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Souled. How religion uses advertising.


On 21st October 2008 a completely original advertising campaign was launched. Positioned on the sides of buses it carried the simple headline: 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.  This was the first time a marketing initiative had set out to promote atheism and actively encourage people to reject the notion of a divine being. It caused quite a fuss.

This reaction may not have been entirely surprising - religions are notoriously sensitive - but it was hard to understand why some believers refused to accept the validity of the message on the grounds of balance. After all, churches, religious movements, evangelists and temples have used advertising messages for years. But have they used them effectively? Can something as profound and philosophical as religious belief be sold in a similar way as lipstick or ketchup?

Well, when religions do advertise, they tend to achieve the primary goal of all advertisements - they attract attention. Perhaps, the fact that marketing and spirituality are such contrasting bedfellows actually works in the advertisers' favour. We actively expect consumer goods to be pushed at us using creativity and media channels, but when the 'product' is salvation we're taken unawares and our curiosity is pricked.

In 1998, Advertising Age named a TV clip for a family church, the 'Most Offensive Advertisement' of the year (it was a cartoon of a teenager throwing himself under a moving car, rather than go to church) and such nominations, as we know, are often relished for their publicity grabbing properties by edgy brands. There's no reason to think the church were any less pleased, but would the ad have attracted such a title had it not been for the sacred nature of the advertiser?

I would also suggest religious advertising tends to be more noticeable because it tends to be more intelligent, or certainly more thought provoking, than campaigns from other sectors. This could be out of necessity - they are selling some rather weighty ideas - or perhaps because agencies trade lower rates for the chance to be creatively flamboyant. Either way, it's hard not admire a scan style image of baby in the womb sporting a halo with the strapline 'He's On His Way', to raise the profile of Christ on his suggested birthday. Or the Turin Shroud image in the foam on a beer glass, accompanied by the message 'Where Will You Find Him?'  (Although whether there's a suggestion that enlightenment lies at the bottom of a pint of lager, I'll let you decide). My particular favourite is the image of Jesus as Che Guevara and the copy line 'Meek, Mild. As If'.  Creatively, it really is a stunning advertisement

Incidentally, I am largely focusing on Christian advertising here. Not because I favour that religion (I'm an atheist), but because it's the faith with the most extensive record in this area.

So, we've established religious marketing at the very least attracts attention. But does it shift product? Does it sell? Does it produce converts? Try as I might, I cannot find any academic research on the numbers of people joining religions as a result of advertising campaigns, but there is anecdotal evidence.

The Jesus the Messiah Church reports on their website, good results for their postcard campaign. It recently mailed postcards to 84,000 people.  About 20 people have joined the church in the last four months. If we accept an average uptake of 4% for a direct mail campaign to be fairly respectable, these guys aren't doing particularly well. Unless bums on pews wasn't the priority. Perhaps their campaign was intended to give them something more imporatnt than a score of new parishioners. Even if they had attracted absolutely nobody, they would still have fulfilled their perceived duty to spread their beliefs.

Whether they acknowledge it or not, most religious sects employ well established advertising techniques. Jehovah's Witnesses are essentially door-to-door canvassers (with free brochures), parish magazines are a clear example of self-publishing, and it wouldn't be pushing things too far to assert that illuminated churches are deploying ambient media techniques. And these may well be more effective than the postcards mentioned above, but not necessarily recognised by the religions as advertising.

I don't make these comparisons to be offensive, but to draw attention to the similarities between religious evangelism and consumer marketing. And, as with all marketing, its form varies greatly between territories.

There is a marked contrast between the rather tame promotional religious (and now atheistic) materials displayed in the U.K. and those used in America. Anyone who has visited the U.S., particularly the Deep South, cannot have escaped the sheer bombardment of religious advertising across every medium. Smiling pastors urge us to their services from huge billboards and churches even have their own 24 hour television channels. Very few commercial brands have that kind of broadcast power  or indeed such a willing target audience.

Even though I have earned a living from advertising for many years, I would always encourage a sceptical approach to marketing messages. That's what gives us power as consumers and forces advertisers to support and prove their messages. Of course, religions can't prove their claims as they are based on faith (no 'money back guarantee' I'm afraid). But here in Britain, that very scepticism has been, rather cleverly, seized upon by the founders of the Alpha Programme, which invites the agnostic or undecided to attend sessions where the claims of the church can be tested and compared against the audience's doubt.

The Alpha Programme reports great success and I'm not surprised. In advertising terms, it is indistinguishable from the Pepsi challenge.

Magnus Shaw - copywriter, blogger and sinner


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