Advertising’s depiction of a primeval utopia says a lot about our relationship with the environment

In a prior article I discussed myths, and how they serve as powerful forces to shape human behavior. Myths enable a flexible, scalable emotional shorthand that helps us make decisions in situations where there’s a ton of information to consider, or we need to make up our minds quickly.

A myth that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is that of Eden. And specifically I’ve been considering how Eden is represented in advertising. The emotional shorthand of myth is of course very useful in advertising (or any form of communication), but any good story that gets repeated becomes, in essence, more “true”. We left our previous discussion of myth asking ourselves whether the stories we’re repeating in advertising are actually helpful in arming our culture with the attitudes and mindsets needed to succeed against the large challenges we have in front of us. When it comes to Eden in advertising, I think we’re letting ourselves down.

The Eden story, at its most basic: At the beginning of human time the first man and first woman lived together in a garden of plenty, but were eventually ejected from this perfect place of natural abundance and went to live in the outside world where things were much less comfortable. The mythological place of Eden is a natural paradise that disappears.

Sometimes advertising references Eden explicitly. But more often it just manipulates the cues that evoke this legendary utopia: excessively lush vegetation, secluded or secret places of breathtaking beauty, bountiful fruits and flowers, unusually dense clusters of myriad animals all living in harmony. And amidst all of this abundance, one lone human.

This is how advertising shows the most primal, visceral version of nature. The Ogilvy-approved Platonic ideal of “natural”. So it’s interesting to consider, through this advertising trope, the lessons that consumerism extrapolates from the Eden myth.

Eden is made explicitly for man. It’s an object that is given, not earned. As a possession, it’s a private one for you alone to enjoy and take from with carefree abandon. And just as Eden isn’t shared with others, it’s also not something you help create, look after, or even participate in. It’s ruled by other powers, your job is to relax and enjoy.

Think of all the times when riotous, abundant nature is used to sell you something. Think of cartoonishly bright coral reefs in Carnival Cruise Line commercials. Think of the swollen, bursting flowers that surround a bottle of Herbal Essences shampoo. Think of the dazzling tree-plucked psychedelia from Fruitopia.

Why this neon ecological cornucopia? Because it says “take me!” It says “this rich satisfying goodness is made for you, it’s yours, you deserve it. And it’s right here waiting for you.” Maybe worse: “I have always been this way, and I will always be this way. My epic natural bonanza is eternal.”

We can see the results of this thinking in our own daily actions. When nature isn’t always around us but it’s out there somewhere else and we need four wheel drive to get to it. When natural = resource in law and deed. When nature and man are two opposite sides of a coin instead of connected like chicken and egg.

And there’s no need to wonder what nature gets out this relationship. Because Eden doesn’t ask anything of Adam and Eve. It waits, on the side of a cereal box, with boughs bent by sun-ripened fruit.

More and more as I’ve been thinking about this I see advertisements and I wonder to myself if this is the type of relationship I want to have with nature. When my mom read “The Giving Tree” to me as a kid I found it deeply, deeply sad. But here I stand with arms outstretched for an apple, and later some wood.

Fortunately, myths can be interpreted in many different ways. I was discussing Eden with a friend who drew my attention to an interesting movement growing in modern Christianity. It’s called “creation care”. It looks to God’s command that Adam “keep” Eden as a call to protect and steward the beauty of his creation. You can find creation care practices in lots of local churches, all the way up to a partnership between the Yale Divinity and Forestry Schools in a field I didn’t know existed called Ecotheology.

Those who practice creation care involve themselves in conservation and renewal. They’re very aware of the perils the environment faces, and committed to fighting them. But interestingly, creation care practitioners say even if everything was perfectly fine with the environment they would still be engaged in activities that protect and foster the natural world. Because for them the natural world is holy.

This veneration and sense of connection to nature makes today’s advertising look not just hollow, but shamefully lazy, with so much rich emotional territory left unexplored. What if the visual language of abundance came with messages about participation, stewardship, or collaboration with nature? What if a bounty was satisfying because it was earned? What if the proud sophistication of far-sighted planning replaced the all-you-can-eat buffet?

The purpose of advertising is get us to want things by speaking the language of our desires. But I don’t think we all desire to suck the earth clean like a chicken bone. The Eden myth can inspire different modes of behavior beyond naive consumption. I’d like to see the mutuality and respect for nature I think we need in our culture reflected in advertising.

If I did, I’d buy it.

Brand strategist writing about how companies impact culture. Fascinated by stories that explore our relationship with nature.