The Cultural Appropriation of Buddha in American Advertisements

Jiemin Bao ORCID logo

University of Nevada, Las Vegas

William M. Willis ORCID logo

University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Abstract

Employing a mixed qualitative and quantitative method, this paper explores why and how Buddha is being reimagined, appropriated, and baked into American advertisements, as well as what underlying values inform such a practice. Building upon previous scholars’ work, we argue that Buddha-branded advertisements cater to all socio-economic classes not just the elite. Buddha is used as a spiritual resource to promote desire, reinforcing rather than challenging consumer culture. Buddha-branded advertisements are shaped by American cultural principles, and in return, the advertisements reshape various facets of identity and everyday American life.

Zen has long been stripped of its complications, divested of its Buddhist framework, reinterpreted, and used as “a commercial buzzword” to sell goods in the United States (Irizarry 2015: 53). The same thing is happening with Buddha; advertisers strategically co-opt images of Buddha and its associations with spirituality.1 Buddha-branded advertisements are informed by, and interpreted through, an American cultural lens, and, in turn, help reshape Americans’ perception of Buddhism.

In studying culture and consumption, Grant McCracken (1986, 1988, 2005) has argued that culture is not just an abstract idea but also materials and actions. Commercial goods are informed by “cultural categories” and “cultural principles” (1986: 74; 1988: 131). Cultural categories are based on age, gender, class, nationality and so on. Cultural principles are the “organizing ideas” underlying cultural practices. These principles can find “expression in every aspect of social life, not least of all, they found expression in goods” (1986: 73; 1988: 76).

McCracken’s theoretical approach echoes Judith Williamson’s work. In her groundbreaking book, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, Williamson argues that “Advertisements are one of the most important cultural factors molding and reflecting our life today” (1978: 11). She maintains that effective advertisements draw upon preexisting ideological meanings, transfer them to the goods, and have the consumer, in turn, complete the ads’ meanings. Indeed, Buddha-branded advertisements rely on a dominant visual representation of Buddha to make ads distinctive. Advertisements, an important component of the mass media, play a significant role in shaping the American cultural imagination.

In Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture, Jane Iwamura argues that the mass media co-opts dominant ideologies and stereotypes to construct a symbolic “Oriental Monk” to satisfy Americans’ fascination with Eastern religions. The Oriental Monk is the figure “onto which we project our assumptions, fears and hopes” (2011: 4). This tells us more about America and its geopolitics in the 21st-century than Asian religions. Building upon the Oriental Monk, the image of Buddha, an Asian male calmly meditating in the lotus position, is employed to signal “Eastern Spirituality.” Buddha is being reappropriated in ads, in the garden, in living rooms, at restaurants, in gyms and stores–everywhere in a rapidly evolving socio-economic and religious landscape.

Buddha-branded advertisements carry multifaceted meanings through texts, symbols, and images. Yet, as Rick Moore noted, “very little research has integrated whether advertisers use religion to pitch products and (if they do) how they use it” (2005: 5). To fill this gap, this essay draws upon a survey of 549 Buddha-branded American advertisements, and explores why advertisers adopt Buddha, how advertisers appropriate his name and image to pitch goods aimed at American consumers, and what underlying cultural principles inform these appropriations. We argue that the meanings transferred to Buddha-branded goods tend to be compatible with preexisting American cultural norms such as individualism. Buddhist ethics, such as suffering arising from desire, are often omitted as they are incompatible with the structurally rooted yearning for personal happiness, individuality, and consumption.

Class-Oriented Consumption

A few scholars have explored the commercialization of Buddhism via goods in the United States. Douglas Padgett examined the consumption of meditation cushions to reveal the interplay of material culture and American Buddhism, and how such consumption is shaped by “spiritual communities” or “elite Buddhists” (2000: 63, 71). Similarly, Charles Jones found that over 90 percent of the books about American Buddhism sold at bookstores focus on meditation and self-help and were primarily written for educated white converts (2007: 217–19). In the 21st-century, meditation and mindfulness have become increasingly popular.2 Jeff Wilson noted that mindfulness is used to sell the middle class “auxiliary products” such as meditation-related books, magazines, blogs, and CDs, as well as expensive enlightenment-friendly consumer goods (2014: 134; 2016). In addition, Wilson summarized two important “modes” of the mindfulness movement: “on the one hand, the selling of Buddhist meditation practice through the use of secular images and rhetoric; on the other hand, the selling of secular products through the use of Buddhist images and rhetoric” (2016: 110). Wilson maintained that mindfulness is medicalized, commodified, psychologized, and privatized, which essentially means making mindfulness more palatable by secularizing it (2014).

Zen went through a similar process. In Put a Price on Zen, Joshua Irizarry provided us with a transnational perspective. He contrasted Zen in Japan with what he called “consumer zen” (indicated by the lower-case z) in the United States to show the significant transformation of Zen over the last fifty years (2015: 51). Irizarry argued that “zen has taken on a life of its own as a floating signifier, a hypersignified ‘catch-all’ usable by anyone as befits their needs” (2015: 66). He suggested that “the word zen has commercial value not only because it has been stripped of its religious aura, but also because it has consequently been transformed into a semiotic blank canvas upon which qualities desirable to consumers can readily be projected” (2015: 52). Advertisers also use Zen to target middle- and upper-class women and men.

These pioneering studies have made a significant contribution to our understanding of the transformation of Buddhism in the United States and the interconnections among spirituality, commercialization, and consumption. Interestingly, all these scholars tend to focus on products consumed by the elite and the middle class. We concur that advertisements do target affluent spiritual seekers. However, focusing only on the middle and elite classes’ consumption has its limitations. According to our data, advertisers, who keep on top of newly ascending spiritual trends, are keen to reach consumers of every socio-economic class by using Buddha.

Capitalizing on Secular Spirituality: Co-opting Buddha

Spirituality, like Zen, is hard to define. Spirituality, in popular, 21st-century American usage, is generally considered more individually oriented, and religion more institutionalized and communally oriented (Carrette and King 2005; Roof 1999). Spirituality is also often employed in non-religious spheres including “health, art, psychology, therapy, media and commerce” (Borup and Fibiger 2017: 5). Since the last decade, more Americans claim that they are spiritual and not religiously affiliated: “[O]nly 54 percent of US adults think of themselves as religious – down 11 points since 2012 – while far more (75 percent) say they are spiritual, a figure that has remained relatively steady in recent years” (Lipka and Gecewicz 2017).

Carl Bielefeldt (2001) used the term “secular spirituality” when referring to “a longing among many (especially the white middle and upper classes) who are still not satisfied with what they have and who want something more; who have all they can eat, but are still searching for that special flavoring, some ‘psycho-spice’ of self-acceptance, perhaps, some rare ‘inner herb’ of ’guilt-free self-satisfaction”. The secular spirituality discourse emphasizes self-expression and personal growth.

The desire for self-growth coexists with consumer desire; self-discovery is often realized though goods. Identity can be articulated through the food one eats, the clothing one wears, the furniture one possesses, even one’s weight (Belk 1988; Bordo 2013; Einstein 2008; Elliott and Wattanasuwan 1998; Fischler 1988; McCracken 1987, 1988, 2005). Williamson observed long ago that Americans are socialized to “identify themselves with what they consume” instead of with what they do (1978: 13, 45–46, 179). Today, an endless torrent of ads plays with identity politics from the perspective that Americans are socialized to believe that individuals are responsible for creating their own identity.

Cultural Appropriation and the Power of Advertisers

What we now call Buddhism was founded more than 2,500 years ago. Buddhist practices, as well as Buddha’s names and images, have changed over time in response to different geographic areas and changing economic and political circumstances. However, Buddhist principles, such as the Four Noble Truths, remain the same: life is suffering experienced within a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Suffering is caused by loss, sickness, pain, and desire. Accumulating positive karma is believed to be the way to be born higher in the next life, eventually achieve enlightenment, and escape the cycle of rebirth.

The concepts of karma, rebirth, and life as suffering, nevertheless, are incompatible with many prevailing American cultural beliefs. Consumerism is crucial for capitalism to flourish. The main objective of advertisements is to make commodities and services desirable (Goldman 1992; Lalvani 1995; Twitchell 2005). One way or another, every detail advertisers craft—logos, imagery, text, humor, price, and packaging—serves to sell the product. The idea that personal well-being and/or spirituality can be achieved through purchasing goods is endorsed by many ads. Consequently, Buddha, as a symbol, has become a resource for ad-generated revenue.

Thus, the cultural appropriation of Buddha in these advertisements must be analyzed explicitly in an American context. In his study of the movement from cultural exchange to transculturation, Richard Rogers points out that cultural appropriation is an action which originated from the idea of selectively choosing elements of another culture to “make [it] one’s own” (2006: 475), and that such actions are “shaped by, and in turn shape, the social, economic, and political contexts in which they occur” (2006: 476). Along the same lines, Buddhism is being appropriated by some advertisers to satisfy the cultural taste of American consumers. Robert Sharf sums it up nicely: “Buddhist practice is reduced to meditation, and meditation, in turn, is reduced to mindfulness, which is touted as a therapeutic practice that leads to an emotionally fulfilling and rewarding life” (2015: 472). Meditation is now being used for various therapeutic purposes: to relieve stress, to increase happiness, to lose weight, have better sex, and eat a healthier diet (Wilson 2014, 2016). Others, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, a founder of the mindfulness movement, chose to ignore the connections between meditation and Buddhism (Purser 2019). Kabat-Zinn connects meditation with “the power of mind” and “speaking in terms of energy, flow, and flux; and sees ‘salvation’ from suffering primarily in terms of therapy and healing” (Hickey 2019: 186). Donald Lopez argues in Buddhism and Science (2008) and The Scientific Buddha (2012) that although meditation is often linked with science, Buddhism and science are essentially incompatible because each has a different focus and purpose. Nevertheless, meditation, legitimated by science and psychology, has been embraced by some corporations (K. D. Williamson 2018). Employees are encouraged to practice meditation to become mindful and increase productivity. However, Buddha images are largely absent from these sites (2018: 2).

In contrast to meditation and the mindfulness movement in the United States, many advertisers appropriate Buddha’s name and image. These appropriations have their own characteristics: Buddha is perceived as a resource adding value to goods, yet, at the same time, the dharma is being ignored, erased, distorted, or redefined as the effect of drawing upon preexisting American cultural principles. While the cultural appropriation of meditation, mindfulness, and Buddha-branded advertisements vary, they are all compatible with American cultural fashions—individualism, psychology, science, and the pursuit of personal happiness. Collectively, these advertisements, in different configurations, impose American cultural principles and taste on other cultural elements and practices, not the other way around.

Advertisers have long used spirituality to brand goods (Carrette and King 2005; Einstein 2008; Stein 1999). Different types of capital are interconnected and convertible; symbolic capital can be converted into economic power (Bourdieu 1987: 3–4). Using Buddha in advertisements is part of a strategy to convert symbolic capital into economic capital. Advertisers are behind-the-scenes but active agents. Their job compels them to refashion cultural information to elicit consumer desire. They are simultaneously shaped by social, cultural, political, and economic forces and they, in return, influence consumers. Buddha-branded ads embody the power advertisers possess; the positions from which they speak; the ways in which they pitch their products; and their cultural values.

Methodology and Research Design

In 2016 Jiemin Bao began this project with a pilot study of American advertisements that used Buddhist iconography to sell products. These data were collected online by several undergraduates and a graduate student who were instructed to find the advertisements using web searches. Systematic searches were conducted to approximate the actual experience of shoppers’ access to ads on the internet. This compilation focused on commercial advertisements with Buddhist iconography aimed at American consumers. Advertisements ranged from goods one can only purchase from an online marketplace like Amazon, to those available at various retailers including big box chain stores like Walmart or Home Depo, or at specialty shops. After examining 111 advertisements, Bao realized that images of Buddha and the use of the word “Buddha” had overtaken “Zen” in frequency: 53 percent to 26 percent. Building on this pilot study, the survey shifted to focus on Buddha-branded ads. By the end of 2019, 549 Buddha-branded advertisements had been collected online, mostly by UNLV undergraduates and some by one graduate student. These data were classified and coded by Bao and Willis with help from two UNLV graduate research assistants.

The following five aspects of Buddha-branded advertisements—time, categorical product types, product price, and language, as well as the use of Buddha’s name and/or image —are important for sorting out and analyzing how Buddha-branded ads are made.

Time. We roughly sketched out a timeline for the growth of businesses that used “Buddha” as part of their branding by assessing the patterns in state business license records by searching the keyword “Buddha” in their online databases. To avoid including registrations from religious institutions, we excluded non-profit organizations. We also included whenever a business refiled the licensing paperwork to better understand the total saturation of Buddha-branded businesses through time. Incomplete records made it difficult to provide insights into long term trends. However, 15 states had clear and complete business records supplying the filing dates and names of each business entity (fig. 1).

Figure 1: States whose business records were searched.
Figure 2: The growth of Buddha-branded businesses over time.

Buddha was rarely used in a company or product name up through the first half of the twentieth century (fig. 2). Usage grew in the mid-1980s when the mindfulness movement took off. In the year 2000, eleven registrations used Buddha as part of their name. By 2019, that number jumped to sixty-six. This enabled us to situate ads into a time-specific framework.

Product types. We divided the 549 advertised goods into eight categories: apparel, apparel accessories, drug-related products, artwork, home décor, food products, novelty items, and wellness merchandise.4 Among them, home décor and novelty items were the most abundant and food products the least (fig. 3).

Figure 3: Buddha-branded product types by their percent total.

Product price. To better understand affordability, we categorized available product prices based on the number of poverty level workdays that would be required to purchase the product before taxes. Poverty level workdays were computed for a forty-hour work week paying $48.04 per day.5 Product prices were divided into three categories: Group A included products ranging in price up to $48.04. Group B had products priced between $48.05 and $96.08. Group C included products that cost $96.09 and up.

Language. To tease out the cultural categories and principles residing within these advertisements, we identified keywords and phrases which frequently recurred, and then sorted them each into corresponding themes. These themes were further condensed into eleven overarching meta-themes to reduce the number of variables within the study. All themes and meta-themes were repeatedly sorted, assessed, and discussed until consistent groupings were formed. Finally, to identify the relationships between specific advertising themes and certain types of products, we employed exploratory chi-square goodness of fit tests.6 This mixed (qualitative and quantitative) method helped us capture some of the principal ways in which Buddha is being appropriated.

Buddha’s name and images. All the ads in this survey used Buddha’s name and/or image. For images, we included the ad if Buddha appeared on the product itself, product packaging, or product webpage. According to the Urban Dictionary, Buddha is used as slang for cannabis.7 Of all the Buddha images, “Laughing Buddha,” an incarnation of Maitreya, appears most often. Laughing Buddha’s image is based upon Budai, a rotund 10th-century Chinese monk. In addition, Buddha’s head, without the rest of his torso, was the only disembodied body part used extensively in the ads.8 Many of the advertisements appropriated Laughing Buddha’s image for the sake of visual humor. These usages included anthropomorphic mashups and ironic situations. As humor is often related to expressing class taste, chi-square was again used to test the association between visual humor and our price classes.9

Product Types and Thematic Advertising Patterns

In this survey, we identified thematic language in 82 percent of our Buddha-branded advertisements (fig. 4). Among the 18 percent without thematic language, Buddha images were used instead as well as a small number of products that used the name Buddha as part of their branding.10 This occurred most frequently with drug-related products, novelties, apparel, and accessories, and least frequently with works of art. For example, InterestPrint, a company that specializes in adding designs to various products, sells men’s boxer shorts with a colorful Buddha pattern. Their advertisement fabricates a visual representation of a meditating Buddha wearing headphones and sunglasses. Instead of using the Bodhi tree as a backdrop—underneath which the historical Buddha attained nirvana—it uses psychedelic mushrooms instead, implying that enlightenment may come through hallucinogenic experiences. Many advertisers attempt to reach non-Buddhists through image-making and let the consumer complete the meaning. Using iconic Buddha images alone, without any spiritual rhetoric attached, reveals just how evocative and ubiquitous Buddha images are in the marketplace.