Private View: Why ads need monks

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I went to the cinema the other day and encountered one of those meteorological oddities that sometimes disrupt the cultural weather. Three successive adverts were shown which used monks or nuns as part of the conceit. The first was that tedious vodka ad in which a demonic figure stalks into a tattoo removal clinic to have the 666 removed from his scalp, the prelude to his infiltration of an unusually lubricious religious community, one which allows nuns and monks to lie around in orchards together feeding each other cherries.

I went to the cinema the other day and encountered one of those meteorological oddities that sometimes disrupt the cultural weather. Three successive adverts were shown which used monks or nuns as part of the conceit. The first was that tedious vodka ad in which a demonic figure stalks into a tattoo removal clinic to have the 666 removed from his scalp, the prelude to his infiltration of an unusually lubricious religious community, one which allows nuns and monks to lie around in orchards together feeding each other cherries.

The second was an advert for a WAP phone service, in which a novice monk is given a week to sample the pleasures of the world before committing to his vocation: after a rapid-cut montage of wine, women, and techno-garage he is seen speeding away from the monastery on a scooter, the Abbot riding pillion behind him with a look of stupefied anticipation on his face.

The third involved a hip young backpacker climbing on to a third-world bus and finding it packed with disapproving nuns - a visual illustration, apparently, of "The Wrong Choice". And this pile-up of ecclesiastical references seemed to need some explanation. You wait years for an ad with a religious order in it and then three come along at once.

Except you don't wait, of course, because monks and nuns and seminarians have long been a staple in advertising. It doesn't take very long to summon up other examples - from the celebrated Benetton image of a priest and nun tongue-wrestling to that recent car commercial in which a seminarian was seduced from his devotion to Christ by the irresistible attractions of a nippy hatchback. Indeed, it's a fair bet that the average secular urbanite sees far more of monks and nuns on screen than in real life.

The whole point of most orders, after all, is seclusion from the world of grubbing and getting. And since they're pretty good at leaving us alone - only occasionally cropping up in the papers to promote some liqueur distilled from dandelions and sheep droppings - it seems odd that we can't return the favour. Why, some 500 years after they were exiled from the constitutional and intellectual centre of British life, are they still so salient? Why does this itch still need scratching?

One simple answer would be that art is long and copywriters are lazy - monks and nuns are the standard cliché for temptation defied. If you want to hymn the vivid fiesta of contemporary capitalism then their plainsong offers an obvious contrast - it's like laying diamonds against black velvet the better to show off their glitter. And these days this is a field they largely have to themselves. There are other forms of asceticism around (a kind of New Age self-flagellator also features in a current Audi ad) but anybody in a cowl or a wimple offers a short-cut to consumer comprehension. Oh, I get it - so tempting that even a nun would give in.

But that won't quite explain the faint sub-current of hostility that runs through many of these adverts - the sense that a kind of revenge is being taken against such communities. We are expected to feel a little kick of satisfaction at the spectacle of innocence corrupted or vocation weakened - as if a soul has been won back for our team and a salutary defeat handed out to theirs. And this is because religious orders still resonate as a rebuke - long after any larger theological authority has dwindled. They represent the nagging possibility of a life in which contentment isn't to be found a credit-card swipe away and in which a new car might be a matter of complete indifference. And this dumb insolence can't be allowed to stand lest it weaken morale generally.

Monks and nuns feature in advertising for the same reason that they have been enlisted so frequently in pornography over the centuries - because their conscientious objection makes us doubt the righteousness of hedonist cause. Advertising's obsession with them offers an unconscious acknowledgement of their continuing power of contradiction.

Comments