A few weeks ago, I was preparing a handout for Shabbat services, focusing on the interrelated themes of healing and friendship. It occurred to me that with “Rent” due to open the next weekend, with its themes of healing and friendship, I could tap into the massive buzz being generated by the film to drive home my points, while also striking an emotional chord in those who have seen the Broadway show. All I needed to do was find the appropriate lyrics and slap them on the cover. Product placement and the parasha: perfect together.
The Talmud speaks of the main purpose for lighting Hanukkah candles being what the rabbis called “Pirsuma Nissa,” “publicizing the miracle.” That’s why the candles are placed in the window, where passers by can see them. In this way, Jews were doing product placement long before McDonalds. Religious symbols, like menorahs, sukkahs, mezuzahs, and the Seder plate, were always meant to be displayed to generate maximal public impact. In addition, the popular culture has always been used to evoke Jewish sentiment. Ancient synagogue frescos and mosaic floors are filled with zodiacs and other regional mythology. Even the Hanukkah dreidel is a “spin off” of a medieval German gambling game. We’ve been doing this forever.
So why, then, are we now so bad at basic marketing? Look at your synagogue bulletin and tell me which demographic it is aiming for. What grabs your attention? Is there a method to its message, a strategy behind the look and feel? Most likely you’ll be most captivated by the bloopers, some of which have become staples of the Internet, classics like: “Don't let worry kill you. Let your synagogue help;” “Join us for our Oneg after services. Prayer and medication to follow;” and “Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our congregation.”
Product placement has become an obsession in the world of advertising. According to PQ Media, a media research firm, the value of the product placement market grew 30.5 percent to an all-time high of $3.46 billion last year, and the market has surged 16.3 percent annually since 1999.
The key to product placement is that the benefits are reciprocal. While referencing “Rent” helped me to cast timeless Jewish values in a contemoporary light, I undoubtedly boosted the film’s Thanksgiving week box office take (there was a big Bat Mitzvah that day). When E.T. handed those Reeces Pieces back to Elliot back in 1982, sparking the product placement craze, Spielberg’s alien became all the more lovable and sales for the candy soared 80 percent. When my congregation parodied “American Idol” last Purim, it not only provided a welcome release from the tension of a cantorial search, it helped us to tap into the energy of a hit TV series. We got a huge post-Megilla crowd for a weeknight, including dozens of that most prized synagogue demographic of all: teenagers. “Beth El Idol” elicited from the teens that ultimate endorsement that is music to a rabbi’s ears: “Awesome.”
So what makes a congregation promoting “Rent” more kosher than the McDonalds down the street hawking “Chicken Little” Happy Meals? For one thing, neither the producers of “Rent” nor “American Idol” have compensated us for the free advertising. But more significantly, marketing has been an important part of Jewish life for centuries, and never is it more apparent than on Hanukkah. I suspect that even the anti-idol Maccabees would have applauded our use of “Idol.”
We are competing in a marketplace of values and ideas and our product is time-tested and alluring. We are great at selling everything on this planet except for the the one thing most worth selling. We’ve got the most beautiful product imaginable, but we somehow feel it sullys us to place that menorah in the window and share the light.
Fortunately, things are changing. More Jewish organizations are becoming media savvy and we’re also learning how to use new technologies to get our message across. Synagogue websites are becoming increasingly sophisticated, casting the light of our virtual menorah far out into the very real public square. In November, my synagogue’s site (www.tbe.org) received an average of 248 visits per day, which is a lot more people than visit us for even the best-attended adult ed classes -- and most services.
In his recent speech at JTS, Rabbi David Wolpe called for the Conservative movement to undergo a marketing makover. “Simple marketing doesn't mean simple ideas,” he said, “it means the simple expression of ideas. Without that, people will not know you are talking to them.” He bemoaned the movement’s fondness for paradox, using the well-worn catchphrase, “tradition and change,” as a prime example (“It's a paradox, and I want a slogan.”) and adding that even the title “Conservative movement” is a lingustic oxymoron of sorts and further, that the name is “pallid, uninspiring and somewhat innacurate.”
His solution: change the name to Covenantal Judaism. Like Ariel Sharon with his new party, Kadima (Forward), he is seeking to turn centrism into dynamism, focusing not on what is to the ideological left or right, but on what lies ahead. Their success will ride not only on the autheticity of their ideas, but on how they are communicated.
There are obvious limits to the commercialization of religion. You won’t soon here me announce at the end of services, “Please stay afterwards for our ‘heavenly’ Oneg, brought to you by “Chock Full o’ Nuts.” But Hanukkah reminds us not only of the beauty and relevance of our message, but also, in the face of heated yuletide competition, of the miracle of its markatability.