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Eat Pray Buy!

Consumer Spirituality in Age of Oprah

Monday, August 16, 2010 3:30 PM Comments (3)

Will the new Julia Roberts movie Eat Pray Love encourage viewers to buy into spiritual ideas? Or will it just encourage them to buy?

Fans of Liz Gilbert’s “Gnosh-tic lit” memoir can now wear their spirituality on their sleeve … on their whole wardrobe, in fact, not to mention their fragrance and jewelry, plus a raft of other merchandising tie-in products, from wine and tea to a $400 replica day bed like the one Roberts used in Bali.

Hollywood Reporter:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling 2006 memoir launched a self-discovery movement that could best be described by its full title: “Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.”

Although Sony Pictures has simplified the title, the ongoing search for “everything” remains an integral part of the movie release Friday—especially if “everything” includes the slew of merchandising items, from the “I Deserve Something Beautiful” lotus petal necklace (Dogeared Jewels and Gifts, $72) to the “Only True Love Remains” organic tee (Signorelli, $45) to the official prayer beads (World Market, $4.99).

Last week I wrote in my review:

In our consumerist therapeutic culture, if your life has fallen apart and you want to find yourself, heal yourself, indulge yourself, and possibly find God—or whatever is the next best thing—you can take a year off and travel to exotic places, like Italy, India and Indonesia, if you can afford it.

If you can’t afford it … then you can at least buy the book, watch the Oprah show, and go see the movie.

If only I had known. Of course the spiritual impulses of Liz Gilbert’s legions of fans—sometimes called “Lizbians”—can’t be satisfied with a mere book purchase or movie ticket. After all, Liz spent four months eating pasta and pizza in Italy, four months getting in touch with her spirituality in India and four months finding balance and love in Bali. Why shouldn’t fans splurge on their spiritual well-being too, even if world travel is a bit beyond some price ranges?

Actually, even world travel is part of the tie-in marketing:

Along with an entire weekend extravaganza devoted to “Love” on the HSN shopping network—one of the campaign’s biggest components—there’s a 21-day trip to “Love” locations being given away by STA Travel, trumpeted by Borders bookstores …

Along with Roberts’ star power and female-friendly themes of soul-searching and empowerment, the movie is rife with spinoff possibilities thanks to its sectioning by idyllic location: Italy (Eat), India (Pray) and Bali (Love).

The exotic locales proved a natural fit for Cost Plus World Market stores, which placed prominent special sections in its 263 locations featuring items split into the specific countries.

And, of course, in the karma of tie-in merchandising, the movie helps sell the merchandise, but the merchandise also helps sell the movie:

But rather than just selling the adult equivalent of Transformers toys, the bigger task is creating an event movie that builds excitement and leads to that much-needed big opening weekend for “Love.” … One rival studio marketing honcho said Sony “has done a clever job of putting a thematic umbrella over the movie’s promotion.” The exec added, “It’s not how many ‘Eat Pray Love’ prayer beads they are going to sell, it’s about getting messages out about the movie that money cannot buy.”

Movie merchandising is nothing new, of course. I own some myself: Star Wars action figures; a Harold Lloyd T-shirt. What I think is new here is (a) a major “event” marketing push to a distinctly adult audience, cloaked by (b) an Oprahesque aura of pious sororal rectitude and empowerment. It’s like the old MasterCard commercials that pay lip service to the idea that the most important things in life are “priceless” while somehow in the same breath insinuating that these too are among the many fringe benefits of using MasterCard.

Buy Love-branded clothing from Susan Wong or a signature T-shirt from Signorelli, and you’re showing that you are deeper than our shallow consumerist culture. (By contrast, my Star Wars action figures are cheerfully and blatantly commercial, and marketed to the 12-year-old in me, not the grown-up.) You aren’t being sold, you’re buying spiritual fulfillment. It isn’t a year abroad, but it’s the next best thing.

Filed under movies

About Steven D. Greydanus

SDG
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Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register and Decent Films, the online home for his film writing. He writes regularly for Christianity Today, Catholic World Report and other venues, and is a regular guest on several radio shows. Steven has contributed several entries to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, including “The Church and Film” and a number of filmmaker biographies. He has also written about film for the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. He has a BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MA in Religious Studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA. He is pursuing diaconal studies in the Archdiocese of Newark. Steven and Suzanne have seven children.