Religion, Advertising of

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Although non-profit organizations have embraced marketing practices wholeheartedly for decades, churches have been slower to adopt them, especially in the area of advertising. Marketing was deemed unethical by many religious organizations, while others thought it might be exploitive or irritating.

In the last two decades of the 20th century, however, marketing and advertising were increasingly used as effective tools for houses of worship. According to the "1999 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches," the end of the 1990s was a low-growth or no-growth period for most established churches. However, churches that adopted a marketing orientation experienced steady growth.

Clergy, for the most part, were unexposed to seminary courses, books or workshops about church marketing until recently. A study by Stephen McDaniel published in 1989 revealed that ministers were actually more receptive to marketing activities conducted by houses of worship than the general public. A follow-up study published in 1995 reported that clergy were willing to advertise events, but not necessarily persuasive messages. Low-profile advertising (such as a sign in front of a church or synagogue) was found to be preferable to billboards or promotional products (such as pens or bumper stickers).

Faith in advertising

In the summer of 1987, the First Methodist Church of Cleveland hired ad agency Robert Carter & Associates to create awareness among college students. Its print ads used such headlines as "Summertime and religion is easy" and "Look into our Master's program." Although the previously low attendance among the targeted group was increased, many church members felt the ads were irreverent.

Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, started producing creative print ads for the Episcopal Church in the 1980s. After growing in popularity, the Episcopal Ad Project expanded to include slick camera-ready ads that could be purchased for $10 by a variety of churches throughout North America. Under the name Church Ad Project, it continued to offer b&w ads into the 21 century. A church merely had to add its name and address or other tagline in the space provided.

Other organizations offer TV spots that allow churches to add their names. For example, Impact Productions, Tulsa, Okla., offered ready-to-run, 30-second spots for churches and church-related institutions since 1991. By 2001, about 2,500 churches had license agreements to use the spots.

Broadcast media have also been used by a number of other churches to promote their various programs and services. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod kicked off a nearly $100 million evangelism campaign in 1984 that included radio, TV, toll-free telephone lines and newspapers.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long been involved in advertising, running TV spots promoting family values. In 1995, the church celebrated its 50th such ad campaign.

Christianity is not the only religion that uses marketing techniques to expand its influence. To help establish more than 1,500 centers in the U.S., Buddhists have used celebrity endorsers, including actor Richard Gere, singer Tina Turner, Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and the Nobel Prize-winning Dalai Lama.

Assessing effectiveness

Randall Hines conducted a 1992 survey of the ad practices of the 100 largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Churches ranked both their frequency of use and perceived effectiveness among 10 options: billboards, direct mail (to non-members), door-to-door fliers, newspaper church page listings, newspaper display ads, radio, TV, transit, Yellow Pages display ads and Yellow Pages listings. The most-used media within the previous 12 months were newspaper display ads and Yellow Pages listings, both cited by 91.2% of the responding churches, followed by Yellow Pages display ads (75%), direct mail (69.1%) and radio (67.6%).

When asked to rate their perceived effectiveness of the same 10 options, 72.3% using direct mail ranked it as their top choice, while 71.7% of the churches using radio perceived it as effective. Ranked next in perceived effectiveness were TV (69.4%), billboards (63.6%) and Yellow Pages display ads (60.8%). Direct mail came in fourth in frequency of usage, but first in perceived effectiveness. Although the two most popular forms of advertising by these large churches were newspaper display ads and Yellow Pages listings, both were perceived in the bottom half for effectiveness.


The term "megachurch" was coined in the 1990s to describe a church with a weekly attendance of at least 2,000. Typically, megachurches use a variety of methods to attract the non-traditional churchgoer.

Statistics show that the young men and women are turned off by traditional outreach campaigns but find relevance in contemporary services complete with drama and quality music. Younger couples with children expect pristine nursery facilities and extensive children's activities. Unlike previous generations, they may prefer to be contacted by their churches via e-mail and cell phone.

Certainly not the last to embrace Internet advertising, houses of worship and religious organizations in recent years have produced Web sites to reach certain targeted groups as well as banner ads and links to other Internet sites.

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