Can Religion be Classed as the First Form of Advertising?

When I first stumbled upon this concept during my research for these blogs I was sceptical to say the least, but the more you delve into the world of advertising and religion the easier it is to see the parallels between the two. So let’s start with a modern day business ‘phenomena’ which highlights well the similarities between all religions and the promotional activities of companies.

Apple has recently become the object of negative press, as its followers appear to reflect the mannerisms of a religion/cult.


According to Bell (2012), who first pointed out this relationship, in order to be classed as a religion you must adhere to three criteria:

1) A charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;

2) A process that may include coercive persuasion or thought reform;

3) Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and rulers.

When looking at apple she believes these criteria are met. Steve Jobs had the ability and charisma to make consumers excited about a product and willing to queue up for hours to buy it. Regardless of the fact, we all know, it will be obsolete within 6 months. Since his death there has been no change in the commitment of his ‘followers’ to purchase what apple offers, his legacy lives on through the products and so the company is just as trusted as before. The fans of the product are passionate enough to consume all its offerings regardless, in some cases, of quality. This reflects the second and third criteria of power over the consumer; people know a newer product will be available soon and the products have flaws but this does not stop them wanting to own it. So far no amount of negative press has lessened their hold on the consumers. The product launches themselves have even been compared to sacred ceremony as thousands of people from around the world gather to be one of the first to own the new product.

Now how is this different to any religious offering?

Apple can be linked well with the teachings of Scientology. In order to increase your ‘Thetan’ level (God) you must make a donation to the Church, this means that you must pay your way to ‘enlightenment’. The fact Scientology even has a centre just for celebrities proves it is more of a business than a religion:


The meaning behind this can evidently be seen as one of a business trying to gain profit. Having a separate centre shows they view those with more money as more important, after all there are no mainstream religions which count your earnings before you enter. This separation, also, attracts publicity as it means anyone entering this building is famous in some way and so is worthy of media attention.

This is similar to any other business offering. In order to be considered a loyal customer you must make ‘donations’, in this case through purchasing products. If you don’t, for example, purchase the new apple product you can no longer be counted as a part of this select group. Publicity is also gained through celebrity users and endorsers:


Like Scientology  the use of celebrities in advertising, whether intentional or not, acts as an indicator to people who are inspired by them to follow suit (Bandura, 1977). Even if consumers are not converted by Tom Cruise or John Travolta’s’ move to scientology they are still more likely to explore its teachings, which were well documented around the time by major media outlets. The same goes for apple products, when fans of Brad Pitt see pictures of him with the new iPhone it may convince consumers to go out and buy it (Lafferty & Goldsmith, 1999).

It is not enough, though, to just own the core product. To be considered a true member of the group you must also purchase the supplementary material centred around it. Obviously, for this, I could stick with the Scientology example but a better way forward would be to focus on more traditional religions in order to show this pattern does not just hold for newer, more modern forms of religion.

In all religions there is at least one product all members must own, the holy book. In Christianity this is the Bible, in Islam the Qur’an, in Judaism the Torah…etc.


Now to some this may not be seen as an extra product but it is not a necessity to the core product, God. In order to know and follow the teachings of a religion you do not need to own the book; you can learn about it in Church. There is no specific reason for buying the actual product yourself, except that in a consumer driven world it is expected. This is why I propose religion to be the first form of advertising. Although more products are available today, from the very beginning of religion it was considered right to have a copy of the holy book on display in the house where people could see it. If you look back in history to the days of the crusades you can see it was commonplace for people to openly advertise their religious affiliations and form groups accordingly. Attempts at conversion where viewed as a duty to God and, as such, religion was something to be openly publicised. This, again, can be linked easily with apple. Users openly advertise their affiliation to the products through media outlets like Facebook and YouTube in order to ‘convert’ people through positive word of mouth.

Moving on into the more modern world, the list of supplementary products has grown with the consumer age. This, as I’ve mentioned many times now, is increasingly common in America in their televangelist culture.


Again, owning the products put forward by televangelist preachers is not a necessity; neither is making donations to their Church yet an increasing number of people are willing to do it. This links in well with Bells (2012) criteria of coercion and exploitation. Through coercive tactics televangelists can claim a ‘special relationship’ with God, which allows them to reap the rewards. Oral Roberts, for example, promised viewers of his television show if they sent him $100 they would receive an even greater gift from an unexpected source. When this did not occur he cried on air claiming if he did not receive a further $8 million he would be taken by the lord. Unbelievably this actually worked! Now, to me, this seems like a ridiculously easy way to make money to continue living the high class lifestyle he was accustomed to, yet people were so committed to him they were unable to see this scam. Supplementary products are marketed in the same way; they are something the consumer must have to be a part of the group. A charismatic leader is enough to make people part with their hard earned money on a promise that is unreliable at best.

Looking back at apple now, they too have a wide range of extra products:


These days it is not enough to just own an iPod, you also have to have all the gadgets that go with it. Headphones, covers, speaker systems…etc. have all appeared to ‘compliment’ the products and with each new version of the core offering (iPod, iPhone) comes a more modern version. Those loyal to apple will be willing to purchase these in order to show their commitment. Also, as in religion, these products are purchased for self-esteem needs. Extra products are not a necessity and so tend to be bought for publicity purposes, this way the consumer can advertise they are a follower of Pat Robertson or an apple user to the rest of the world.

Looking at all the above comparisons I think it can clearly be stated religion shares many attributes with todays’ business environment. It is one of the first ‘products’ we are introduced to in life and, as such, the way it is advertised to us may have an effect on how we consider other products as we grow up. In other words, what if religion is the reason we advertise like we do in the modern world? Maybe business today is based on religion and this is why it can be viewed in such a way. Let me explain my thinking here, religion was first advertised before media outlets through positive and negative word of mouth. Following on from this came ‘product descriptions’ e.g. holy books, and then went beyond this to fit consumer needs e.g. different denominations of religion. From this came supplementary products to fit the needs of the target segments (faith healing, books, CDs, seminars). Isn’t this the pattern used by companies to promote new products? As you may have noticed there is very little research in this area of marketing, most researchers seems to view religion as something that changed to meet the consumer market, however, I think it is equally plausible to view it as the other way round. Using religious tactics to sell a product is an extremely effective way of doing things. It is a process we are all familiar with and one that has worked well throughout history. As the saying goes, why fix what isn’t broken?



Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Bell, K. (2012). Anthropologist ‘confirms’ Apple is a religion. ZDNet. Retrieved from

Lafferty, B. A., & Goldsmith, R. E. (1999). Corporate Credibility’s Role in Consumers’ Attitudes and   Purchase Intentions When a High versus a Low Credibility Endorser Is Used in the Ad. Journal of Business Research, 44(2), 109-116.

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There’s no Christ in Christmas

So boys and girls Christmas is fast approaching and with the influx of Christmas blogs coming out I thought I’d join the trend, but in my own way of course…

Christmas is a time to celebrate with friends and family regardless of religious affiliation, or so I thought. Let’s go back to America for this one; we all know they love a controversial religious holiday!

There appear to be two main atheist groups, well two who generate the most publicity, involved in the so called ‘War on Christmas’. The American Atheists (AA) hold the esteem of being the creators of the religious billboard battles. These were started in an attempt to gain publicity for their cause, notably the outing of ‘closeted’ atheists. Their Christmas campaign began in 2010 with this message:


This was placed on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln tunnel and cost $20,000. The Christmas message, for them, was viewed as an essential addition to their campaign due to its highly religious nature. It is at this time that ‘closeted’ atheists, who follow on with the traditions of a religion despite not believing in it, may be more likely to question their behaviour as Christianity is a central focus of the holiday. As mentioned in my previous blog, often religion is taught from a young age and, as such, becomes a way of life for the individual even when their faith has dwindled. This occurs through modelling the behaviour of the most important people in their lives. At a young age this is our parents but as we get older influences come from external sources which may lead to a change in behaviour and values (Bandura, 1977). It seems to be working too! In the latest American Religious Identification Survey in 2008 an extra 4.7 million people identified themselves as non-religious compared to the last survey, climbing up to 15% of the population. Now this may not seem like a lot but compared to the 1990 figure of 8.2% it is a massive leap, in fact non-religion is the only tradition that’s growing in all 50 American states. If you want to know more about this, and it is very interesting, here’s the website – Obviously it cannot be claimed this shift in views is solely down to their campaigns but getting a message out in the open and advertising the product is the first step in any marketing effort to create demand for what they are offering.

As is always the case with controversial posters like these, they didn’t go down well in some Christian communities:


This retaliation billboard appeared the other side of the Lincoln tunnel, in New York, designed and paid for by the Christian league. It was even referred to by members of the group as ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’, slightly cheesy if you ask me. Bill Donohue (president of the Christian league) claimed “Our approach is positive and services the common good. Theirs is negative and designed to sow division”. Now I’m no marketing expert but personally I see no difference between the two campaigns whatsoever. Both use ‘factual’ statements with pretty much the same wording, the only thing he’s actually saying here is “I believe in God so my posters right and theirs is wrong”. The same division is made between what the makers of the billboards believe and people of other faiths.

I know other people may disagree but I love the AA’s campaign poster because, unlike many non-religious posters which try not to offend with the use of ‘probably’ or ‘maybe’, they get straight to the point. Campaigns like the atheist bus with their ‘there probably is no God’ seemed to me like a bit of a copout in the sense they were paid for and endorsed by Richard Dawkins, and we all know in his case there is no ‘probably’ about it. Although this still caused some controversy, posters such as this one are calculated and provocative enough to generate more word of mouth and so create more publicity for the campaign (Ferguson, 2008). Which is what this is all about, who can gain the most publicity! Christian groups seem unable to just let atheists have their say when it comes to Christmas. This was summed up best by AA president David Silverman when he said “If the religious right wants a war on Christmas, we’re going to make sure they know what it looks like”. Atheists are fighting for a secularised holiday in a multi-faith nation and they aren’t going to give up.

The second group involved in the secularisation of Christmas is the American Humanist Association (AHA). In 2009 they launched their first Christmas campaign featuring the, now well known, slogan ‘just be good for goodness sake’:


These posters appeared firstly in Washington DC: inside 200 buses, on 50 train carriages and on the side of 20 buses. The campaign was then spread across New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco in December that year.

The downside of the success of campaigns such as these, though, is the backlash to individuals who openly support their messages. In 2011 the AHA launched their 3rd annual holiday public awareness campaign with posters only being placed in towns were alleged attacks had taken place against atheists and agnostics in response to their beliefs.


The simple message was picked to avoid controversy as it simply promoted a message of tolerance to all religious or non-religious beliefs, obviously as you’ve probably guessed, it did not work out this way. Of the 14 towns approached for this campaign only 6 allowed the posters to be displayed including Washington DC and Kearny, New Jersey. Billboard and newspaper adverts were banned from appearing in the majority of the ‘naughty’ towns, which was an unexpected barrier to the AHA as the message is one of pleasant origins; the removal of prejudice. In Annville, PA the daily newspaper even turned down the ad based on secular content before offering to run it at three times the original cost.

The use of the image of Santa here is a clever idea as he is a fictional character people of all ages recognise and, in a strange way, can relate to due to their own childhood experiences. Using a well-loved character instead of an atheist, in this situation, is a good idea as it targets a wider segment of the population. In many cases people can relate to characters more than real, unknown people (Costa, 2010). Also, here, the aim was not conversion or replacement of faith so using Santa as a ‘celebrity endorser’ gives it a more Christmassy feel, reducing the ‘threat’ it may appear to pose to Christian organisations…

…or not. The Liberty Council saw the AHA campaigns as a crass attempt at restricting the freedom of Christians who are passionate about Christmas. So they launched their own ‘friend or foe Christmas campaign’ in response. The aim of this campaign was to be a ‘friend’ to those who celebrate the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas and a ‘foe’ to those who wish to censor it. Due to this for the last 9 years they have issued a ‘naughty or nice’ list of American retailers in an attempt to stop retailers profiting off of Christmas while pretending “it doesn’t exist”:


According to the founder and chairmen, Mathew Staver, their purpose is to keep Christmas intact through litigation and education if retailers refuse to recognise the believers’ right to religious freedom. Personally I don’t understand this message as by ‘reserving’ the rights of Christians he is taking away rights from people who belong to other religious groups, really the only rights he is trying to preserve are those of the Christian population. I think this image sums it up best:


Looking at all these ads involved in the ‘war on Christmas’ it is evident to see these are the acts of two businesses directly in competition. The attempts to undermine the others consumer base are no different to the usual product adverts which depict one brand as superior to another (e.g. the coke vs pepsi debate). The problem here is where does it stop, advertising cannot and should not be censored, however around the holiday season things tend to get a bit out of hand. I think readers may have gathered by now that I’m an atheist but I would in no way object to someone saying “happy Christmas” to me nor feel happier in myself if “happy holidays” was said instead, so what is the point of this debate? I believe Christmas should be a secular holiday because, if were being technical, it is a pagan holiday anyway but you don’t see any pagans coming out to object to the Christian celebration. A lot of people celebrate Christmas out of tradition not because of its religious affiliations, if people want to acknowledge it on religious grounds then fine if they don’t, let them get on with it.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Costa, M.L. (2010). Pulling consumers’ heartstrings. Marketing Week. Retrieved from

Ferguson, R. (2008). Word of mouth and viral marketing: taking the temperature of the hottest trends in marketing. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 25(3), 179-182.

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Is Conversion a Form of Advertising?

Conversion, in the religious sense, can be classed as a change in faith that leads to a different set of moral behaviours and values which the person then has to follow in their daily life. In simplistic terms behaviour can be defined as anything a human being says or does. Many different aspects of the environment can have an impact on the way people behave whether they are consciously aware of it or not. I think it can be considered common knowledge in today’s society that religion effects the behaviour of those who believe strongly enough in it’s teachings, but what about traditional, mainstream religion?

Starting with the extreme examples, patterns of behaviour change seem to occur in a similar way in more traditional religions.


The Westboro Baptist Church (to people who’ve read my previous blogs and are sick to death of hearing about them I’m sorry I just can’t help myself) are a fundamentalist  family run, Christian organisation. The Church itself is comprised mainly of members of the Phelps family, with each successive generation included from a young age:


There are a number of psychological theories which can be used to explain this promotion of religion through the family ranks. Social learning theory (Bandura, 1977) states that learning occurs through the medium of positive and negative reinforcement. Small children are especially impressionable to this as they strive to gain the approval of their parents. When behaviour deviates from the expected punishment occurs and behaviour is amended accordingly. This applies to all religious groups as children brought up by religious parents tend to be raised according to the rules of that faith and in an environment where the risks of disobedience are extremely high – hell.

Another explanation for this faith exclusivity among families is classical conditioning. Watson and Watson (1921) conditioned little Albert to fear a white rat by pairing this neutral stimuli with a loud noise. Now compare this punishment for behaviour with the promise of eternal damnation, which is more effective? Children from religious families learn to behave as is expected by their religion through fear of God’s wrath. These expectations differ throughout, and often within, religions. Terrorist groups like the Westboro Baptist Church (yes, in my definition they are) and Al Quaeda have a greatly different view of what it means to serve God than do Mormons or Muslims.

Passing down religious teaching through generations is a form of advertising as children are taught this is the correct god to believe in and follow. The ‘brand’ they are introduced to tends to be a ‘brand for life’ making it one of the most powerful forms of advertising we are introduced to in life. In many religions (Mormon, Catholic…etc) a part of these teachings includes spreading the word of God. Even those religions who don’t advertise in the common sense of the word still engage in promotional activities, whether they view it that way themselves or not, as they strive to convert the masses.

Conversion to a new faith, and as such way of life, appears to be influenced mainly by role models. Bidwell and Brasler (1989) define role modelling as identifying with a person leading to a change in values and behaviour. This is a common occurrence in America with their faith branding culture promoting the use of televangelist preachers:



In a nation which is home to so many different religious offerings churches must brand themselves in order to remain relevant. One of the best ways to do this is by giving the company a face; consumers will be more likely to pay attention to a relevant spokesperson than a faceless organisation. Televangelists are viewed as having a ‘special’ relationship with God which makes them seem like someone to aspire to and so consumers will ‘buy in’ to their product over others (Lafferty & Goldsmith, 1999).

Now, as my previous blog (America Vs UK) demonstrated, these preachers may not always be the right choice, they have the ability to greatly influence people yet many use it for their own means.


This man, Fred Phelps, is a brilliant example of a horrific role model (yes, I know, we’re back here again…), now, like me, you may think who could possibly idolise this man? Meet Steve Drain:

He joined the church in 2001 after travelling to meet them to record a documentary; his family is the only to join outside of the Phelps. He is the man responsible for the majority of viral marketing campaigns launched by Westboro (music parodies, hate videos), he is also the inventor of their now world famous ‘God Hates Fags’ signs. Since 2001 he has cut off all contact with family members who do not follow the same rules as them, including one of his daughters Lauren who, in the Louis Theroux documentary ‘The most hated family in America’, he claimed he never wanted to see again. In his words “I can’t be dragged down by somebody who has no interest in serving the Lord, so you go live your life, and I’ll live mine. It’s so shocking to people that I wouldn’t unconditionally accept my daughter for whatever she does.” Hearing him speak in those to videos it is hard to believe he didn’t spend all his life in the church, hearing his young children talk is even more disturbing. And they claim they’re not a cult…

The above evidence demonstrates well how religion is one of the first, and probably most influential, forms of advertising we are introduced to in life. Religion targets an emotional need in people to be part of a social group or find meaning in life, due to this it has the ability to have a large influence on human behaviour. The issue here though is whether this is true behaviour or a product of conditioning. As animals we have evolved to avoid the negative consequences of our actions and continue with behaviours which exhibit rewards. It is, therefore, hard to know whether religious people behave the way they do because it is right or because they are avoiding the punishment they believe will come from behaving differently. I, personally, believe this supposed behaviour change comes from an introduction to religious advertising from a young age, which is influenced by those around you.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Bidwell, A. S., & Brasler, M. L. (1989). Role Modeling versus Mentoring in Nursing Education. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 21(1), 23-25.

Lafferty, B. A., & Goldsmith, R. E. (1999). Corporate Credibility’s Role in Consumers’ Attitudes and   Purchase Intentions When a High versus a Low Credibility Endorser Is Used in the Ad. Journal of Business Research, 44(2), 109-116.

Watson,  J. B., & Watson, R. R. (1921). Studies in infant psychology. Scientific Monthly, 13, 493-515.

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Is Religion Losing its Grip on American Politics?

So first things first, why do politicians advertise their religious affiliations so openly in their presidential campaigns? The answer is simple; religion is big business in America. Religious organisations in America have, over the years, developed a large consumer base leading to faith brands yielding significant political power (Einstein, 2008). According to the most recent U.S. religious landscape survey (2007) ( 78.4% of Americans define themselves as Christian, with a further 16.8% members of other  religious groups. Only 4% openly call themselves atheists or agnostics. This means that the largest target market for candidates in the presidential race believe in a personal God, in one form or another, and as such policies tailored to their needs and beliefs will be the most beneficial in gaining votes. This reflection of majority beliefs can easily be seen in many American laws; 70% of Protestants and 71% of Catholics believe adultery is wrong and in the majority of American states it is actually illegal, although this is rarely enforced (Perkin, 2000). Tocqueville (1831), famously, described the situation best when he said ‘religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions’.

In the 1970s/80s American fundamental evangelists formed the group the New Christian Right to unite conservative protestants into a powerful enough group to be able to influence the agenda of the Republican Party. Building on the idea of President Nixons’ campaigning strategy highlighting the ‘silent majority’ the Reverend Jerry Felwell launched the ‘moral majority’. This was a part of the 1979 ‘Clean up America’ campaign that preached the downfall of America could be blamed on liberals, homosexuals and abortionists.


Jerry Felwell – founder of the moral majority

The group subsequently became one of the largest evangelical Christian political lobby groups in the US. They backed Reagan during the 1980 election and are credited with gaining him two-thirds of the white evangelical Christian vote. So how was this possible? Success can be put at the feet of their evangelical allies, namely televangelist preachers. Jerry Felwell shared his views with over 20 million listeners and viewers a day with pastors such as Pat Robertson (founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network) and Ralph Reed (founder of the Christian Coalition) helping to spread the word. I think the following cartoon accurately depicts how religious organisations are viewed by political candidates; they all want to obtain the backing of the most powerful:


However after Reagan’s election it all began to go downhill. While presidents like Reagan and Bush are more than happy to advertise this affiliation during campaigning, afterwards they found they had very little political power. During Reagan’s presidency the moral majority were forced to defend themselves against charges of attempting to hijack the party. Felwell (1981) claimed they were not trying to control simply influence political policy. The problem here is evident, religion is just one of many tactics advertised to gain votes, once the aim is met they no longer serve a purpose. Now I am not saying the relationship between religion and politics ends there, the views simply change to match that of the nation and times. For example, Bush embraced anti-abortion and prayer in schools yet he refused to translate these into law as it would alienate a large portion of Americans, something which is of little concern to the New Christian Right.

Americans want, as Einstein (2008) termed it, ‘religion-lite’. They want a religious leader (typically Christian, regardless of affiliation) as this, to them, seems to reflect some form of moral values upon them, however, they do not want dominionism. This is what many members of the moral majority where accused of – seeking influence or control of a political party resulting in either a Christian governed nation or one run under biblical law. This was demonstrated by the final push of the moral majority, then renamed the liberty federation, in Pat Robertson’s 1987/88 presidential attempt. He ran from an extremely conservative platform with policies that included banning pornography and reforming all schools to become church rather than state run. The whole campaign was a mess and he ended up pulling out before the primaries finished, urging others to vote for Bush instead. This shows that there is such a thing in politics as too much religion, therefore candidates need to be careful of the groups they associate themselves with and openly advertise. It is good to promote religious affiliation due to the positive connotations it brings to your character but appearing to be led by them has negative consequences. Particularly mistrust in the system:


The problem we face here is the very large presumption I am making that advertising religious affiliation influences political decisions. Obviously this is a very bold statement to make but the fact is, as of yet, no non-Christian candidates have ever been elected, which lends support to my claim. The latest Gallup Poll in June 2007 ( found 54% of Americans would vote an atheist into office; this is a leap from only 18% in 1958. Unfortunately, atheists still trail far behind homosexuals (68%) and Muslims (58%). It is also a huge reduction on the 94% who would vote for a Catholic president. It is statistics like this that make advertising religion such a wise choice in presidential campaigns. Nixon’s failed 1960 attempt to get into office is blamed in part on his choice to ignore Catholic voters in his campaigning efforts.

So the examples I’ve given so far tend to be from an earlier date, so what about modern society? Let’s focus on the latest election:


The results of the latest survey by the Public Religion Research Institute in May 2012 found that the majority of voters no longer view the religion of candidates as important, although white evangelical voters still believe it is very important. Saying this, though, there is still a preference towards voting for a candidate whose beliefs are viewed as similar to their own. One largely significant difference that can be seen from past elections is that the majority of voters are now unsure exactly which religion candidates belong to; 16% of voters still believe Obama is Muslim and only 46% correctly identify him as Protestant or some form of Christian. Similarly with Mitt Romney, 35% are unsure of his religious affiliation. This is probably due to the fact his Mormon status was played down towards the second half of the election as voters could not relate to many of their teachings, especially polygamy.

Recent years have seen a shift away from religious theologies and towards shared social values, such as Obama’s push for gay marriage rights. D’Antoniom (senior fellow, Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, Catholic University of America) studied the roll call votes on abortion from 1977-2010. He found before 1980 Protestants voted pro- and Catholics anti-abortion regardless of the party they belonged to. After 1980 this shifted to a state where Democrats voted pro- and Republicans voted against abortion. According to D’Antoniom this shows how ‘party now trumps religion’. This social shift towards policies over theology has led to an overall decrease in the amount of time spent discussing religion during campaigning as it is no longer what the consumers want.

Overall I believe the shift away from discussing religion in politics is the best way to go. America is a multi-faith nation and so its government cannot solely cater to the needs of the Christian population without imposing on others freedom (as would be the case with anti-abortion laws). A more consumer friendly approach, limiting religious advertising, is a step in the right direction as good policies appeal more to consumers than a vague insinuation of theological belief.



Einstein, M. (2008). Brands of faith: religion in a commercial age. New York: Routledge.

Perkin, H. (2000). Fundamentalism and the selling of god. The Political Quarterly, 71(1), 79-89.

Tocqueville, A. (1831). As cited in Shepard, D.H. (2004). Religious marketing: reflections from the other side of politics. Journal of Public Affairs, 4(3), 317-341.

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Who is God for the God-less?

In my last blog I hinted around the idea of modelling being used in advertising for the Christian religion to gain followers through the American ‘faith branding’ technique of ‘televangelists’. All forms of religion use role models, in general, in the form of a ‘higher power’ e.g. Jesus in Christianity, Allah in Islam, however non-religious people are also influenced in everyday media circuits by their own form of role-models.

So let’s start with the scientists:


Most followers of religion or atheism know Richard Dawkins, some love him and some absolutely hate him! He is a strong advocate of atheism and openly describes himself in his book ‘The God Delusion’ as an ‘anti-theist’, this is a step further than simply being an atheist as he opposes the very institute of religion itself; as the above quote shows.


Christopher Hitchens is similar to Dawkins in his views of religion, as shown by the title of his book – ‘God is not great: How religion poisons everything’. Like Dawkins he could probably be described as an ‘anti-theist’ although he never specifically says this himself. He too calls religion up on its ability to influence seemingly smart and kind people into committing horrific acts, only something as influential as religion holds this power.


Finally there is Douglas Adams. The above quote is personally one of my favourite as I think it encompasses well the philosophies of atheism through science; isn’t what we have beautiful enough without having to add a third dimension? Why can’t we see the world for what it is, amazing yet flawed? Adams was a strong advocate of atheism and ‘The God Delusion’ was actually dedicated to his memory in remembrance of the work he did.

Now all the above where/are strong advocators of reason and science over the supernatural and none were quiet about these beliefs! How may this have affected the views of the general public? All of these men can be considered experts in the field whether through a scientific or literary background; therefore they are excellent examples of role models for the cause. Role modelling involves identification with the person in question leading to a change in values and behaviour (Bidwell & Brasler, 1989). This is one of the most powerful forms of advertising as change occurs on an emotional level as we integrate and interpret new behaviour on a personal level; it becomes part of who we are (Davies, 1993).

In terms of atheism ‘advertising’ there is a strong tendency, as shown in some of the above quotes, to regard those with no beliefs as more intelligent. This is an effective form of advertising which is present in many common product ads were an ‘in’ and ‘out’ group are promoted. In this case are you ‘smart’ or are you ‘stupid’?. No one would openly define themselves as stupid which may lead some people to question the foundations of their beliefs.  As Lafferty and Goldsmith (1999) stated celebrity endorsers influence the attitudes and purchase intentions of consumers. In the case of belief vs non-belief which one you choose to ‘buy in to’ can be heavily influenced by the public figures you are exposed to and what you believe makes a person an ‘expert’. Is it scientific knowledge or spiritual knowledge?

Now let’s look at Wright and Carrese’s (2002) checklist of an expert and see whether these men could be considered to fall under this heading. They believe the skills needed to be considered an expert role model are: a positive outlook, commitment to excellence and the growth of learners, integrity and leadership. In my opinion all of those I previously mentioned fit these criteria. A positive outlook is displayed through a genuine awe of science and scientific discovery perhaps made the more inspiring for its lack of ‘creation’. Commitment to growth and excellence is shown through the need to educate; all books and opinions stated are backed up by scientific fact in order to allow the consumer to see where their ideas and views have come from. Integrity and leadership are demonstrated through their unwavering views and commitment to spreading this worldwide. One of their perceived barriers, however, I completely disagree with in the context of atheism. They believe those who are overly opinionated will not be viewed as role models. The reason I disagree will be self-evident to those who have ever seen a lecture/seminar given by Dawkins or Hitchens. They are two of the most opinionated men in this area, especially Dawkins who seems to go out of his way to pick a fight with every religious person he ever comes across, and this is why I and so many other people love them! Being overly opinionated in this sector has become important, if religious people can advertise so can the non-religious and they can be just as vocal.

Ok so I realise here I’ve just gone on one of my ‘I love Dawkins’ rants as my friends call them and written over 800 words without getting onto the second half of my argument. This, though, does make my point very well; religion evokes a strong personal response in many people, which is why it lends itself so well to the promotion of role models (see how I brought it back there…). It could be said religious leaders also fall into the category of experts in the field, although personally I feel many of them fall short on the integrity front especially in America where religion is big business if you know how to manipulate the system for personal gain. Feel free to disagree with me here, I know my argument is one sided due to my own beliefs as is the case with anything so central to people’s lives, many of the attributes I believe make these people role models may not be shared by everyone otherwise we would all ‘buy in’ to this view.

The problem with only using scientists to advertise a cause is that, in some cases, they only appeal to those with a high level of knowledge already in the area. This is where Dawkins and Hitchens differ in their approaches. I first read Dawkins’ book when I was 15/16 and I had to have Google open at the same time to understand a lot of what he said. Hitchens on the other hand demonstrates a more consumer-friendly style of writing. This, though, still causes a problem as only those who are already interested in the ‘product’ are likely to read their books or watch their lectures, creating a very specific target market.

So how to reach those who may not already have made up their minds? The answer is simple, use forms of advertising which people do not openly avoid in order to reach a wider audience. One way of reaching a younger, less scientifically knowledgeable and wider audience (those who do not actively seek out such knowledge) is through mainstream media. For example comedians:

Tim Minchin often appears on television discussing religion and atheism but he also includes songs and jokes in his act which demonstrate his beliefs, as seen in the above two videos. This is not an area people would actively avoid for religious reasons and so more people are exposed to these beliefs. By appearing on YouTube this also becomes viral marketing  with all his videos reaching into the thousands and being shared among friends for the comedy value not necessarily the content. The first video was banned from appearing on the Jonathon Ross show for its religious content, which if anything made it more popular when this story got out and the video was uploaded online. The second video, the pope song, was actually written in response to Dawkins petition to arrest the pope when he came to Britain for crimes against children (let’s leave it there shall we…).

Onto sketch shows:

Both of these sketches involve religion in one form or another, slightly making fun of religious belief for comedic value. They do not, at any point, include the religious views of the people involved yet they do express an opinion whether intended or not. As I mentioned previously they seem to promote the commonly used idea of religion as unintelligent and uncivilised.

The use of the comedy setting lowers the age of consumers reached meaning it is seen by more people, the roles models are also younger making them more relatable to adolescents. Learning is a vicarious experience and as such consumers may be influenced through limited exposure and with no deliberate attempt made by the ‘spokesperson’. These comedians are not trying to convert people they are writing about what they know but this may still have the same effect on others behaviour as experts in the field; they are more relatable and are, often, more well-known (Bandura, 1977; Rueler & Nardone, 1994).

Overall atheists are very good at using role modelling to engage and convert consumers to their cause through a mix of expert knowledge and comedic strategy. This enables them to reach both those who are and are not actively seeking out what they have to say. Exposure to a comedy routine may cause consumers to read up and explore the topic themselves through identification with the person advocating the ‘product’. This is where, I believe, religious role models lack conviction. What they ‘sell’ is not based on fact but faith which is subjective to the individual and so is much harder to endorse to those who don’t want to listen.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Bidwell, A. S., & Brasler, M. L. (1989). Role Modelling versus Mentoring in Nursing Education. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 21(1), 23-25.

Davies, E. (1993). Clinical role modelling: uncovering hidden knowledge. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 18(4), 627-636.

Lafferty, B. A., & Goldsmith, R. E. (1999). Corporate Credibility’s Role in Consumers’ Attitudes and   Purchase Intentions When a High versus a Low Credibility Endorser Is Used in the Ad. Journal of Business Research, 44(2), 109-116.

Reuler, J. B., & Nardone, D. A. (1994). Role modelling in medical education. Western Journal of Medicine, 160(4), 335-337.

Wright, S. M., & Carrese, J. A. (2002). Excellence in role modelling: insight and perspectives from the pros. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 167(6), 638-643.

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America Vs UK: Who’s doing it right??

As may be plain to see from my previous blogs there is a huge difference in the way America and the UK advertise religious organisations.

Since the separation of Church and state in America it has become possible for pretty much anyone to set up a church and thus gain tax exemption (Perkin, 2000). This has led to religion becoming viewed more as a business than a guide on how to live your life. A huge re-branding effort has taken place of the church experience with the aim of recruiting ‘customers’ becoming paramount (Shepard, 2004).

From this a new level of celebrity culture has emerged among congregation leaders. Pat Robertson, for example, took a $37,000 investment which he used to set up the Christian Broadcasting Network. This was later sold to Rupert Murdock for $200 million. His show on the network (the ‘700 club’) receives around 1 million viewers from all around the world. I think this demonstrates what a huge business opportunity religion can provide in America!


In a sense each ‘televangelist’ (as they’ve come to be known) is like the CEO of a multinational corporation as religion is a worldwide phenomenon and with the right sort of advertising this can become very profitable. After all if Robertson was only interested in spreading the word of God he would never have sold the company, even for such a vast amount of money! As Moore (1994) said “Religion in America is up for sale”, those who take advantage of this can reap massive rewards.

In a way this new celebrity preacher approach is a fantastic way to advertise. They are portrayed to the general public as role models who have a ‘special’ relationship with God that you can be a part of for just a small donation each week. It is a widely known fact that people model the behaviour of those they look up to (Bandura, 1977) and as a consequence they have the ability to influence behaviour. In the same way that athletes and movie stars are able to convince people to buy the products they endorse (Lafferty & Goldsmith, 1999), celebrity preachers can also use their success to convince their congregations to buy their supplementary products in the hope they too will get closer to God:



The downside for the consumer in the use of such a model of marketing is that they become very easy to exploit. There have been a ridiculous number of cases where these ‘televangelists’ have used the money given to the church for their own means. A quite famous example is the Pentecostal preacher Jim Bakker who was a member of the Praise the Lord club. His yearly income averaged $3.7 million thanks to the 12 million listeners and viewers who tuned into his TV and radio shows. He was found guilty in 1989 of embezzling $158 million of contributions given by members of his congregation. After serving just 5 years of his 45 year sentence he came out ‘reborn’ and immediately began preaching and collecting donations again. This is where the power of role modelling can really be seen; even after everything that happened people were still willing to send him their money. He even wrote a book about it:


Again, like Robertson, he is treating faith as something that can be bought; he even boasted “We have a better product than soap or automobiles. We sell eternal life”. It is very easy to note his use of marketing vocabulary here; religion is just another product on the shelf.

In an attempt to avoid the evident religious culture in America the UK code of advertising standards and practices prohibits asking for money and the promotion of miracles/faith healing. It is evident from Morris Cerullo’s 1994 mission to London campaign that American religious values are not shared in the UK:


The advertisement received a huge amount of negative feedback as it depicts faith healing with people throwing away their wheelchairs which caused offence to many religious groups and handicapped individuals.

According to Percy (2000) religious advertising in the UK can be split into 5 different categories:

1)      Literalistic advertising includes a single statement from the bible or scripture:


2)      Evangelistic advertising involves any text chosen to have an impact on passers-by:



3)         Modern advertising has a universal appeal for help on a particular issue. This is often utilised by Christian charities:


4)      Post-modern advertising uses comedy to make old-fashioned bible stories more contemporary:


5)      Ironic advertising involves a simple message and some basic information about the church:


As you can probably see the main difference between UK and American advertising is the domination of text over image use. This is where I believe they are going wrong. As the saying goes ‘a picture says a thousand words’, images have multiplicity of meaning as they depend on individual interpretation. Going back to the mission to London picture depending on who you are you may: find it inspirational, view it as a social event, believe the vast amount of people depicted means he is right, see Cerullo as a role model…etc. No matter what the text portrays there is no guarantee by-passers will take the time to engage with the advert as it requires a higher level of processing than an eye-catching picture.

Now I am by no means saying we should resort to the exploitative American tactic, however declining congregation numbers calls for a re-branding approach. This requires a new ‘middle ground’ marketing model to be found in order to recruit new members in an ethical way. While the American ‘televangelist’ approach may be extremely effective it easily lends itself to misconduct. Personally I believe UK churches should focus more on the post-modern form of advertising to bring the Church into the 21st century by asking consumers to rethink their opinions on what church is all about.

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‘Faith Branding’ – A necessary evil?

In today’s consumer driven culture little can survive without the adoption of marketing techniques (Twitchell, 1996); in the modern world this includes organised religion. After the separation of church and state the church had to adapt to changing culture or cease to exist (Paulson, 1977). This introduction of secularisation led to a decline in service attendance as religion became a choice not an enforcement of the current body politic (Percy, 2000). From the 1990’s consumers were free to ‘shop around’ and sample a huge range of spiritual activities leading to the rejection, by many, of traditional, mainstream religion as it no longer met their needs (Einstein, 2011). As Berger (1993) put it religion now ‘must be sold to a clientèle which is no longer constrained to buy’. Due to this new dynamic ‘faith branding’ became a main feature of church advertising. This allows individual churches or denominations to distinguish themselves from the group in order to make a cultural connection with their intended segment (Einstein, 2008). As worship is an act of free will the ‘branded’ church must stand out from others by promoting their ‘product’ as best fitting the needs of the consumer when brand loyalty is all but gone (Percy, 2000). Through this technique churches can begin to increase attendance by re-branding themselves in the public domain. In some cases this can be taken to the extreme.

One example of ‘faith branding’, which those who read my last blog will be familiar with, is the Westboro Baptist Church. Their brand revolves around a message of hate which has gained them masses of media attention through their controversial picketing’s. While their beliefs and practices may be abhorrent they are an excellent example of branding with their ‘God hates fags’ slogan well known worldwide. The vast majority of people, on a global scale, are aware of who they are, what they stand for, and what they do, which is the main aim of branding (Einstein, 2011). However this cannot be defined explicitly as ‘faith branding’ in the marketing sense, as its aim is not to really to convert rather to grab publicity.


Another example along these lines are the terrorist group Al Qaeda who, again, distinguish themselves from other Islamic groups through a message of hate for other religious organisations. Their ‘brand’ as it were, revolves around fear in the same way as the Westboro Baptist Church; promoting themselves as the only ones who will find salvation after death. This is a common and powerful promotion tool in religion as it plays on the innate human desire for meaning in life. Although obviously, this is an extreme and ineffective way to go about it.


Moving on from such extreme cases, branding is used by many churches in order to address a specific objective. In the case of Scientology in May 2009 a re-branding marketing campaign was launched to boost their reputation after a series of negative press reports claiming physical abuse and illegal activity as part of their practice.


The ‘Know Yourself – Know Life’ campaign included print advertisements (such as the one above) and a series of commercials:

These ads include people from both genders and a variety of racial backgrounds in order to appeal to 18-36 years olds; which is their target segment (Beccaccini, 2009). While they do not exactly describe what their message or practices are they lead consumers to their website in order to allow them to find out more than they would through a short advertisement. The aim of this campaign was to change the public perception of their brand to a more hip, mainstream religion (Einstein, 2011). It appears the campaign was a success as the church claims to have received 14 million views of their website by December 2009. However these are self reported statistics and personally I do not believe the church has successfully changed its perception to that of a mainstream religion.

In general terms the concept of ‘faith branding’ itself has caused some controversy among religious groups for drawing attention away from what faith really stands for. The idea of advertising is to meet the needs of the consumer so they will buy your product. Where religion is concerned the main product (God) is non-negotiable, this leads churches to promote sub-products such as the social aspects of congregation (Shepard, 2004). This man-focused approach to church draws focus from the premise the church was founded on – God (Wells, 1994). The marketing message then starts to become more widely known than the scripture upon which the faith is based.

A second criticism, which I believe is one of the strongest, focuses on the marketing techniques used. In order to advertise effectively a target segment must be chosen upon which to direct your advert. By conducting themselves in this way the church ends up preaching to a highly selected group of people at the expense of the wider population (Shepard, 2004). A key belief for religion, especially Christianity, is that anyone is welcome to come to God, which seems to be at odds with this technique. This drive towards marketing tends to attract consumers rather than converts to what Einstein (2008) termed ‘religion lite’. It is a consumer-friendly religion, which leaves them badly equipped (in a religious sense) in times of need.

Overall I believe while branding is a necessity for any modern business, religious organisations must be careful in the way in which they implement it. The marketing model of branding does not effectively lend itself to ‘faith branding’ as its concepts highly segregate and appeal to consumers needs rather than focusing on the promotion of ‘absolute’ truth, which is the backbone of most faith. A revised model of mass marketing may be more appropriate in appealing to consumers in such a way as to educate not sell.

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