Brand Name Buddhism

"Pop religion sells."

"Pop religion sells."

Despite its communist government, Vietnam remains steeped in Buddhist tradition and animist spirituality. You can see it in the dun- and pink-colored pagodas, the ancestor shrines on every street corner, and the incense sticks burning in the bumpers of transport trucks.

It’s a unique combination, a culture shaped by not one but two ostensibly anti-materialist philosophies, and it makes it especially intriguing that Vietnam is now being introduced to the fine art of advertising. In the early 1990s, the country opened its doors to the free market, and termed this political maneuvering “market socialism.” So while Prime Minister Phan Van Khai’s government continues to control the media, the brand names are given free reign.

This clutch of paradoxical ideologies — communism, capitalism, spirituality, materialism — has resulted in some fascinating marriages. Take, for instance, a commercial for OMO powder detergent I saw on television the other day. It reached levels of marketing sophistication I had not yet witnessed in Vietnam.

Before this commercial, I had noticed two distinct types of advertising around the city. The first was typified by the giant billboards for Kodak, Samsung, or Ford which hover above the cityscape, each featuring products that most Vietnamese cannot afford. The second advertising scheme comes in the  ploys of local storekeepers. My favorite is when the sly shopkeeper puts meat on a grill outside his restaurant and sits behind said grill with a hand-held fan. The savory smoke wafts into the street, mixing with exhaust fumes to lure in customers.

These examples reveal the two poles of consumerism in Vietnam: It ranges from as-yet-unattainable dreams to local survival tactics. What the OMO commercial does is to find a bridge between these worlds. It is a global Unilever brand that uses national — and spiritual — values to sell a product. Sound familiar? It reminds me of the Philadelphia cream cheese commercial aired in North America a few years ago. The ad featured angels sitting on clouds and proclaiming that the product tasted heavenly. They even alluded to the Big Daddy Bagel himself. Pop religion sells, as the Unilever international marketing team must have realized.

I first viewed the OMO commercial while sitting in a local train station in Danang. The train was its usual one hour behind schedule, so I had plenty of time to watch television. In the browns and grays of the train station, the colors sparkled on screen and I watched in awe.

The story told in the commercial goes like so: A young man in a crowded outdoor market, walking and enjoying the sunshine, sees an older woman struggling to lift a bonsai tree off the ground. He runs to help her. For his kindness, he gets mud on his crisp white shirt. But the old lady then spies a young girl falling in front of a display of brightly plumed feather dusters. The older lady rushes over to lend a hand. The young girl, in getting on her feet, leaves a muddy print on the elderly lady’s blouse.

Events continue to unfold as the girl sees a basket of produce spill out of a nearby truck. Running over, she helps a peddler pick up the guava fruit, and smiles toothily in his rear view mirror as he drives away, leaving dirt on her pink t-shirt. The tale then moves from the city to a countryside featuring verdant green fields and an intense blue sky. Continuing the cycle, the truck driver helps push a tourist bus out of the mud. The wheels turn, turn, then catch, leaving the man and several peasants waving good-bye with dirt splattered across their shirt fronts. The camera pans up the blue heavens, which are framed by sprigs of apricot blossoms and the message: “If you do good deeds during Tet, you will have luck in the coming year.”

Tet, which is Vietnam’s lunar New Year (this year it falls at the end January), is the most important spiritual and cultural holiday of the country. Tet is a time for visiting, feasting, and renewal; a time to forgive the problems of the last year and gather hope for the new. During these special days, all the good and bad actions you perform have great weight, and will influence your luck for the rest of the year.

In the weeks before the holiday, every house is decorated with peach, apricot blossoms, ancestral shrines and good cheer to welcome visitors. This preparation welcomes visitors from two worlds, for ancestral spirits are the guests of honour for the first days of Tet.

One of the pre-Tet rituals is to throughly spring clean your home, as there can be no cleaning during the three days of Tet. According to ancient legends, if you sweep your house during the transition from the new year to the old, you may sweep out good luck along with the debris.

So, with all of this in mind, I will translate the message in the OMO ad: Karma, it is all about karma. Every cause has an effect, as we witnessed in the commercial with each person maintaining the chain of events. However, their actions were also good actions, which helps accumulate merit and luck for this life and the next. These are essential rules that any proper Vietnamese Buddhist would understand. Good karma may help your clever marketing of grilled meat succeed in the months ahead. Or it may help you avoid being reborn as that splotch of mud on a peasant’s shirt. Go ahead and wade in, help out, get dirty! OMO can clean you up to welcome in the New Year.

I realize it is entirely possible to question this interpretation. Could I just be projecting my fledgling knowledge of Buddhism onto the colorful display? Can I really claim to understand the layers of meaning that would reel in a Vietnamese consumer? A recent conversation has given me reason to believe so.

On a visit to a pagoda in Hue city, I became engaged in a long dharma talk with a monk. I mentioned the OMO commercial in passing and the monk’s eyes lit up.

“Oh, yes, that film!” he said, becoming quite passionate. “It really shows what Buddhism is, and I think it shows the ‘interbeing’ idea talked about by Thay!” he exclaimed, using the affectionate nickname of the famous Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “We have been talking about it a lot,” he motioned to another bald, grinning, brown-robed monk sitting nearby, “and we think it is a valuable message.”

With a cynicism bred from critical media classes I said, “But it was used to sell a product!”

The monk would have none of that. He just looked at me and said, “Yes, but it was beautiful, and many Vietnamese people will understand.”

I had to admit I somewhat agreed with him. And, besides, did I really need to get into an argument about capitalism with a man who had renounced all earthly goods except his TV and computer? Instead of further debate, we continued our discussion about Buddhist psychology. The monk explained how the mind is a “storage container” for seeds of emotions — anger, sadness, love — which can then reemerge later in life and effect our decisions and mental states.

I wondered to myself: was this a bit like watching a commercial and a week later having a sudden urge to buy OMO? No, completely different, of course. Yet these days there are unclear boundaries between the sacred and the sold.

Melissa Benner is currently "eating Tet," as it is termed, in Vietnam. In between meals, she works as an international development intern and an aspiring writer.