Can Religion Save You from Marketing?

Above all, taking the shield of faith,
wherewith ye shall be able to quench
all the fiery darts of the wicked.
– Ephesians 6:16

The upcoming issue of Marketing Science features a paper of interest to the devout, the atheist, and everyone in between. “Brands: The Opiate of the Non-Religious Masses?” is the result of testing a provocative hypothesis: what is the relationship between brand loyalty and religiosity?

If you manage to wade through all of the jargon—and ignore the unintentionally sinister phrases that result from the unholy synthesis of methodological phraseology and religion, e.g., “Study 3: Multiple Experimental Manipulations of Religiosity”—the heart of the study is simple. Controlling for variables like materialism, extroversion, income, whether products are “self-expressive” or “functional,” and whether an individual is drawn to religion primarily for reasons of self-expression or security, the researchers are ultimately exploring “brand reliance” and religiosity as conflicting means by which to express self-worth.

The researchers discovered that individuals “with low levels of religiosity use brands to meet a need for self-expression that people with a high sense of religiosity can satisfy through religion.” In other words, the more religious you are, the less vulnerable you are to branding.

Of course, “brands allow people to express that they are meaningful, worthwhile beings, and deserving of good things in their lives,” and this applies only to products like clothes, and not batteries (I can’t be the only Duracell guy out there, can I?).

The religious shouldn’t heave a big sigh of relief just yet. These findings suggest that religiosity—or religious priming, in which the researchers simply have test subjects think about religion before making purchasing decisions—could be manipulated by retailers who want you to purchase their own generic store brands. Further, an earlier study suggested that once religious fundamentalists “choose a product they are more likely to remain loyal to it.”

The study ends with the reminder that, while marketers are certainly taking pages from the playbook of institutionalized religion, religious leaders are also learning from marketers. Most surprising here, though, is the fact that the researchers seem to think that this something relatively new, writing that both groups are “already adopting the techniques of their competitors” (emphasis mine). What do they even teach at marketing schools these days?

Historians have long noted that the Great Awakening owed much of its success to innovative commercial techniques. Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson was a pioneering force in radio and political campaigning in the first half of the twentieth century. And televangelism and megachurches are hardly subtle in their admixture of marketing and the divine.

Still, we live in a world of neuromarketing, 3D billboards, scented advertisements,facial coding” analysis, and no-attention marketing: because unlike most consumers, marketers know that even the blind can see and are tailoring marketing techniques accordingly. We have “political marketing”—which, when combined with neuroimaging to determine the arationality of political decisions, does not bode well for the future of public discourse—as well as established research on biologically predisposed color preferences, hormone-induced purchasing patterns, and brand-priming’s ability to directly affect behavior.

In short, we need all the help that we can get. And if I can pick up a divine shield against branding at my local church, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to embrace God™ in order to express that I am a meaningful, worthwhile being deserving of good things in my life. It sure beats an iPad.

Download an early draft of “Brands: Opiate of the Non-Religious Masses?” here.

Garrett Baer is a graduate student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.