Thursday, 25 August 2011
Doctor Jesus - Curing Cancer With Ribena
Ofcom has ruled against the evangelical channel Believe TV for promoting Ribena and an olive-oil soap as a cure for cancer and other diseases, including heart disease, ovarian cysts and a bit of an achey back. The soap can also 'grow new kidneys'.
There's no need for a scientific analysis of why these things can't cure cancer or anything else. There's no need for randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, peer reviewed testing. Whether it's olive oil, Ribena or any other substance, these are just props. They have no inherent curative properties, which is why they are not cures for specific problems. Paul Lewis of Believe TV has also claimed that a bath with Miracle Olive Oil Soap can help if you're behind with your mortgage. What really cures is faith - it's the active ingredient. God can work through anything if you believe. If they don't work, it's because of a lack of faith.
It's the products' USP and a marketing ploy that must be the envy of all advertisers - if a product doesn't work, there's no money-back guarantee because it's the consumer who's faulty, not the product.
What's more, if a tumour or a bad back does disappear, it can't be proven that it wasn't cured by faith even if the patient was receiving conventional treatment at the same time.
This is where miracle cures are different from other forms of alternative medicine, which always have some sort of pseudo-science theory behind them.
Many adverts involve an element of faith, which could be described as the triumph of hope over reason. We believe that products will make us more successful, more attractive or thinner, that they will make us live longer. We have faith that the companies will do what the adverts say they will. If they don't work, we often have legal recourse or we can switch to another brand.
Paul Lewis and others like him are not selling a lifestyle, they're selling life. The stakes are much higher than promising shinier hair. And there is no other brand, he has a monopoly.
There is a kind of transformative magic at work like the one that changes the communion wine and wafer into the real body of Christ. Any bit of bread or bottle of wine will do. It's the same process that shamen and witch doctors have used for millennia, an infusion of magic.
As cultural norms evolve, so does who we trust and believe. Miracle workers are culture-specific; the shaman evolves into the tele-evangelist. Their props are also culture-specific; Ribena wouldn't work in a culture where it wasn't a known brand, for example. The transferable commodity between cultures and down through history is faith, the human propensity to believe the unbelievable.
Paul Lewis knows that people who buy Miracle Olive Oil Soap wouldn't rub a toad on themselves because that's not the current cultural practice. He and others like him know that they can operate only within certain cultural parameters using culturally familiar artefacts and familiar practices like taking a bath. Olive oil is a benign substance (with Biblical connotations) and while Ribena may seem an odd choice, it's comfortingly familiar with overtones of childhood nostalgia. It's just good marketing sense.
With culturally-embedded practices and a clause to prevent claims for refunds, it's a win-win situation. It's also why, no matter how many times Ofcom or the Advertising Standards Authority ban the promotion of a cure, there will always be another one.
The Doctor Jesus series is here, here, here, here and here.