Year 13 -- A brand name for your soul

Anyone strolling through last year's National Funeral Directors Association convention could catch glimpses of Baby Boomer heaven.

The Baltimore exhibits included "fairway to heaven" caskets for those especially devout golfers and NASCAR models for true fans that have seen their last race, at least in this life. The goal, said a convention spokesman, is to offer dying consumers the same kinds of choices that they demanded in life.

What's next? Allowing people to defray some funeral expenses via product-endorsement logos, like the ones on golf caps and racing cars? If there is a Harley-Davidson casket -- yes, there is one -- can a Lexus model be far behind? Could a user re-boot his Microsoft casket?

I cannot answer such soul-wrenching questions. But every year I do mark this column's anniversary by weaving together a few bizarre items that loiter in my files. For year No. 13, the designer-casket news snapped into place next to a story from The Financial Times.

It seems that the prestigious Young & Rubicam advertising agency is convinced many brand names have become substitute religions. They provide meaning for millions of believers who gradually become what they consume while taking communion, so to speak, at the mall.

"The brands that are succeeding are those with strong beliefs and original ideas," said an agency report. "They are also the ones that have the passion and energy to change the world, and to convert people to their way of thinking though outstanding communications."

When true believers think of Apple, Calvin Klein, Gatorade, Volvo, MTV, Starbucks, Nike and Virgin, they don't just think of products. These uncompromising "belief brands" help establish a sense of identity, according to Young & Rubicam. They are icons that define lives.

Are ad men our new priests and evangelists? With that in mind, ponder this.

* Up in Vancouver, some Canadian Christians were not amused by "Second Coming" ads for the Playland Amusement Park, which included a turnstile clicking ominously to "666." The park had just added two new rides -- the "Hellevator" and the "Revelation."

* While many were offended by "Yo' Mama's Last Supper," a work of modern art that depicted Jesus as a nude black woman, an exhibit in Chicago offered up "The Last Pancake Breakfast," with Christ as Mrs Butterworth.

* Leaders of Southern California's 600,000 Muslims were not amused by Los Angeles Times ads juxtaposing images of bikini-clad California women with women in Islamic attire, linked by the slogan "Connecting Us to The Times." The newsroom staff protested, too, and the ads were soon phased out.

* In other multicultural news, shoppers noted changes in Nativity images last year in London. In a few, Joseph had been omitted to avoid offending female single parents. Wire-service reports also described tableaus in which a female figure replaced Joseph, to appeal to what the survey called those with "Sapphic," or lesbian, "inclinations."

* Here's another British innovation with mass appeal. The Anglican vicar of All Saints Parish in Guildford advertised a Harry Potter service complete with wizards, costumes, broomsticks, "Muggle songs" (hymns) and a non-flying version of a "quidditch" game.

The church's doorway was decorated as the King's Cross Station platform on which J.K. Rowling's characters catch the train to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There was even a serpent banner for the ominous House of Slytherin, along with other Hogwarts decorations. The London Times said other parishes quickly requested copies of the liturgy.

* Can one purchase inner peace and salvation? The satirists at have their doubts. They published a fake press release for an imaginary snack meant to ease the "hideously bleak emptiness of modern life. ... We're proud to introduce T.C. McCrispee's as the antidote you've been reaching out for. Our tasty new snack cracker will, if only for a few lovely moments, significantly lessen the aching, gnawing angst that haunts your very soul."

Participants in taste tests testified that the "satisfying crunch distracted them from the parade of tears that is life." A faux spokesperson summed up the campaign: "We're selling more than a cracker here. We're selling the salty, unctuous illusion of happiness."