(This post has been updated to reflect research data from 2017-2019. The original cited data from 2011.)
Americans who believe in a god
Say funny ads are more memorable
Millennials without religious affiliation
The 2017 Pew survey titled, “When Americans Say They Believe in God, What do They Mean?”, 56% of Americans claim to believe in the God of the Jewish Bible or Christian New Testament. A full one-third more say they believe in some other “higher power or spiritual source”. Reaching 89% of any group is an accomplishment in demographic targeting. In this case, however, it isn’t the same demographic because they don’t believe in the same god, or gods. And it is those beliefs that make things tricky in advertising.
Due to an inability to secure licensing agreements, likeness waivers, and modeling releases, it is fair to assume that using God, gods, miscellaneous deities, names of religions, religious adherents, or religious artifacts carries a certain amount of risk for any brand. Even churches (and other denominational houses of worship) are not exempt from the pitfalls of using holiness as part of marketing efforts. Although the risks are ever-present, there are also benefits to appropriately invoking a holy reference in organizational or individual advertising. We are going to examine those risks, rewards, and a few guidelines on how and when to use God in advertising.
RISKS OF USING GOD IN MARKETING
- Offend – They may not believe in the same god. They may believe god looks different from the one in your magazine ad. They may not believe in god at all. While it is true that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, it is generally bad advertising strategy to intentionally offend customers.
In one interesting example of controversy caused by a lack of god, Samuel Adams was recently criticized for their omission of god from a recent July 4th television commercial.
- Disenfranchise – A step up from offensive would be disenfranchisement. Not everyone is passionate about religion, even if they believe in one. But if your organization appears to have a highly pious or evangelical mentality, that could encourage customers to shop somewhere they feel more comfortable.
- Limited audience/exclusion – Substantive research will help you understand your audience. And before implementing something as controversial as religion, make sure you know that it will reach most of your audience. If it may or will not, you risk drastically limiting the reach and effect of your advertising.
- Holier than thou – As we’ll get to later, there are opportunities to tastefully and appropriately advertise with god. One risk of inappropriately using god (and not knowing your audience) is to portray an image of being more knowledgeable or important than your customer. Customers are accepting of education, not being treated like a child.
- Improper use – The best example of an improper use would be claiming to be chosen by god. A printer of bibles should not advertise themselves as God’s preferred printer. There is no way to substantiate the claim and it isn’t inherently important to a successful ad campaign.
- No relation to company/product – A logical connection is necessary for any meaningful use of god in advertising. A company making fertilizer should not use a slogan such as “God would want you to care for his earth with Acme Fertilizer.” In industry parlance, this is called a “stretch”.
BENEFITS OF USING GOD IN MARKETING
- Connect with audience – A receptive audience is easiest to connect with when using a message they can understand. With an appropriate inclusion of god in marketing, a stronger connection can be made with a particular demographic.
- Tacit endorsement – Opposite an improper use is an organic inclusion that implies a tacit endorsement. The dating website ChristianMingle.com uses the slogan, “Find God’s Match for You.” Aside from the obvious implication that your heavenly soul mate resides only on their site, it gives a tacit endorsement from God to find love on the holy world wide web.
- Humor – It doesn’t have to be completely serious. When advertising with god, a bit of levity can make an ad more memorable and easy to connect. Taste and respect are key elements in this approach but it can be done well and help achieve greater success in a campaign.
With all of these considerations and potential outcomes, the most critical facet is your knowledge of your audience. Make sure you have an understanding of their tolerance as well as belief. If the inclusion of god isn’t absolutely necessary in your creative, it may be best to leave god to the clergy.
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