Multinational Monitor

JUL/AUG 2008
VOL 30 No. 1


No Escape: Marketing to Kids in the Digital Age
by Jeff Chester and Kathryn Montgomery

The Youngest Market: Baby Food Peddlers Undermine Breastfeeding
by Annelies Allain and Joo Kean

Intoxicating Brands: Alcohol Advertising and Youth
by David Jernigan

How Things Work: The FTC's Revolving Door
by Robert Weissman

Fighting Demons: Addressing the Perils of Financial Innovation
by Richard Bookstaber


Commercializing Childhood: The Corporate Takeover of Kids' Lives
an interview with Susan Linn

Pill Pushers: Pharmaceutical Marketing in an Overmedicated Nation
an interview with Melody Petersen

Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping
an interview with Bill Talen

The Debt Creators: Shady Lending, Misleading Marketing and Hard Times
an interview with José García


Letters to the Editor

Behind the Lines

Marketing Mania, Commercial Colonization

The Front
Freedom Flows in South Africa | Development and the Desert

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Greed At a Glance

Commercial Alert

Names In the News


Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping

An interview with Bill Talen

Bill Talen is more popularly known as “Reverend Billy.” He is an actor who began his anti-consumerism ministry in the mid-1990s as a sidewalk preacher outside the Disney Store in New York City’s Times Square. He leads the Church of Stop Shopping and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir and travels the country preaching against consumerism. He is the author of What Would Jesus Buy? Fabulous Prayers in the Face of the Shopocalypse (2006) and What Should I Do if Reverend Billy is in My Store? (2002).

Multinational Monitor: What is the Church of Stop Shopping?

Bill Talen: We call it a “radical performance community.” In keeping with our avowed first value of the group, we resist consumerism.

If you come to the Church of Stop Shopping, if you come to the “Fabulous Worship” of our church, if it’s a strong outing, then you don’t know for quite a while what to call it. Maybe the next day you might say it’s politics, it’s spirituality or it’s art. You might say it’s all three, eventually. But if you say it’s any one of those very quickly, in the course of the experience, then we’re not doing our job.

I would say that the Church of Stop Shopping is looking for a way to slow down the addiction to consumption that is central to the retail economy.

MM: Is there a physical church?

Talen: For five years we were inside the St. Mark’s church in the East Village in New York. But I would say this has got to be a moveable feast. We’re not at St. Mark’s as much as we used to be. We’re now at the Highline Ballroom. We perform at construction sites. We sing in super mall parking lots. We exorcise Starbucks cash registers. So we preach and sing in many places.

MM: When were you called to the ministry?

Talen: Back in the 1990s, I lived near Times Square. The most interesting people in the neighborhood were disappearing. Then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s henchmen were taking them into jails and hospitals. Venders and smaller shops were disappearing. Coming in was a phalanx of chain stores and big boxes and lawyers and cops, all led by Mickey Mouse. The Disney Company was coming to Times Square.

I was from the theater world, and there was no response except gratitude from the putative center of my art form, Broadway. They seemed to want to turn those public streets and sidewalks into a mall, to make it safe for tourism. I made the decision with my teacher Sidney Lanier, a maverick Episcopal priest, that the place to preach was in front of the Disney store.

I’d preach, “Mickey Mouse is the Anti-Christ, children. I want you to take your little tourist family away from this place. There’s nothing but sweatshop goods on these shelves.”

I put together a costume out of local thrift stores and started preaching, and that’s where it began. After a while, we would have town hall meetings on the sidewalk. People would gather around and discuss consumerism, and eventually we would start going into the Disney store. We’ve had town hall meetings inside the Disney store with the managers turning “Chim chim cher-ee” up really loud to keep us from talking to each other. That’s where it started.

MM: What happens when you go into the Disney store or Starbucks and give a sermon?

Talen: Well, the three levels in our trinity of evil are Disney, Wal-Mart and Starbucks. Disney, Wal-Mart and Starbucks are theatrical environments: they are heavily, heavily designed. In a Disney store, which we call the High Church of Retail, the hundreds of anthropomorphized animals that are clawing the air trying to get your attention — each of them supported by feature films and lunchware and YouTube productions — are heavily sold products. People in Disney stores are generally unable to talk, it’s such a mesmeric environment. They stutter in little hushed whispers.

When we come in performing one of our Retail Interventions, we come in with a play that reveals union busting, or an unfortunate model for the female body like Snow White, or the toxicity in the production of a toy. We come into reveal something through our theater. Usually we get in by pretending that we’re customers ourselves. Then we get dramatic.

In our Retail Interventions, we are performing a second kind of theater. You see the degree to which these retail environments are theatrical. The second a manager feels that his or her play or movie is being interrupted by another one, they always say, “Private property! Private property! You can’t be here, get out of here!” But they come running at you because you’re interrupting a dramatic narrative. They want to get their hands over your mouth as fast as they can. You’re interrupting the resident story.

Savitri and myself, the leaders of the Church of Stop Shopping, we’re both theater people — theater is our background, we’re playwrights. We discovered early on the presence of story-making, of narratives, in the hypnotizing delivery of products. So we seek to interrupt that. We sometimes call ourselves the Church of the Necessary Interruption.

MM: Does the nature of the interruption vary between Disney, Starbucks and Wal-Mart, given their different narratives?

Talen: Yes. Wal-Marts are as big as golf courses. For instance, we use an action invented by a group called Breathing Planet called the Whirl-Mart, which is where you walk silently in a long line pushing empty shopping carts, and it becomes a kind of zen parade that changes how people are talking throughout the entire big box. But you have to do something expansive because the store might be up to 200,000 square feet.

Starbucks is trying to imitate and appropriate café society, which, from Egypt to Zurich to the Village in New York, has been a place where alternative politics has originated. They present themselves as beatniks with the living room furniture that doesn’t match. They’re trying to convey rebelliousness, and they’re trying to be crowded in a sort of way. They’re imitating café society. There, we tend to come in and head straight to the cash register and exorcise it and do religious rituals, rhythmic dancing. We break that open in a different way.

We have 16 Retail Interventions on our website right now. Some of them are applicable to many kinds of retail environments. Others are specifically designed for a single kind of store.

MM: Some people may be taken aback by you calling these three large retailers the Devil’s Trinity. Why do you label them as such?

Talen: Two of them are sweatshop companies, and the third is not a fair trade company. Disney and Wal-Mart products are almost entirely sourced in sweatshop factories and shipped from the other side of the world.

Starbucks, of course, is dealing in coffee. Starbucks founder Howard Shultz essentially made his fortune by taking advantage of the collapsed globalized coffee market. He was able to pocket the difference between super-cheap supply and his $5 latté ventis. So the labor background of their products is similar.

All three are big media companies. Disney, of course, is a very old company with its roots in media. Wal-Mart moves 45 percent of all the DVDs in the United States market. With our movie, “What Would Jesus Buy,” we had a great deal of difficulty finding financing because of Wal-Mart’s market power. Starbucks has depoliticized the presence of Bob Dylan in our lives and seeks to appropriate all social justice movements associated with the 1960s and convert them into consumable media.

For progressive folks, it’s easier to see the evil in Disney, which controls and commodifies the wonder of children; and Wal-Mart, which has a famous sweatshop history and destroys the economies of small towns and neighborhoods. But a lot of people are still waltzing into Starbucks calling themselves liberals or progressives. In fact, Starbucks is 90 percent not fair trade. It has a history of busting its unions, it has been taken to court repeatedly. They are master marketers. Lots of folks assume they are fair trade because they have so many Juan Valdez-type pictures — pictures of Hispanic-looking people standing next to coffee plants, smiling. So we seek to give people the information they need to make a better decision.

MM: What was the Shopocalypse tour?

Talen: Two years ago, we went out across the country during the Christmas season. We left Times Square on Buy Nothing Day [the day after Thanksgiving], where we confronted the hoards at 5 a.m. at the front door of Macy’s. Then we got into two biodiesel buses and went out across the country to try and slow down the frenzied shopping at Christmas time. We preached and sang the message “What Would Jesus Buy,” but also tried to give people some history about Christmas. Historians think of the retailers that were operating in the mid-19th century as the inventors of Christmas. Sometime after the Clement Moore poem [‘Twas the Night Before Christmas], it was discovered that Christmas was a real retail opportunity. And the Santa figure and so forth are invented advertising creations that have now become aided and abetted by our habitual destruction of our memory. In our American culture, Santa has become some sort of an eternal Biblical figure.

So 30 days later, we were in Disneyland, and we jumped in front of Mickey Mouse, Snow White and Aladdin during their annual Christmas Day parade. All 50 of us in the Stop Shopping Choir had snuck in and we got in front of Mickey and sang the Shopocalypse song and preached to the assembled on December 25, 2005.
MM: And how were you received?

Talen: We believe that we got through to lots of folks. And certainly we got through to lots of folks with the film and the DVD. So far, the Shopocalypse tour is being revealed mostly in news programs. While the film was in commercial release this last Christmas, Katie Couric and Nightline and Geraldo and so forth, featured us in news segments discussing consumerism. The film was in 75 theaters across the country, but we were surprised and delighted that lots of people in the commercial media were in a mood this last Christmas to be self-critical about what Christmas has become. And they made Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping part of a conversation they were having about Christmas.

MM: How do you grow your flock? You’re telling people in the United States to renounce a core feature of their daily life, you’re calling central icons and tropes of U.S. culture the devil’s work. How do you reach people and shake them out of the culture?

Talen: Well, we didn’t know we could do this before we started doing it, but the idea of the Elmer Gantry rainmaker is an old, iconic figure in American culture. And the idea that you could take the Elvis-impersonating costume and hair of a 3 a.m. Christian Broadcasting Network televangelist and then have lefty text come out of the mouth — right-wing threads, left-wing words — that idea has been working. It brings humor and music to a subject that must have a critical commentary within it. It’s a way to bring the message without bringing the judgment.

Within our church, we’re all sinners, we’re all struggling with consumption. So we all forgive each other ahead of time and get to work.

Puritanism is a real challenge in delivering this message. People will come to an all-or-nothing stance in response to our message. They’ll say, “How can you stop shopping? How would I get up in the morning?” A lot of people play the hypocrisy card. They say, “But you took a jet to this performance” or “Where did you get that shirt?” They get upset that consumption would be called into question. The way they defend themselves is by proposing a kind of purity that no one will ever obtain.

I know it’s an emergency. The climate crisis reminds us of how much of an emergency it is. The Shopocalypse is not completely a joke. But with the wrong kind of finger pointing, the whole thing will just constrict and nothing will change. You’ve got to have some humor about it — even if it is the end of the world.

MM: One of your responses to that issue is “soulful spending.”

Talen: The idea is, let’s be conscious. Let’s have a visionary approach to making a purchase. There’s a product on the shelf in front of you, and that product has a past. There’s a labor history, it has an earth resources history.

Americans are taught by marketing to believe that the product just appeared on that shelf, that out of our entitlement it just appeared. So we’re stuck in this very bright, shallow moment of the purchase, the use, which leads very quickly to the waste.

No, there’s a past and there’s a future. The product is going somewhere after you’re done using it. Once you feel the past, once you have that visionary look through that window out into the past of the product and then turn around and see the future as well, then your political values around consumerism changes really quickly. You’re looking into the eyes of kids in sweatshops and so on.

One of our Retail Interventions is called “Shop Lift.” We just did it recently in Ithaca, New York. It was really wonderful. It was at a Starbucks, and about 30 of us went into the Starbucks and each took an object in our hands. And we started monologuing, imagining that object going backward. Imagining that object being on a dolly, and having a person walk it backward to a truck, and the truck drives backward to a ship, and the ship sails backward to another continent, and you go to the factories and you walk backward up into the mountains, and you put that metal piece that was in the napkin dispenser back in the earth, in the vein in the mountain where it belongs. And as you go backward in the imagination, back to the birth of that product, you’re saying it out loud and you’re raising the object in the air. So 20 minutes later, chairs, tables, coffee beans, computers, everything in the whole place is up in the air as high as people can reach. And there are customers trying to ignore us and keep their iPod stuffed in their ears. But 30 people have objects way up in the air and by that time we’re singing, back to the source of the project. Some of us end up in the ocean, some of us end up in seeds, some of us end up in mine shafts. We end up going back to the birth, back to the beginning of that thing we have in our hand.

MM: Why is performance so important? How does performance connect to community?

Talen: A healthy community will perform for each other a lot, in the Jane Jacobs’ sense of out on the sidewalk, in the doorway of a store, out on the stoop, in a park.

In a healthy community, we’re talking, listening, dancing, helping each other. We know each other’s histories. Samuel Delaney says if someone in your neighborhood walks past you three times, on the third time just stop and try to trade names. And after that come the stories, come the descriptions, come the explanations about life.

Performance becomes deleted from communities by the consumer society. Products get to take the free expression and humans become quieter, and our communicating becomes rougher and depoliticized.

We like to think of our performance as a reclamation of community. When we’re all on stage together, when everyone shows up, there are 50 of us. We’re from all over the world. The Church of Stop Shopping is from many faith and ethnic and gender backgrounds. And as we perform, trying to save a community, we’re also demonstrating community in the performance. We’re a bunch of people that somehow found each other up on stage from everywhere, from Korea, from Sweden, from Venezuela, and there we are up on stage and we’re singing “stop shopping, stop your shopping.”

That kind of politicized folk performance is a way that people in a healthy community live together. We try to demonstrate a healthy community but definitely point out the demon monoculture.

MM: Is it strategic to talk about evil?

Talen: I do believe that we have lost our ability to identify evil and say, “You know what? That is evil.” Obviously we have — we’re putting up with the Iraq War. We’re still calling it patriotic. We’ve lost our ability to identify evil in our midst.

Advertising campaigns by corporations are now all “green.” But there is a built-in gradualism in the corporate green programs that is in fact inadequate. They don’t know how to shout “emergency.” They can’t because they are a fundamentalist religion. They worship increasing their income in their quarterly reports, quarter after quarter after quarter. They are responsible to their shareholders and Wall Street and that is the source of their fundamentalist faith. They can’t shout emergency. They can’t be radical Americans.

Right now, we must be radical Americans. We must be a generation of radical Americans like the people that founded this country, like the people that abolished slavery, like the people that defeated fascism in the last century, like the civil rights movement, like the labor movement. We must do that now.

We must rise up and do something. It will not be not the result of gradualism. There’s going to be something embarrassing and uncomfortable about it, in fact, risky. We have to have that moment now. A corporation can’t lead that charge.

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