shallow television programs from America, Brazil, Italy or elsewhere, affect the human soul and mind. Is there, as my Russian acquaintance held, something inherent in the “Russian soul”, tradition and culture, which is unsatisfiable with the life presented by the earthly, consumer “icons”? If today the religious icons in the Churches and communist icons have been left behind after the Soviet period, it should none the less be clear that what the West mostly offers to the Russian predilection towards ultimate questions, is earthly, non-metaphysical answers – the implicit meaning of man in advertising “icons”.


First published in the magazine English, #20, May 1997, p. 5; #23, June 1997, p. 14.