Friday, March 14, 2014

The Popes...Selling

As we celebrate the first anniversary of the Roman Catholic pontificate of Pope Francis I,  it occurred to me that, like other world-recognized celebrities,  popes past and present have been appropriated by the advertising industry to push commercial products, sometimes over their objections and sometimes in a highly dubious circumstances.

The latter come to mind when contemplating a product called “The Pope’s Cologne.”  It purports to be the private formula of Pope Pius IX, whose papacy of 31 years was the longest in the history of the Catholic Church (1848-1878).  The last of the popes to wield temporal power through the Papal States,  Pius IX was a controversial figure, alternately loved and hated,  who presided during a period of great tumult in Italy and the Church.  Through it all, if you believe the admen, Pius IX smelled good.

Here is the pitch for the product:  We obtained this formula from descendants of the commander of his Papal Guard and faithful friend, General Charles Charette. We have followed this complex, exclusive formula meticulously, using the same essential oils that his perfumers used 150 years ago.  We believe that we have succeeded in capturing the same fragrance that he and those around him enjoyed so long ago. This is a truly extraordinary cologne with surprising freshness and notes of violet and citrus.

The ad conjures up a vision of the Pope puttering around a laboratory somewhere in the bowels of the Vatican,  crushing violets,  squeezing orange peels, and hashing other botanicals until he has the “aha” moment that tells him he and his “perfumers” have concocted a cologne fit for the Bishop of Rome.  Then he calls in the Curia to take a sniff.

There need be no such skepticism about the next product,  represented by two late 19th Century ads for a beverage known as “Vin Mariani.”  Invented in 1863 by a young Corsican named Angelo Mariani,  it was a coca wine.  Importing tons of coca leaves from Latin America to France, Mariani soaked them in Bordeaux wine.   Ethanol in the wine acted as a solvent and extracted the cocaine from the leaves, which then laced the beverage.  The beverage proved to be very popular with many in Europe and America.  The French writer Emil Zola called it “the elixir of life.”  Thomas Edison said it helped him stay awake for longer periods, (inventing I suppose).  Other reputed regular imbibers were Queen Victoria and U.S. President William McKinley.

But Vin Mariani’s most famous customer was Pope Leo XIII who is said to have carried a flask of the stuff around with him to bolster his spirits in times of need.  So grateful was the Pope that he awarded a Vatican gold medal to Angelo.   A hustling entrepreneur as well as inventor,  Mariani saw the benefits of celebrity endorsements and frequently featured the  gold medal and the Catholic pontiff in his advertising.   Leo’s pontificate spanned the years 1878 to 1903 and was known for his papal encyclicals that became the basis for Catholic social teaching.  Not long after his death,  coca wines were made illegal in the United States.

Beer, however, would be legal until National Prohibition in 1920.  That gave the T. Briggs & Company brewery of Elmira, New York, founded in 1870, lots of time to issue advertising items like the tip tray shown here.  It shows Leo XIII sitting at a table on which appears to be a bottle of beer.  The Pope is looking benign and giving a blessing, presumably to the customers of the saloon in which Briggs’ lager beer and ales were being served and sold.  Possibly someone thusly blessed would reciprocate with a larger tip.   The Briggs brewery in 1903 advertised that:  “The ladies of Elmira are especially invited to come and see how pure beer and ale are made.”  Neither such appeals nor Leo XIII could stem the tide of National Prohibition and in 1920, after a 50 years run the brewery was  forced to close.

Then we skip ahead to a more contemporary era and the papacy of John Paul II, the first non-Italian pontiff since Hadrian VI in 1522.  When elected in 1978 he was still only 58, a published poet and playwright, an accomplished skier and mountaineer, and fluent in at least six languages.  Admired for his strong stand against communism, a position that made him a target for an assassin, this Pope is credited with helping precipitate the end of the Iron Curtain in Europe.  John Paul also was very strict about Church teaching on matters such as  contraception. That  made him a object of sly derision in ads dealing with matters sexual, especially use of condoms.   Among the least distasteful is one for Manix condoms, a leading French-made male contraceptive product that is marketed throughout Europe.  The ad purports to show John Paul,  papal staff in hand, inserting coins into a Manix wall dispensary.

European ad men have been much more daring in their use of the pope’s image than their American counterparts.   A major uproar was occasioned in November 2011 by an advertisement from Benetton, an Italian clothing firm.  Shown here, it featured Pope Benedict XVI in a doctored photograph kissing a senior Egyptian Moslem imam named Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb.  It was part of an advertising campaign termed “Unhate.” The Vatican was not amused. The ad was termed “totally unacceptable” and Benetton was forced to pull the image.

The unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict (2005-2013) occasioned its own set of ad man fantasies.   The Ultra Lock-Coimbria Company ran the ad included here.  With the legend, “Pope Benedict XVI resigned because....”, it showed a folder shut by a company lock.  “Ultra Lock is the ideal padlock to protect important things, since it is made with an extremely reduced mechanism,” the ad read.  It went on to say that the high quality of the lock allowed it to protect “highly confidential information and valuable objects.”  The clear inference was that the reason for Benedict’s resignation was highly secret.

While some admen concentrated on the pope’s resignation,  Justin Ramb saw the election of Pope Francis in terms of a marketing campaign.  In a promotion for his Florida advertising firm he put it this way:   “It starts with buzz.  People are excited about something new, and they want to share their excitement with others.  They may not even know what, exactly, it is that they’re excited about – that’s certainly often the case with the launch of items such as the iPhone and the upcoming Google Glass.  The buzz is that whatever it is, it will be revolutionary.  A new pope has the potential to shift the direction of the Catholic Church, an organization that has members in countries around the world.”

At least one company agreed.  The Wisconsin-based Harley-Davidson Motor Company, maker of those iconic “big hogs,” in 2013 featured an ad showing a lone motorcycle rider on a dark landscape with the headline, “The Pope’s Biggest Challenge in the New Millennium:  Bring Back People to Church.”  The point appeared to be that they should be invited to come on their motorcycles.  But Harley Davidson went further.  In June 2013 the company gave Pope Francis a motorcycle and a biker jacket.  The occasion was their 110th anniversary, celebrated in Rome when the newly created pontiff blessed about 800 bikers and their riders in St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis, who has urged Catholic clergy to show humility in their choice of transportation,  promptly announced that he would donate the motorcycle and jacket to be auctioned off to raise money for a hostel and soup kitchen that serves Rome’s homeless. The bike fetched a whopping $285,000 and the jacket, $70,000.  Both had been autographed by the Pope who, by the way, has yet to be seen riding a Harley.

The final illustration here is not an ad but piece of street art that was conceived by Italian artist Mauro Pallotta, seen here posing in front of it.  It depicts Pope Francis as a kind of clerical
“Superman,” who is holding a bag marked “values.”   Authorities soon erased it from a wall in Rome’s Borgio Pio District near St. Peter’s Square, but by that time through the Internet and social media, the image had gone, as the saying is, “viral.”  So much so that that Francis has felt it necessary to disavow the image.  Recently he emphasized that the Pope is not superhuman but just an ordinary person.  Given the international celebrity that this pontiff has achieved in the first year of his papacy, however, I have a hunch similar depictions may lie in the future, some of them for commercial purposes.  History is clear:  Popes sell.

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