Where are we headed when it comes to marketing and religion in the digital age?
An international sandwich chain store based in the UK called Pret a Manger a few years ago had to withdraw a brand of tomato flavoured crisps called Virgin Mary after receiving protests from Catholics. Harley Davidson tested the limits of religion with a billboard in Quebec when they showed two faces, one half of a face in a hijab and the other half with a helmet. Obviously, they were trying to be very secular but it ‘backfired’ which as we know if not a good attribute for any motorcycle. A Chacun sa Religion roughly translates into ‘to each her own religion.’
Advertising regulators both in Europe and India receive a large number of complaints annually but not so many which have to do with religion.
So where are we headed when it comes to religion in the digital age?
For one, religious institutions are using digital media to market their wares much like any other marketer. In India for example, it is now possible to do a Sathyanarayan puja on the internet much more easily than trying to book the neighbourhood pandit. But unfortunately, it just doesn’t come through with the same feeling, because pujas are largely metaphorical. One coconut represents your ancestors and another may represent your progeny. All those little niceties of any ritual can get lost in the anxiety to acquire a do-it-yourself puja on the internet. The papacy under the current pontiff is clearly a global digital brand which relies on modern technology to attract their followers.
In general, however it would be wise for marketers to avoid material that will either cause widespread offence or intense offence to a small group. This is why I find clients shying away from using any religious reference in their marketing however big the temptation. Of course, this does not include festival advertising in India which is largely “discount sale” advertising without a point of view.
But there is little doubt that the web is changing the way religion is being experienced on a worldwide basis. On a trip to Badrinath all the devotees were Instagram-ming the entire experience of this well-known spiritual journey.
Does Religion have a place in advertising?
If one were to look at it purely from the point of effectiveness I would say no. The pre-requisite for a good ad is to establish relevance with a target. The inclusion of religion only makes it relevant to those with strong religious beliefs. To many others you take the risk that it may just be disqualifying. And some others may feel that making religion a commercial consideration might offend their religious sensibilities. So in effect you may be walking a razor’s edge if you are looking at commercial profit by misusing religion.
The Meat and Livestock Australia Group released a commercial which cheekily positions lamb as the meat that anyone can eat, irrespective of which religion you belong to. It’s easy to see why they might have done that. Cholesterol has killed red meat and along with it, it has killed lamb. And that no doubt is a worry for the livestock producers. On one hand the commercial tries to be secular by representing all the religions in the world from Scientology, to Hinduism to Buddhism to Christianity.
On the other hand, it takes the risk of offending every religious group in the world. I can see the Christians being offended with the reverse miracle of turning wine into water, and the staunch Hindu being offended by Lord Ganesha being a party to eating lamb, just when millions in India are petitioning him with prayer while observing penance. The TVC has upset Hindu groups both in Australia and in our own country. The commercial has also been referred to the Australian Standards Bureau which is the advertising watchdog in Australia and has received 20 complaints so far, but more complaints are expected to be received.
But soon after the Australian commercial was released, we had an ad in India by hairstylist Jawed Habib's Durga Puja-themed print ad that was published in a few dailies of Kolkata, found itself in the middle of a controversy. The text of the ad said 'Gods too visit JH salon' , accompanied by images of Hindu gods preening at the beauty parlour. Naturally the ad raised an uproar among the public and the media.
But religion and humour have never been the best of friends. Unfortunately, the role of humour and to a certain degree even advertising is to subvert the accepted order of things. Whereas the role of religion and theology is to stoutly defend them.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)