The increasing popularity of Buddhism has been accompanied by the appropriation in our consumer culture of Buddhist symbols ....
In particular Buddhist images have been employed to advertise non-Buddhist products from credit cards, computers, and vacuum cleaners to tea and dog food. Two years ago we reported differing views about adverts that use Buddhist images. Paul Seto, the UK's Network of Buddhist Organisations (NBO) secretary, said there was a view among members that Buddhist images need to be defended in the promiscuous world of the modern media. He therefore wrote complaint letters to the regulatory authorities, clients and advertising agencies. Paul Seto reports that the campaigns against which the NBO raised objections were withdrawn or not repeated. 'Most advertisers we contacted apologised.'
NatWest used a golden image of the Buddha, altered so that he was winking to endorse the product, with text that read: 'Reach a higher state more easily. Searching for the path to true happiness? Get a NatWest gold card. For further enlightenment, visit one of our branches'. The bank insisted they meant no offence. The image was used because it was from the Orient and, being golden, it fitted in with the art design brief. NatWest assured the NBO they would look at their themes more closely in future, and would not repeat the advert.
Winalot dog food said they had used an Asian actor dressed in Buddhist monastic robes because 'European consumers perceive eastern wise men as having knowledge and expertise in herbal remedies, and our pet food product contains chicory, a relatively unknown ingredient. We believed the oriental character would be credible and interesting.' They also said they would not repeat the advert.
Paul Seto reports that the Advertising Standards Authority has taken note of Buddhist responses and has agreed to take them into account in formulating guidelines in future. Two years later there has been a notable reduction in the use of Buddhist images to sell unrelated products. In addition several Buddhist groups have joined the NBO because this success has demonstrated its effectiveness and relevance in matters of general concern to Buddhists in Britain.
The NBO was formed in 1993. It began as a gathering of various Buddhist organisations who wanted to work together in matters of common concern and promote harmony and dialogue between Buddhists of different traditions in Britain. Its first major project was inviting the Dalai Lama to the uk in 1996. During that visit he gave teachings on the Four Noble Truths.