But you gotta have faith…

A new advertising campaign is unlikely to convert the non-believer

This is not part of the campaign - but it might be useful

This is not part of the campaign - but it's funny.

News that Christian Churches in Australia are about to start an advertising blitz to persuade people to bring Jesus into their lives, once again shows how naïve and uninformed businesses, government, and people are generally when they believe that advertising has some magical power to persuade people to behave the way they want them to. It seems that thousands of churches across 15 Christian denominations in NSW are behind a project that aims to promote the message that the teachings of Jesus are still relevant.

The campaign, based around the slogan, “Jesus. All About Life” begins in three weeks, and is being broadcast in prime-time over a period of six weeks. Unfortunately, those with faith have probably placed too much of it in the ability of a mass advertising campaign to convert non-believers, and even lapsed Christians.

Yes, advertising does have some influence over attitudes and behaviour, and under certain circumstances it can even create preferences. But the reality is that most advertising can only really work as a “nudging” tool, and usually in relation to brand preference (rather than product) and ease of recall.

In other words, an advertisement will incrementally move you toward a decision, but there are a whole bunch of other variables that will determine your final behaviour or decision. In reality, one-way advertising that uses an interruptive broadcast model (such at TV, radio or outdoor advertising), on its own, is a relatively weak motivator when it comes to consumer behaviour (although the ad agencies wouldn’t tell you that when you are about to give them a million bucks).

It’s quite a romantic notion to think that advertising is powerful. It is a myth partly propagated by the advertising industry, and partly supported by our experience as consumers. We see a lot of ads, we know that businesses spend millions on it, so it must work… mustn’t it? We see hundreds, even thousands of advertisements every day, but when you think about it, we mostly do nothing in response.

Advertising works best amongst people who are predisposed to notice your ads. In other words, it is your loyal customers and current users who are most likely to notice your advertising, followed by people who have been primed to notice them.

For example, when are you most likely to notice advertisements for companies that sell car tyres?

When you have a flat tyre or need to replace your tyres, of course. You are primed to notice these advertisements, because you are cognitively predisposed to seek out information about that particular attitude object.

Even before the Christian ads have gone to air, their background research found that many people dislike the concept of going to church or messages related to religion, and tend to switch off or even reject any overt church advertising. One of the consultants engaged for the promotion told the ABC’s PM program that the ads are currently being reworked to minimise references to Jesus, God and the Church after research showed people tune out when presented with overt religious themes, “Well, the Christian message has always been a hard one to bring across and some of the background information has said that due to some of the things that have happened in the Church over the last number of years, both the whole paedophilia issue, plus people’s experience in church schools, sometimes churches themselves, has left the Church in a place that’s kind of a bit out on the edge.” So, they’ve decided to be more subtle about the message – which seems to make the campaign even more confusing and perhaps pointless.

The website for Jesus, all about life, tells us that the campaign “is not a public interest campaign. It is not a public profile campaign or even a public relations campaign. The key issue to understand is that the ads are not meant to deliver the Gospel. The local church will present the person of Jesus in a culturally sensitive way to the enquirer.”

So what is the campaign meant to do? Confused? Me too. 

Maybe they are trying to get people to go to church and “enquire”… or maybe not.

BillboardSo, who is most likely to notice, and be persuaded by a Christian advertisement, then?

The people amongst the Church hierarchy who commissioned the ad campaign, current, faithful, committed Christians, and maybe people who were already willing to be persuaded.

It’s a simple proposition, but one that is rarely stated – advertising works best amongst current users. It makes current users (who are satisfied with the product) feel good about their choices, and it has the potential to increase loyalty… amongst those current, satisfied users.

The campaign might bring some lapsed Christians back to church, although this would be less likely to occur purely through an advertising campaign. One mistake is that the objective of the campaign seems to be a bit confusing. Do they want people to embrace Christianity, think about Jesus, or do they want people to go to church?

I get the impression that because it is the churches funding the campaign that they want people to come to church, but this isn’t implied in the slogan. Karl Fasse, a consultant involved in the campaign says that what they are “seeking is do is help people reconsider being re-engaged in faith”, although I am not sure how they will measure this. It would be foolhardy to think that there will be a direct correlation between people reconsidering being engaged in faith, and those people actually returning to church. Already the message is confusing, and if the message is confusing, then the target market is likely to be even more confused about what they are meant to do.

So an expensive ad campaign, on its own, is not going to do the trick. Advertising is most affective when combined with a complete and thorough marketing mix, i.e., a product people “want”, a product that is easy to access, and something that requires little cost (including factors such as effort, and social and psychological risk).

My point is not whether religion should or should not be advertised, but whether an advertising campaign, based on an outdated interruptive broadcast model, is the most effective way to get people to engage with Christianity.

If you ask me, I think the thousands of churches spending so much money on an advertising campaign like this are not really getting good value. They would be better off spending the money understanding why people are turning away from faith, and then seeing if the church is able to respond to this.

But maybe I don’t have enough faith.


Cesario et al. (2004) Regulatory Fit and Persuasion: Transfer FromFeeling Right“, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Ehrenberg, A. (2001), Marketing: Romantic or Realistic.

Link to article on ABC News Online

This entry was posted in Advertising, Branding, Consumer Behavior, Essay, Marketing Strategy, Social Psychology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to But you gotta have faith…

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  3. Hayden Whitworth says:

    Nice article!

    I agree with what the good Doctor is saying, although (as a broadcast media guy) I do think he’s a bit pessimistic about the value of advertising! 🙂

    His ideas on how advertising works are spot on – I’ve observed it since being involved with Radio, and I think most advertising gurus would agree that advertising works best on those who are already sold, or those who are at least currently in the market for whatever you’re selling. That’s not rocket science.

    I also agree that it’s high time we stopped yelling ‘Jesus Saves’ at people, and instead took a good hard look at why 80% of our population couldn’t give a rip about Church. How is it that the priceless Good News has been cheapened to the point of irrelevance, and the Church has become marginalised into obscurity – particularly in amongst a culture that is relatively active in seeking Truth?

    The fact that (locally on the Gold Coast) over 60% of the population identify as being ‘Christian’, while more than 80% have nothing to do with the Church (except for weddings and funerals) is worth considering. It seems that the majority still identify with Christianity enough to tick the ‘Christian’ box on the last Census, and yet whatever it is they’re identifying with has little or nothing to do with attending Church.

    Or in other words – somehow the Church has become dissociated from the stuff it should be famous for… Life, truth, freedom, Good News, spiritual awakening, liberty, peace… … …

    Those things are still relevant (and I suspect they always will be… “I will draw all men unto myself…”) but I also suspect a word-association test on the word ‘Church’ might conjure a quite different and less appealing or meaningful set of words…

    In that light, I think perhaps what Mr Faaze & co are trying to do makes at least some sort of sense. ‘Rebrand the Church’ would seem like a good idea in light of all that.

    But the good Doctor makes a good point. Those most likely to actually believe the re-brand ads (That Jesus is all about Life, and that Church is a meaningful concept for those seeking truth & freedom) are the already-converted, or those who have already had a good experience of church somewhere that has created that pre-conception in their minds anyway.

    So will it budge the 80%?

    Not likely.

    But I wonder if they’re expecting it to?

    A good friend of mine once cautioned me against branding in a way that would promise more than we could deliver. And perhaps that in itself is a key to the problem of Church marketing – separating what we can deliver from that which we cannot.

    I think the most relevant questions the Church can ask (and thankfully in some cases IS asking)… are “What can we deliver”… or “What is our promise”?

    I believe the answers to those questions are exciting. And I suspect they’ll involve a lot more than fancy buildings and forty minute sermons.

    I also think the Church that digs up those answers will dream up things far more compelling and perception-altering than a 30second radio ad.

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