Does Religion Have A Place In Marketing?

Do religion and marketing mix? Does the question itself shock you? If you’re like many people, you’ve never given any thought to the concept of companies adding to their marketing message with a religious one and have never seen an advertising campaign of the sort. However, if you have across one of these ads before you may have loved it or hated it, but chances are that you had some kind of reaction. While it’s not as common of a theme in advertising or marketing as say, youth or status, mixing the religious with the commercial is something which does happen – and everyone seems to have their own take on the concept.

A Stroke Of Genius Or An Act Of Sacrilege?

Regardless of what you may think about the idea of incorporating religious symbolism or messages into marketing campaigns, there is certainly a small demographic who will respond positively to these campaigns. Surveys indicate that there are some consumers who appreciate the inclusion of religious themes in advertising campaigns, seeing them as an attempt to reach out to religious people by the advertiser. Of course, this begs the question of whether or not such inclusion is appropriate, which many people, whether or not they count themselves as religious would answer no to.

According to these surveys, the majority of people who describe themselves as very religious actually find these sorts of campaigns offensive – and so do many people who either describe themselves as moderately religious to not religious. Clearly, a majority of consumers find the use of religious messages or imagery in advertising to be a turn-off; so why do so many companies persist in mixing the spiritual with the commercial?


There is a growing trend among companies to reach out to people of faith and obviously, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack of same, all of us are consumers – and some businesses see reaching out to the faithful as a growth opportunity. However, the vast majority of these attempts have fallen flat thus far. Take, for instance, the auto dealership in Minnesota which used a billboard referencing the crucifixion and resurrection to promote their business. In bad taste? Undoubtedly. While this billboard managed to get the attention of passing motorists, it didn’t do a lot for the company in terms of actually driving sales – and though on some level, there is no such thing as bad publicity, this particular advertisement managed to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many who saw it.

Can Religious Imagery Ever Be Used Successfully In Advertising?

There have indeed been some successful campaigns which have used religious imagery. For example, you probably remember the Xerox “Monk” campaign of the 1970s. Why was this campaign a success while the aforementioned auto dealership’s use of the crucifixion in its billboard a failure? In this case, it was a matter of using religious themes in a tasteful way which did not promote (or defame) any particular religion or denomination. One print ad from this campaign featured a monk along with the slogan “The duplicators for those who appreciate the virtues of simplicity”. The ads were tasteful, lighthearted in tone and most importantly, they communicated the virtues of the product rather than attempting to get a religious message across. It’s an important distinction which businesses would do well to remember.

The real issue here is that consumers are interested in the product or service you’re selling, not your religious faith. Unless you’re advertising for a house of worship or religious organization, there’s really no place for promoting religion while trying to make a sale – and as many who have tried to do this have found out the hard way, it’s not an effective means of closing the deal. Personally, I see these marketing campaigns as proselytizing, not advertising; and even though a religious-themed campaign can indeed get attention, you shouldn’t expect it to increase sales or for that matter, leave a positive impression of your business. Religion is a matter for the private, not public sphere – and it definitely doesn’t belong in the world of business.

The Trouble With Marketing Using Religion

“Telling the truth about a product demands a product that’s worth telling the truth about. Sadly, so many products aren’t. So many products don’t do anything better. Or anything different. So many don’t work quite right. Or don’t last. Or simply don’t matter. ” – Doyle D. Bernbach

What do companies do when their product or service isn’t worth telling the truth about? When it doesn’t do anything different or better – or just doesn’t matter? A lot of the time, they rely on hype or outright untruths to try to sell their wares; some go with publicity stunts and other bells and whistles intended to blind consumers to the inadequacy of the product or service being sold – and others try to appeal to potential customers using a religious message.

Now wait a minute, I can hear some of you out there saying. What’s wrong with using religion to try to reach out to consumers who share the beliefs of the advertiser? Quite often, the answer is everything. It is possible that marketing messages using religious imagery or outright professions of faith could be used to sell a perfectly good product or service, but even so (and it doesn’t happen often, if ever), it makes many people suspicious, even if they happen to agree with the religious message.

Think of it this way. Suppose that you were trying to sell a product or service. Would you rather communicate the benefits of this product or service to potential buyers or would you rather take up precious (and expensive) ad space trying to tell consumers about an entirely different kind of “good news”?

Most companies, of course, choose the former option. Given that people are interested in what a product can do for them rather than whether the people selling these products regularly attend church/synagogue/mosque services. This brings us to one of the chief problems of using a religious message to market consumer goods (it’s also applicable to business to business marketing, just in case you were wondering) – irrelevance. It simply has nothing to do with the product itself and will appeal to only a miniscule subset of the market. While niche marketing is all well and good, most companies would prefer to cast a little wider net.

Another reason that religiously based marketing and advertising fails is that it is one of the most effective ways to turn off the vast majority of buyers. Not only will they know that your marketing message has nothing to do with the product or service in question, but they’ll wonder what it is that you’re trying to hide about what you’re selling.

Case in point: the Minnesota auto dealership who tried to sell cars, trucks and SUVs with a billboard informing motorists that they had “good news” for them – and in this case, it wasn’t about a sale, 0% financing or any other kind of promotional offer. Did it work for the dealership? Well, it did, at least in the sense that it got people’s attention and a little bit of national media coverage – but far more important is what it didn’t do: sell cars. It’s hard to imagine exactly what the owner of the dealership was thinking, but as any copywriter will tell you,  it’s unlikely that you’ll sell many cars (or anything else, for that matter) this way.

It’s really just that simple; if you’re trying to sell something, a profession of faith probably isn’t the way to go about it. The best case scenario is that you’ll make a few sales to a few people who are genuinely excited by the religious angle – and end up with a truly dismal return on your investment. The worst case scenario? You’ll turn off both current and prospective customers. They may say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity and most of the time that’s true; but it really does exist and this is one of the exceptions to the rule.

If you have a product or service worth selling, then sell the product, not your religion. Otherwise, consumers will think you have something to hide – and they may well be right! Real Estate Gurus who do this beware …..

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