Does Sony need a religious affairs adviser?
Does Sony need a full-time religious affairs adviser? Someone who says “that’s OK” or “whoa, don’t go there!” It looks like they could use one, judging by its decision to recall and remaster its Playstation 3 video game LittleBigPlanet because it might offend Muslims. LittleBigPlanet was supposed to be one of the biggest releases of the season. And then Sony found out some background music had a few phrases from the Koran in it and they decided to replace the disks with different music. An in-house religion maven who does some “content debugging” would cost much less than this embarrassing exercise.
Sony isn’t the only company to trip over religious sensitivities. Microsoft had to withdraw its Xbox fighter game Kakuto Chojin; Back Alley Brutal in 2003 because of Koran verses chanted in the background. Back in 1998, Muslims accused Nike of sacrilege for selling sneakers bearing a logo showing the word “air” written in fiery letters that looked like the Arabic word “Allah.” Nike ended up withdrawing the shoes, giving sensitivity training to employees and building playgrounds at several mosques in Virginia.
Muslims haven’t been the only ones complaining. A French jeans poster showing women imitating Jesus Christ and his apostles in the Leonardo da Vinci painting, “The Last Supper”, was banned in France and Italy after Catholics there complained. A leading anti-Semitism watchdog howled last spring when a South Korean cosmetics company advertised a skin lotion with a picture of a young woman sporting what appears to be a Nazi officer’s hat.
Not all protests work. Sony refused to withdraw another PS3 game, Resistance: Fall of Man, despite legal threats from the Church of England against shoot-’em-up scenes in a virtual representation of Manchester Cathedral. The company argued the game was fantasy sci-fi and that historical buildings were often used in fiction. In the end, it issued an apology last year but did not withdraw or change the game. And the publicity seems to have boosted sales…
What’s interesting here is that these are products that marketing departments presumably signed off on. They’re not organisations printing potentially provocative material, such as the Prophet Mohammad cartoons or The Jewel of Medina, as a statement on freedom of speech. These companies want to sell their products and either don’t see the possible offence or think the provocation can help sales.
What would the job description for religious affairs adviser to a large international consumer products corporation look like? Here are a few points the adviser would probably have to address:
1. Should companies simply avoid any reference to Islam at all? That would seem like the safest way to go, but as the Sony and Nike cases show, it is not always clear that such a reference has even been made. And some Muslims are not offended by references that others decry as sacreligious. Which Islamic authority should you consult to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not?
2 . How far can you push Christians? Lampooning Christians is widespread and certainly sells books, as Richard Dawkins could tell you. Most Christians don’t bother to threaten legal action in response. When the Church of England did, Sony toughed that one out. But there is growing talk about “Christianophobia” and some churches seem more ready to fight back. Will this become more of a minefield in the future?
3. What about Jews and Israel? What is anti-Semitic and what is not? Can you use a Jewish joke in an ad? Should your company or institution divest in Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians?
4. What about images from India? India is a treasure trove of exotic images, especially in its Hindu temples and religious festivals. But what do the symbols mean? Should any be avoided because they might offend others or be linked to the nasty fringe of Hindu nationalism?
5. At least Buddhism presents no problems, right? Well, you never know how the China vs. the Dalai Lama issue will work out. What if a company made DVDs or even some kind of interactive game about reaching spiritual enlightenment that included images of the Dalai Lama. How would Beijing react? Could it be commercially significant?
6. Can we ignore protests from religions X,Y or Z because they’re too small to upset our sales? Hmmm…
Send in any other questions you think a corporate religion specialist would face. My last one is — how much should a company pay someone who can get the answers right without cutting into sales?
UPDATE: MTV quotes the musician of the disputed song, Toumani Diabaté, as saying that quoting the Koran is his “way to attract and inspire people toward Islam.” Diabaté is a Muslim from Mali. The MTV report includes comments from two Muslims explaining that “there is no explicit rule in Islam prohibiting a song like Diabate’s.”