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Pagan Passion

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And Now My Little Pretty: This magazine ad for Camel cigarettes has sparked outrage in the Wiccan community, which claims it casts witches in a bad light.

Local practitioners of the Wicca faith are doing a slow burn over a culturally insensitive Camel ad

By Jim Rendon

BRIN-MARIE MCLAUGHLIN doesn't have yellow teeth or green skin. But the 33-year-old freelance Web page designer is a witch--a priestess of the Wicca religion--and therefore a Pagan. And she's angry.

When she opened her September issue of Glamour and thumbed past the springy Wonderbra girl and The Frizz Report, McLaughlin saw something that sent her running for the eye of newt.

McLaughlin took offense at a two-page full-color Camel cigarette ad that employed icons of her religion to sell smokes. It was only a matter of days before McLaughlin put up a Web site protesting Camel's use of Pagan books and imagery, which joined other Pagan Web sites already circulating on the Internet encouraging boycotts and letter-writing campaigns against the cigarette manufacturer.

The ad depicts a candle-filled room with three twentysomething women sitting around a glass table, poking pins in a voodoo doll. Books on Paganism are tucked into the image, covered in dripping wax and obscured by a pack of Camels. In the middle of the table stands a crystal ball. Two of the women have smokes wedged between their fingers.

Framed pictures of a man, meant to depict an ex-boyfriend, are shattered on the floor. In the bottom left corner, the text reads: "Viewer discretion is advised. This ad contains: SR Shattered Romance, RF Revenge Fantasy, UA Unauthorized Acupuncture. Mighty Tasty!"

The ad, featured in a host of publications like Vogue, Entertainment Weekly and some newspapers, roused Pagans of all stripes to call upon the muse and pen letters of protest. Pagans from the Bay Area to Miami have been putting up Web pages, writing letters and sending out the vibe to get some respect.

Paul Langlois, a Wiccan priest living in the Santa Cruz hills who at one time studied to be a Catholic priest, is another pissed-off Pagan. He works with a group of 200 local believers, many of whom drive over the hill from San Jose for celebrations. He says that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Camel's parent company, would never misrepresent another religion like they have his. Langlois says this is just the latest manifestation of 1,700 years of dumping on Pagans.

The "Revenge Fantasy" portrayed in the ad by the voodoo doll is of particular concern. "Revenge is not what we do," says McLaughlin, a convert since 1990. Pagan religions, she says, are about personal responsibility, not personal attacks. Magic potions and midnight hexes don't figure into the daily life of a late-20th-century witch. "We go to the bank and the grocery store like everyone else," she says. "We don't go around zapping people with a magic wand."

Paul Langlois says the ad represents a double standard. "If it had a picture of a Koran or a Bible, or texts from a more traditional faith, people would be up in arms." Pagans, he says, have gotten a bum rap ever since the Romans joined up with the Christians and turned religion into an empire. Today, he says, "Hollywood and Disney teach that it is OK to dump negative connotations on Paganism."

When Hollywood depicts witches casting evil spells to achieve selfish ends, Langlois, says, moviemakers are bastardizing an important religious practice similar to what Christians do when they pray. "Prayer is a positive thing." he says. "You don't do it because of a crush, or envy, or to get the cute boy down the block to fall in love with you."

Individuals have their own spin on the religion, says K.C. Anton, longtime Wiccan and president of the Bay Area Pagan Assemblies in Mountain View. But whatever they are doing, Pagans are not out in the woods taking a knife to Fluffy's throat, hoping to entice Satan to dance the jig in a pentagram.

Like the word "Christianity," Paganism has many meanings. Most followers are nature-centric, worshipping the changing of the seasons rather than the big days of the saints. Most Pagan religions tend to be derived from pre-Christian Northern European traditions and other nature-focused beliefs and recognize multiple gods, some masculine, some feminine.

And contrary to the Camel ad, they are not out sticking pins in dolls. The creative folks at Mezzina/Brown, the agency that produced the ad, apparently got their religious stereotypes confused. Nobody from the agency was available for comment at press-time.

A lot of Pagans in the Bay Area have been burned by bad press, because breaking through the stereotypes can be tough, Anton says. As a result, practitioners of Wicca often prefer to stay out of the spotlight. In fact, they are so publicity-shy, he and others have succeeded in making their religion sound like a night out on the town with a bus full of Lutherans.

"We have an open spirituality ceremony at the Palo Alto Unitarian Church," he says, describing the ritual as an "open forum." The rituals and celebrations sound pretty tame, apparently including a lot of reflecting and talking. The big event at some ceremonies is a spiral dance similar to a schoolyard favorite, crack the whip.

LIKE MANY MEDIA IMAGES, Camel's ad went for splash over the more mundane reality--but not so much that it avoided any trace of authenticity. Included among the witchy brew of paraphernalia captured in the ad is a book by Silver RavenWolf called To Stir a Magick Cauldron.

Though the title has been blurred, and the cover is conveniently obscured by a pack of cigarettes, it was not enough to throw off the faithful. RavenWolf says that she first heard about the ad in a email from a fan. She spent an evening searching for a copy of Rolling Stone, but despite her powers, she was unable to turn one up. The next day another fan letter arrived with a copy of the ad folded in.

"It's rather amusing," says RavenWolf of the pin-pricked doll. "Nowhere in this book is there reference to getting back at someone or hurting anybody." They must have picked the book out of a secondhand shop without looking at it, she speculates.

Though RavenWolf says that the agency's use of the book was most likely protected by law, she is looking into the possibility of legal action. "If I had to stand in front of a judge and show that the book was recognizable, I could show him thousands of comments from people [who noticed the book in the ad]."

CAROLE CROSSLIN, a public relations representative for R.J. Reynolds, Camel's parent company, insists that the company blundered into the situation entirely by accident. "The ad was intended to depict the trauma of adult dating, and how someone imagines venting their anger," she says. "We did not realize it would infringe on anyone's belief." The ad, she says, was meant to depict a fantasy.

Perhaps there are not as many Pagans in North Carolina as there are ringing the bay.

The protest has had some impact, but it is unlikely to bring the tobacco giant to its knees. "We've had a handful of complaints," Crosslin says, "but that's not unusual, being in the tobacco business."

Though Anton does not find as much fault with the ad as others, he is amused by the ad agency's sloppy research job. He points out that RavenWolf's book is about Wicca, while voodoo, represented by the pin-cushion man, has African and Caribbean roots. "They are completely different. You can get on the Net and in 10 minutes you can find that out," he says.

Despite the problems, Anton says the ad confirms that Pagan religion is catching on. McLaughlin is also hopeful that more people are beginning to see her religion as real faith, more about growth and empowerment than hocus-pocus. She says that even her husband, whom she describes as a lapsed Catholic, has been known to ask the goddess for a parking space.

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From the September 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro.

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