“THE ACTIVITY, SET of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” That’s the American Marketing Association’s definition of marketing, the most important branch of high-level business studies and research today.

But how do the ubiquitous selling arts of Capitalism fare in Islam’s moral balance, as taught to us in the Quran and by the Prophet ﷺ? Certainly Islam encourages open trade and the freedom and dignity that go with it, as opposed to the prevalent mind-numbing wage-slavery of the expanding corporate plantation and its now nearly unquestioned call to “jobs.”

Yet selling in Islam has no alternative universe of commercial values to accompany it, as we experience today. Rather, the moral principles of Islam as a religion pervade and define its legal and business ethics with complete correspondence. In the Islamic market paradigm, there is no scary fault line or invisible caveat between the tenets of worshipful practices (ʿibâdât) and the tenets of transactions (muʿamalât). The buyer-beware and package-it-at-any-price ethos that in 2008 caused the global financial markets to crash with a spectacular thud (a clatter destined to recurrently reverberate through the global economy, by the way) has no resonance in the sound business acoustics of the souk Islam built.

And while the principle sources of Islam, especially the Quran and Sunnah, are clearly the most trade-conversant of any of the Heavenly Revelations (much of the language and analogy of the Quran and Sunnah being famously characterized in business terms), accounting in the religious mind of Islam is a fixed cosmic reality, not a fungible presentation tool made complicated beyond all comprehension in order to fool people.

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But what we see—and mostly mindlessly accept—of contemporary marketing is more like the public test of the two angels of Babylon, Hârût and Mârût, than it is the principled buying and selling that we Muslims are commanded to practice, among ourselves and our fellow human beings. Hence, most of the soft-skill training programs on personality development, time management, and leadership—which Muslims, East and West, have embraced with great alacrity—are now adjunct studies conducted in the field of marketing and have avid capitalistic marketing purposes in mind.

This has grown out of the development of business management as a specialization of the behavioral sciences, in which marketing has become the fastest evolving of its branches of study. “Marketing,” the science, teaches the mode of moving products into public use by conjoining the analytic studies of psychology, sociology, economics, and anthropology with the technique and technology of trading.

This meld ought to alarm us because it speaks to manipulating certain fundamental impulses in human beings for worldly ends. But before we examine this, and place it in the scales of our revealed values to ascertain its true weight, it is worth taking a brief look at the history of making business into a formal study and enduing it with the operational magic of the science of human behavior and mass thought.

When Business Went to School

“Business Schools” make their appearance in capitalist countries with the development of the free market. The first commenced at Pennsylvania University in 1881 with a grant of $100,000 by a Quaker businessman and American big-business advocate and protectionist named Joseph Wharton. It remains the Al-Azhar for the shaykhs of capitalism to this day.

The pronounced success of Wharton resulted in the opening of business schools at Chicago and California Universities in 1898, New York, Wisconsin, Dartmouth universities in 1900, and Northwestern, Pittsburgh, and Harvard universities in 1908. A substantial growth of business schools has continued since 1965.

In 2010-11, nearly 22 percent of undergraduates and 25 percent of post-graduates from American universities were from business schools. About 66 percent of those masters degrees (in 2008) were MBAs, according to Marina Murray, associate director of research at the Graduate Management Admission Council. In that same year, America’s tuition-lucrative MBA programs seduced a whopping 250,000 students. In fact, America’s now “thousands” of MBA programs doled out an astounding 74 percent more degrees in 2011-12 than in the 2000-01 academic year.

Marketing (you may be getting the message) has emerged as the most important branch of study in business schools. Its secular fundamentalist ʿaqîda crystallized in 1960 with Michigan State University’s E. Jerome McCarthy’s proposed Four P’s marketing mix, later captured in his influential book Basic Marketing. The amalgam puts forth a nomenclature for marketing of Product, Price, Place and Promotion, this latter to make marketing “genial,” a word some say relates to the Arabic ‘jinn.’

By way of the Four P’s, value is externalized. Product refers to making a commodity attractive and “essential” to consumers. Price is the perception of value in exchange for the commodity, with built-in notions of “discount.” Place is a commodity’s route of trade and its effectiveness in the perception of the consumer along the way.

But it is the raw emotion of the Fourth P, Promotion, that most concerns marketers and us as targeted consumers. Its daʿwah is advertisement. Its objective is boosting sales. And its measures and means are distribution, individual sales, and branding.

Marketers plan on the bases of these Four P’s with the goal of utilizing every step to prepare a commodity attractive enough to inspire consumer purchase, offer suggestive appeal, and get it to consumers, all in such a way so as to sensitize the consumer to the notion that his or her purchase of this commodity is an “inevitability.” Think, for example, Apple, Inc. with its serial i-everything successes of pods, pads, phones, and, of course, computers, as the Four P’s master of our time. Nonetheless, it is Promotion—and the physical manifestation of its spirit, advertising—that has become the central value, not only of business, but of life in our time.

Advertising as the Revelation of Secular Modernity

Nothing is more important, more dominant, and more fundamentally focal in the world we now inhabit than advertising. Man cannot live without inspiration, and advertising has almost irresistibly tied this need to commodities, things, possession, and, even more importantly, the mystique of possession for all of us. (Think Les McCann’s 1969 jazz classic, penned by Eugene McDaniels, Compared to What—“Possession is the motivation that’s hangin up the #!@ nation”).

In business books, it is true, advertising is mundanely linked to sustaining the sales of familiar goods, to the introduction of new items, and to enhancing the use-rate and public awareness of both. But in our hearts, where all transactions actually take place, attractiveness, inspiration, motivation, and activation are the seeds planted by an effective advertisement.

To the marketing expert, in polar contrast to the grounded Muslim, it is not the virtue of the product and its blessing that equates with falâ ḥ, success. Rather, it is the capacity of a presentation to reach the attention—that is, to pierce the subliminal senses—of a human being, in order to alter his or her intention, that is, the disposition of the human heart, and thereby transform a person from a moral agent into a consumptive entity, a consumer, a material receptacle bin, irrespective of whether the commodity in question is a necessity or of benefit. Marketing’s sole concern is to inspire acquisitive action in the human being for substantial—that is, an exchange of spiritual for worldly—worth.

Some marketing focuses on you, the prospective target now withholding wealth. Other marketing centers on a worldly, or perceived worldly, good. The former tends to focus on altering your heart by providing you a “solution” to a problem whose “information” you may not even have awareness of, in order to sell you a “value” and then give you “access” to it.

Hence, the acronym for this model among marketers, “SIVA, Solution Information Value Access.” Think of insurance companies and pharmaceutical sellers, for example. Their goal is to make you happy with something they make you suddenly realize you “need.” (If they are able to manipulate practical and, increasingly, legal conditions to coerce this behavior—mandatory auto and health insurance, for example—this is even more desirable from the business point of view.)

Other marketing puts “research” and “tactics” together to give you the latest and the greatest thing that they hope will truly become part of an ever-expanding array of commodities that become “necessary” to our changing way of life. The cell phone is now the paradigm commodity example, with constant connectivity—an illustration of a service—following close behind

Both “you-marketing” and “gadget-glory” propagation approaches depend utterly on advertisement and distribution. And without the affective former, there is simply no product existence for anything but the true essentials of life—air, water (we’re losing these), food and clothing (already lost, meaning we no longer produce these in community). What an incalculable difference advertising makes among us!

Advertising and the Commercialization of the Self

Make no mistake about the stunning effectiveness of advertising in revealing modern life. Just a century and a half ago, The French daily La Presse was the first newspaper to accept advertisements on charges, as a matter of fact in the month of June 1836. Just a generation later N.W. Ayer & Sons opened in Philadelphia (what’s with Pennsylvania and marketing?) in 1869 as the first advertisement agency.

It’s likely you’ve never heard of this firm, but you know some of the verses of their secular “revelation” by heart if you have memory before the 1980s—“When it rains it pours” (Morton Salt)…“I’d walk a mile for a Camel” (R.J. Reynolds Tobacco)…“A diamond is forever” (De Beers)…“Reach out and touch someone” (AT&T)…“Be all (that) you can be (U.S. Army).” And it is no coincidence that Salman Rushdie, of Satanic Verses infamy, was a copywriter employee for Ayer.

With the systematic strategies of advertising came the most effective selling agent ever. Women. The female made her appearance as by-product in the field of advertisement at the onset of the 20th Century. One of the earliest and most successful advertising campaigns came with the humblest of commodities, toilet soap. But its caption gave its advertisement haughty success: “The skin you love to touch.” Think about this. It represents one of the foremost American commercial messages: Sex appeal.

Everyone jumped in. Companies like Coca Cola began their advertisement with photos of women during the late 19th Century. The ads found their place in audio mode with the advent of radio in the 1920s. By the end of the 1940s, the world envisioned ads through the television. The Dumont Television Network commenced the television advertisement programs as “sponsored programs” during the early 1950s.

The early 1960s is known as the revolutionary era of highly talented American advertisement marketers, when the recessive so-called “Artist,” Beat, generation came into influence. Advertisement progressed as an art by means of skillful pictures and talented captions. Above all, the “think small” and “bug” ads of Volkswagen by legendary marketer William “Bill” Bernbach kicked it off. It is not happenstance that Volkswagen—the bug and the bus—are iconic synonyms of the 60s counter-cultural revolution.

By the 1980s, cable TV became pervasive. And what can be said of the profound impact on advertising of the music channel MTV. Both directed the field of advertisement toward the ups and downs of the curvaceous female body in salacious motion. So compelling was the impact of these ad ventures, that people began tuning into specialized TV, not to get away from commercialization, but especially to watch ads. Thus, channels exclusively for ads were born, TV’s mission perfected.

Internet ads commenced in earnest in 1990, until popular websites like Google generalized e-marketing and e-advertisement. Little wonder, with advertising reigning across all media and generations for at least 175 years, that current American advertising expenditures account for a nearly Zakat-worthy 2.4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Yet ads are not propagated with the intention of giving truthful information on commodities, a fact that is amazingly still not unknown among general populations. Even so, these ads, filled with tantalizing sexual aspiration of every imaginable sort, along with the incorrigible, inconsolable spirit of consumerism—masterfully “visualized” throughout all media, and to which the family as a whole is concurrently and collectively exposed across all age categories—have perverted even our very understanding of the meaning of social morality.

The ad market exposes the new generation to a world where all precious values are commercialized and the market itself becomes the value that counts. This is the true meaning of free-market capitalism. It is not that markets shall run unfettered. Rather, it is thou shalt not restrain the pervasive marketing message as decreeing normative values to humanity.

The marriage of market “morality”—that is to say, consumption—and the wholesale values inversion promulgated by advertising—individualism, arrogance, immodesty, infidelity, licentiousness, wastefulness, aggression, boastfulness, shamelessness, aberrance (the decadence list is stunningly complete)—has clamored, Gollum-like, to the fell heights of deviance.

The Meme-Wars and the Commoditization of the Female Body

Some western thinkers have perceived the danger of this dire social situation and begun to struggle against consumer culture. Robert W. McChesney, progressive Media professor at University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and cofounder of the media reform organization Free Press, writes with great insight:

All human needs, relationships, and fears—the deepest recesses of the human psyche—become mere means for the expansion of the commodity universe under the force of modern marketing. With the rise to prominence of modern marketing, commercialism—the translation of human relations into commodity relations—although a phenomenon intrinsic to capitalism, has expanded exponentially.

Astutely (and courageously), he has tied this marketing coding of the American mind directly to the public mental disability and unwillingness to investigate the events of September 11, along with its background and underpinnings. The great media campaign, begun within minutes of the onset of this cataclysmic spectacle of tragedy, sold the American public the most copious and costly bill of war, insecurity, and unquestioning consumer dependence in history. How tragic the consequences of this shell-shock marketing which now enfold us all.

Estonian-born, Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker and anti-consumerism, counter-cultural activist, Kalle Lasn, a founder of Adbusters Media Foundation, goes further. He sees modern media marketing as the evil of our time, calling it the main source of psychological corruption in America and Canada. Lasn is the one who coined the term “meme-wars” as a pun on “memoir” and a “clash” of cultural ideas (hence his magazine Memewar. ‘Meme,’ coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, means something passed on in a culture or system of behavior from one to another by non-genetic means, primarily imitation). Lasn writes:

[Advertising is] the most prevalent and toxic of the mental pollutants. From the moment your radio alarm sounds in the morning to the wee hours of late night, TV micro-jolts of commercial pollution flood into your brain at the rate of around 3,000 marketing messages per day. Every day an estimated 12 billion display ads, 3 million radio commercials, and more than 200,000 television commercials are dumped into North America’s collective unconscious.

In the course of his life, the average American sits down for three continuous years and watches nothing but television advertising. What astonishing programming this must achieve!

American social critic Jean Kilbourne, with a titular nod to an old Beatles song, Can’t Buy Me Love, wrote in 2000 about the tremendous “stealth” influence advertisements exert on us socially and on society:

If you are like most people, you think that advertising has no influence on you. This is what advertisers want you to believe. But, if that were true, why would companies spend over $200 billion a year on advertising? Why would they be willing to spend over $250,000 to produce an average television commercial and another $250,000 to air it? If they want to broadcast their commercial during the Super Bowl, they will gladly spend over a million dollars to produce it and over one and a half million to air it. After all, they might have the kind of success that Victoria’s Secret did during the 1999 Super Bowl. When they paraded bra-and-panty-clad models across TV screens for a mere 30 seconds, one million people turned away from the game to log on to the website promoted in the ad. No influence?

Kilbourne’s dollar figures now seem quaint. Last year advertisers worldwide spent $545.4 billion on paid media, according to eMarketer midyear projections. If you live in America, you win the ad lottery! More than a third of all advertising dollars are directed squarely at you, a fat $564.84 to be precise earmarked for every man, woman, and child in the United States.

And that most coveted ad-space, the Superbowl, this year (XLIX) cost a staggeringly shameful $150,000 per second, a 30 second spot tolling for a profligate $4.5 million, all of this in the midst of unprecedented climate catastrophe, global child impoverishment, and death-dealing destruction.

These ads actually function to foist “non-beneficial knowledge,” ʿilman lâ yanfaʿ, about new commodities into the heart rather than providing factual information for the mind. How do they do this?

For a commodity marketer, “branding” is the foremost objective. I cannot decide if this term is actually metaphorical. Marketers mean to seer a commodity’s emblem identity as if with a branding iron onto your heart. Since a number of items are there in the market for a particular purpose, branding makes up your mind for you in favor of one of them. It does this by creating an “instinct” in you for a specific product of a specific company as that unique commodity you must purchase.

No knowledge is too high or far afield for marketers. Even recent knowledge of neurology is being utilized to learn how to “stigmatize” peculiar brands in the minds of customers. There is now a special branch of science called Neuro-marketing aimed at stealing consumer hearts, employing such unexpected diagnostic tools as the ECG (Electro Encephalography) and the FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), to name just two.

Marketers call stigmatizing the brain with a particular brand as the thing to have, “priming,” and there is a long queue of researches behind the technique. When it comes to, say, Colgate toothpaste, stigmatizing, in the first order, is associating it in the brain with thoughts of shining teeth. Merely mentioning desirable qualities is sufficient to brand a primary product for a specific use. But what of a competitor toothpaste, a secondary product? Marketers must provide something more attractive than “shining teeth” to get into the brain already “stigmatized” with Colgate.

Enter the all-time advertising trump—feminine beauty…and, when it comes to masculine feeling, the promise of male possession of it. By using a woman’s gaze upon a man with shining teeth from, say, Crest, as opposed to pure focus on the quality of the product, the brain (or the heart) is stigmatized with the new product. This is now a common ad tactic. Each successive product-ad ups the “promise.”

We all know, at least intuitively, that advertising peddles sex to sell commodities. This is not haphazard. It has come after enormous psychological studies, drawing especially on Freudian psychoanalysis. (The award-winning serial documentary Century of the Self, by the brilliant Adam Curtis, is a must-see film in this regard). The sexual side of the lower nafs, to put this in Islamic terms, of both men and women, is the deliberate and direct target of advertising research and marketing as related to influencing mass behaviors.

In a nutshell, these studies indicate that the basic entry-point of men’s sexual desire is the eye, and that of women, the ear. With arousal by sight, the male is primed for the sexual act. For the woman, priming her is a matter of perception, of proximity, whispering flirtation, and the conceptual touch of a man who has communicated the right things in the imagined presence of these audible arousal factors. Thus, ads aimed at men give importance to the long gaze, or the “ups and downs” of the female body. Ads targeting women focus on how they can become complete by attracting the hearts of men.

Richard F. Taflinger, a clinical professor at Washington State University specializing in the psycho-physiological responses of men and women to television advertising, analyzes the following ads as examples of male and female advertising.

In the first ad, four men sit on a beach. Three half-naked women pass by. The women deny the men’s invitation to join them. In comes the marketed beer product and, voila! The men and women are instantly consuming the beer together, frolicking as festive friends, embracing, the women bestowing kisses redolent with suggestion upon the men. This is, of course, male focused.

The second illustration is an ad selling a diamond ring. In a secluded atmosphere where the light shows dim, a worthy-looking man stands. A lady, obviously aflame with passion, looks at him, and the diamond ring is seen in the background. This ad is for women.

The female body is commercialized in both ads. The man’s body, however, is used merely to conform and acclimatize, to complete the woman. Thus it is not the diamond but the woman’s body—that is, the promise of transacting to possess it—that is the commodity put up for sale. Hers is the promise of being completed by the dedicated affections of a man willing to commoditize his commitment for an erotic payment that will make her whole.

Sex sells. Research in the field, and in visual studies, demonstrate this categorically.

Part 2: Culture of Self-Worship


  • Sarah

    January 27, 2015 - 3:02 pm

    Assalamu alaykum,

    Very interesting indeed! However, whereas these arguments make plenty of sense in our context as modern Muslims, I always wonder personally how valid our protests against “Western objectification of women” are. After all, Muslims ourselves have a history of sexual slavery where women’s bodies (and men’s) were sized up and sold in public spaces, and I’ve seen some historical claims that these women were forbidden from wearing hijab like freewomen did.

  • Abdus Salaam

    March 10, 2015 - 12:56 pm

    Assalamu alaykum and barakAllahu feek,

    This is a very important topic and I appreciate you dedicating so much effort in addressing it. Insha Allah I’ll be studying this same phenomenon myself.

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