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 fromhttp://www.zdnet.com/anthropologist-confirms-apple-is-a-religion-7000006377/
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.