May 17, 2007
— Joe Laycock
Combining ingredients such as frankincense and myrrh, Virtue® is a perfume inspired by Biblical ingredients and marketed as a tool for spiritual attainment. The product's literature advises the consumer to "hold it in Sacred regard as a means to train yourself to readily contact your Spiritual Self," so as to "serve both your worldly fragrance needs and provide a means of focusing your Spiritual Intent." Pioneered by Vicki Pratt and Rick Larimore, Virtue retails for $80 a bottle.
A product like Virtue reveals much about the changing face of lived religion in America. There was a time when mainstream American Protestantism would have been highly suspicious of associating Christianity with a scent. Fragrances, images, and other sensory experiences were once considered to be the hallmarks of Catholic idolatry. But in 2004 the "Christian retail market" — selling Christian versions of everything from golf-balls to gangsta rap — hit $4.3 billion in sales. The suggestion of idolatry has been largely circumvented by marketing these products as tools for evangelism. For example, creators of Virtuous Woman, a rival fragrance to Virtue, imagine that their perfume caters "to the needs of women who are interested in incorporating a passion for sharing their faith with a beauty product that makes them feel and smell really good."
Health and beauty products have appropriated motifs from Eastern religions for years. The Gap, for instance, began marketing a fragrance called "Om" in 1996. What is interesting in the case of Virtue is that it carefully straddles its marketing campaign between Christianity and eclectic spirituality. It is marketed as a tool not for evangelism, but for a sort of vague spiritual attainment. The scent is designed "to help maintain that sometimes tenuous, conscious link with our sacred center of pure Being, our Heart of Hearts, the great eternal ~ I AM."
The manufacturer's website states that "creating Virtue has been an adventurous journey through fragrance and scripture, with remarkable miracles confirming our choices." This "creation narrative," describing the conception of the product, assumes an essentialist view of religious experience: Diverse traditions are reduced to approaches all arriving at a religious experience that is universal and homogenous. Pratt and Larimore explain that Christianity is their preferred mode for achieving their spiritual goals. The designers also note that many religious traditions equate a scent with saintliness, citing the smell associated with twentieth-century saint Padre Pio.
Such marketing schemes play upon America's well-known lack of religious literacy. (Stephen Prothero's book Religious Literacy, with its damning quiz results, is one prominent recent commentary on this phenomenon.) In such a religiously under-literate environment, Virtue's marketing campaign may have an active impact on American religious life, as a kind of "corporate theologian" perpetuating a blending of spirituality and consumer culture.
Consider, for example, the use of scripture. Describing how to use Virtue with "spiritual intent," the product website quotes Psalm 46:10 (though the quote is mistakenly attributed to Psalm 45): "Be still, and know that I am God." Similarly, in emphasizing the significance of their product's name, the marketers cite Mark 5:30: "And Jesus immediately knew in himself that virtue had gone out of Him, turned Him about in the press and said, who touched my clothes?" Here, scriptural "endorsement" masquerades as spiritual ethos.
Meanwhile, fuzzy scriptural interpretation is used to validate the choice of ingredients that go into the perfume. The website informs readers that apricot was probably the original forbidden fruit. Using the forbidden fruit for spiritual attainment is described cryptically as a "subtle turning of the tables." For too many American consumers, this mystifying promotional theology, which garbs spiritual confusion in biblical mystique, may be their only encounter with Biblical exegesis.
But perhaps most importantly, Virtue is currently accepting applications from religious groups and missionary organizations that wish to sell the product as a means to raise money. Religious groups seeking to support themselves by selling the fragrance (along with a pamphlet on the spiritual application of the perfume) may find themselves endorsing not only the company's product, but also its hazy, Christian-eclectic religious perspective.
If we are disturbed by the idea of corporations having this sort of influence over religious organizations, we should remember that capitalism appeals to what is already in the religious consciousness of the consumer — in this case, a penchant for pick-and-choose spirituality that mimics the market of which it is ever more thoroughly a part. Products like Virtue thus serve to strengthen and nourish trends that are already present in American lived religion.
The official website of Virtue is: http://www.virtueperfume.com/.
A press release on Virtue edited by Carly Zander ("World's First Spiritual Perfume Introduced; Virtue® Reminds Wearer of God," send2press.com, April 3, 2007) can be read at: http://www.send2press.com/newswire/2007-04-0403-003.shtml.
Stephanie Simon's article "Christian Retailers Put Their Print
on Products" (Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2006) can be read
after registering at: http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/la-na-
Joseph Laycock is an independent scholar and currently teaches secondary school in Atlanta.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism: Religious, Irreligious, and Areligious" by W. Clark Gilpin. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings welcomes submissions of 500 to 750 words in length that seek to illuminate and interpret the forces of faith in a pluralist society. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. The editor also encourages new approaches to issues related to religion and public life.
Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Please send all inquiries, comments, and submissions to Jeremy Biles, managing editor of Sightings, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe, unsubscribe, or manage your subscription at the Sightings subscription page.