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Magic is a fundamental part of capitalism and its practices. What can TikTok, GPS, and a box of Kleenex tell us about its power to enchant and transform?

Magic is a widespread practice and belief system that mitigates uncertainty, dispels ambiguity, and precipitates change through nonrational or alternative means. In our modern world that thrives on drama, theatricality, deception, illusory feats, fake news, and tweets, where the so-called rational and irrational coexist and continuously make contesting claims of reality, there is increasing room for uncertainty, mystery, the unknown, and seemingly nonrational alternatives. Magic, once thought primitive, outdated, and opposed to rational, bureaucratic, and progressive practices of contemporary life, is now considered its complement. Not only is magic modern, it is also essential to capitalism and its many forms of practice. 

Magic is a fundamental presence in fields of finance, government, law, medicine, technology, advertising, marketing, sports, the gaming industry, theater, social media and more. Because these institutions foster complex social networks that operate under conditions of great uncertainty and yet must deliver products and services to delight their audiences, they rely on magic, enchantment, and some deft sleight of hand to accomplish their ends. 

Navigating uncertainty 

Whether in open sea fishing, economic forecasting, profit-making activity, or the outcome of fashion production, magic deals with the uncertainty of people’s knowledge of the world. It offers a sense of control over such unpredictable events. Yet magical beliefs and their rituals necessitate practical and rational knowledge to secure success—this is what makes it so viable for capitalistic practices today.  

Bronislaw Malinowski observed that while Trobrianders performed magical ceremonies over their gardens to ward off the unpredictable, they also applied practical skill and organization as gardeners, employing detailed knowledge of plants, soil types, and garden care to ensure a successful crop. Institutional magic is often similarly surrounded by strict organizing principles, such as the organization and division of ad agency rituals arranged at times to conceal ideas before a pitch and reveal them afterwards to assure practical thought leadership. Such organization and juxtaposition of contrasts is not only a distinct function of magic but promises order and assurance in an uncertain world (Will my garden grow? Will an ad campaign resonate with audiences?).     

Capitalism itself is an uncertain prospect. Nigel Thrift contends that capitalism does not consist of neat whole systems of “unities and totalities,” but rather is highly unstable, “unfinished,” in constant flux, and continuously changing in form and practice, as it is “uncertain about the future and yet depends upon it.” Similarly, corporations are comprised of malleable fields and shifting networks, which are only partly in control as “constantly mutating entities.” Koray Çalişkan and Michel Callon convey this new capitalist ideology in their examination of economization, a term applied to the experiments and new configurations that denote “the processes that constitute the behaviors, organizations, institutions and, more generally, the objects in a particular society which are tentatively and often controversially qualified by social scientists and market actors as ‘economic.’” The economy, then, is a qualifying achievement, always in the making, rather than a fixed starting point or pre-existing reality. 

Magical qualities align with conditions of capitalism, since both are practiced under tenuous circumstances and, through many of their forms, use particular kinds of rigorous practices, rational divisions, and ideology to deal with ambiguity and unpredictability while promising change. Magic and modernity have always existed together; magic is an essential complement to the practical. In the same way Bruno Latour describes religious experience, magic offers a “renewed sense of presence,” up close, present, and transformative, where “possibility arises” and “fate is overcome.” In contrast to supposedly rational science, which is often more aloof and mystical in its invisible subatomic quarks and unfathomable black holes. The magical and the modern are not opposed because, as a construction and complementary version of reality, each becomes a “synonym” for the other.

Credit: Collen Pesci

Stories of enchantment 

A TikTok video. A person in crash helmet and jumpsuit is ski-diving in freefall towards snow-covered mountain peaks, displaying acrobatic poses mid-air before deploying a parachute emblazoned with the Red Bull logo, and finally landing to ski down a powdery white slope.  

Red Bull, a pioneer in viral digital content, leads among the most popular and successful brands on TikTok. Their account has over 6.6 million followers and videos with the #givesyouwings hashtag have been viewed over one billion times. Known for its audacious marketing stunts, the company’s TikTok videos hook audiences with engaging content that provokes a sense of rapt incredulity. In this aerial feat, the “Red Bull gives you wings” message appears as a literal expression of the scene, so that the brand assumes a form of magical realness in the awe-inspiring disbelief its visual presents to viewers.   

This is how social media incorporates the mimetic transfer process: the message appears enhanced by the media. Through this social media magic act the advertised image of the brand suggests to consumers a magical transfer of likeness of reality, such that the magical power of the message is transferred to the commodity itself. As Michael Taussig puts it in his history of mimesis, such a “replication shares in or takes power from the represented.”   

Technology is based in science, in the practical and real. But it not only accomplishes objective tasks with impressive speed and accuracy; it incorporates wonder that enchants. We engender a sense of awe, trust, and faith in all its forms. In February 2016, an American tourist in Iceland, Noel Santillon, directed the GPS in his rental car to guide him from Keflavik International Airport to a hotel in nearby Reykjavik. Two hundred and fifty miles later, he pulled over in a remote fishing village on the outskirts of the arctic circle, far from his intended destination. Although he had “an inkling that something might be wrong” from signs pointing to Reykjavik in another direction, he later said that he had “put his faith in the GPS.” Although his error was initially one of spelling, Santillon is not the only person to place magical faith in GPS technology. A group of Japanese tourists in Western Australia wound up in the middle of Moreton Bay at high tide after they insisted on following their car’s GPS instructions to turn onto a submerged causeway (only visible and passable at low tide) rather than drive across a bridge (visible at all times) to their island destination. 

These misadventures with navigational systems suggest that technological advances have a magical aura which enchants their users. Technical means form a bridge between a set of given elements and a desired goal, by making use of these givens. The technology of enchantment, to Alfred Gell, is a sophisticated psychological tool used to exert control over the thoughts and actions of other human beings, because it “exploits innate or derived psychological biases to enchant the other person and cause him/her to perceive social reality in a way favorable to the social interests of the enchanter.” The car drivers were enchanted by their GPS systems, following instructions and perceiving reality, geography, and location in the way the GPS presented it—reaffirming Arthur C. Clarke’s aphorism, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 

Transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary 

Advertising enchants its targeted audiences into becoming consumers of the advertised product by promising to transform a branded idea (the benefit) into a personal enhancement or new lifestyle for the consumer. The process of formulating alluring ads requires the complex coordination of actors (advertisers) in a social network (ad agency + client + consumer trends), which operates under conditions of great uncertainty, but must consistently produce ads that convince their intended audiences to believe in the advertised product. This requires a magical process, and especially so when many products to be enchanted are ordinary consumer goods or household products. 

Ad campaigns begin in agencies as loose ephemeral ideas, which, under the alchemy of enigmatic creatives (the venerated magicians), are reformulated into clever branded ideas, which then are consecrated in client-agency meetings (rites), and distributed through precise media placement (the formula) in consumer-oriented times and spaces—on your social media feeds, popular websites, billboards, print ads, or TV screen—to transform ordinary products into aspirational brands. 

This is how Kleenex, with help of J. Walter Thompson advertising and Ketchum public relations, recast humdrum tissue paper as a powerful emotional facilitator. Its successful “Let it out” brand campaign of 2008 featured the nationwide tour of a “traveling couch” situated in public spaces, inviting people to sit and vent their problems with a therapist. With a box of Kleenex tissues placed strategically close at hand as a “good listener,” people could blow their noses, wipe their tears, and express their emotions to feel better.  A branded story thus emerged, converting the ordinary tissue into the extraordinary conduit for emotional relief.  

Yet as formulaic as this process appears, advertising ideas develop from the principle of uncertainty. Since many ads fail to connect with consumers, advertising, like other forms of capitalistic production, relies on a magical system to confer a sense of assurance in an uncertain world. 

Magical networks and institutional magic  

E. E. Evans-Pritchard believed magic was closely aligned with institutions as a system of thought and system of relations. Bronislaw Malinowski and Marcel Mauss also posited the relational aspects of magical practices, which they identified as a system of actors, actions, and language. A more porous and flexible approach argues instead for a network of specific materials, professional skills, ideas, habits, conditions, media, and meanings, which together constitute an assemblage of magical practices and beliefs that reassociate and reassemble the social. 

For Mauss, all magical systems required three elements to conjoin with one another: magician, magical rite, and magical representation. Magicians are experts who possess certain qualities because of their dexterity and outstanding knowledge. Whether a successful inventor or investor, fashion designer or financial trader, barrister or business leader, “[I]t is their profession which sets them apart from the common run of mortals and it is this separateness which endows them with magical power.” They prevail over uncertainty; they are thought to accomplish momentous and extraordinary things—Apple’s legendary Steve Jobs, the business magnate Warren Buffett, or multi-award-winning singer, songwriter, and business executive Beyoncé. 

Every magical network also necessitates a magical rite or site of central operations in which the magician acts. A trading floor, a film set, a court of law, a creative studio are all designed to configure and “consecrate” a particular field by means of magical performances. To be effective, creative, and act in the world, such events take place in specially qualified places where other conditions, professional skills, habits, ideas, and meanings are brought together. Such magical rites are designed to effect transformations (in share prices, in defining fashion, in interpreting a political event or criminal act) and tend to be strictly prescribed in time and location (e.g., fashion weeks, annual advertising awards ceremonies). 

A third element, magical representation―that of similarity or mimesis―reveals how an object can represent the whole while acting on it to make it happen. An image assumes the nature of a symbol: A good economy signals financial security, political acceptance, employment, even family contentment. For the economy to become real, the magician selects a single quality like GDP, which then is set against another selected quality like inflation, and the part reflects the whole in a metonymic magical transformation.   

In all institutional uses of magic, the uncertainty of cultural production―the processes by which advertising, art, fashion, film, literature, music, performing arts, technological objects, social media ads, and video games are conceived, created, distributed, and sold―is first and foremost financial, since demand is uncertain and, as Richard Caves put it, “nobody knows” whether a creative product is going to hit or miss. Creatives can rarely be pinned down beforehand about the aesthetic choices that go into structuring an advertisement, writing copy, designing a fashion shoot, describing a storyline, choosing imagery, or selecting models, among other creative decisions. They may try to stage things beforehand but are in fact looking for unpremeditated magic to make things happen. Since nobody is sure how an inner vision will materialize during the actual creation of a product, nor how an intended audience will react to it, both aesthetic and financial uncertainty add to the finished product’s perceived magical quality. Modern media and their attendant vehicles (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) then act as intermediaries that hopefully spread recognition and gain attention for the magician and the rite, which ultimately expand the representation and reputation by generating word-of-mouth sensation and social media buzz. 

Magic thus shows itself essential to modernity and to the many forms of capitalistic practices it enhances in the paradoxical way the sublime, the mystical, and the enchanted assuage uncertainty, but also help perpetuate it. Magic at once pushes against reason’s boundaries, yet also offers a deeper understanding of the complex ways it coexists with reason, contesting the other, as the two are inextricably entangled. 

Author’s note: This essay borrows from Malefyt, Timothy de Waal. 2021. “Magical Practice,” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Anthropology and Moeran, Brian, and Timothy de Waal Malefyt. 2018. Magical Capitalism: Enchantment, Spells, and Occult Practices in Contemporary Economies. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Artist bio: Collen Pesci is a visual artist, educator, and curator/founder of The Casserole Series. 


Timothy de Waal Malefyt

Timothy de Waal Malefyt is an anthropologist and clinical professor of marketing at the Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University. Previously, he held executive positions as VP, director of consumer insights at BBDO and D’Arcy advertising agencies, where he led teams to explore cultural approaches to consumer research for developing brand and strategic insights. He was conference co-organizer for EPIC 2014 and hosted the Business Anthropology Summit (2019) and AAA Career Readiness Network Conference (2022). His latest book, Business Anthropology: The Basics, will publish in fall 2023.

Cite as

de Waal Malefyt, Timothy. 2023. “Capitalism’s “Magic Act” .” Anthropology News website, August 9, 2023.

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