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Alumni Profile: Mara Einstein '88

Sacred wows

Mara Einstein '88 explores marketing side of religion, religious side of marketing

By Aubrey Henretty

"Religion is being marketed now in ways it never has been before," says Mara Einstein '88, an associate professor of media studies at Queens College at the City University of New York.

Take New York City's local Kabbalah Centre. Einstein says this gathering place for students of Jewish mysticism gladly uses pop star Madonna — a self-proclaimed Kabbalist — to market itself, a strategy that would until recently have been unthinkable to any organized religious group.

Madonna's image may have changed in the past two decades, but Kabbalah's religious tenets have not. "If you really want to study Kabbalah, you have to be orthodox," says Einstein. And who better than a celebrity to hold sway with potential (mostly female 20- and 30-something) converts to persuade them to follow a kosher diet, wear long skirts, and stay home on the weekends? Could the actual leader of the Centre, a grandfatherly rabbi in his 70s, ever hope to wow these newcomers as effectively as the Queen of Pop does?

Einstein, who has a doctorate in media ecology from New York University, thinks not. She also thinks religious leaders and marketers have more in common with each other than either group may be comfortable admitting. She explores the overlap in her second book, Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age, which will be published by Routledge this fall.

In the United States, says Einstein, "religions have always had to market themselves and compete with one another." And changing expectations are adding fuel to the fire. "It used to be if your mother went to a Baptist church, you went to a Baptist church," says the Kellogg graduate, who worked on the marketing side of the entertainment and broadcast industries for several years before pursuing her doctorate.

In the 21st century, she says, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can learn to meditate, summon restless souls or give up religion altogether: "Religions are competing not only against each other, but against all other leisure-time activities."

"The secular has become more sacred and the sacred has become more secular," says Einstein. To illustrate the point, she refers to Texas megachurch pastor Joel Osteen and media mogul Oprah Winfrey. Osteen is a pastor, but his sermons are televised and attended by thousands, and there's always a ticker at the bottom of the screen or a graphic in the corner promoting Osteen's Web site or his book. Winfrey, a decidedly secular figure, inspires a sort of religious zeal in her fans. Her Web site invites visitors to improve themselves with a banner that reads, "Live your best life," and Winfrey herself describes her studio guests' appearances as "testimonials."

Einstein does not mean to suggest that religion is nothing more than a consumer product (though she emphasizes that it is indeed a product) or that consumer products may one day replace religion, but she does think marketers and religious figures can benefit from each other's strategies. She returns to Osteen:

"Think about him as a brand," she says. "He's the pastor of Lakewood Church. The church isn't the brand — Joel Osteen is the brand." Members of Osteen's flock all know the story of his reluctant rise to prominence from his former post in the production and marketing side of Lakewood and how he wore his father's shoes symbolically during his early days as his father's successor as pastor. Einstein says this elevation of Osteen from man to myth has been integral to Lakewood's success.

"Ultimately, it's about personal selling. It's about becoming an evangelist, whether you're talking about a Mac computer or you're talking about Jesus," she says. "It's the creating of a myth. It's the re-telling of a story."

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