A few years ago, an international sandwich chain based in the UK called 'Pret a Manger', withdrew a brand of tomato flavoured crisps dubbed 'Virgin Mary' after receiving protests from Catholics. Harley-Davidson tested the limits of religion with a billboard in Quebec showing two halves of a ladies face - one half in a hijab and the other with a helmet and her blonde hair flowing. The hoarding read - A Chacun sa Religion - roughly translated it means -To each her own religion. They were going for a secular approach, but it 'backfired' which, as we know, is not a good thing for a motorcycle or its brand.
Advertising regulators in Europe and India receive a large number of complaints annually, but not too many are related to 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 offerings, much like any other marketer. In India, for example, it is now possible to do a Sathyanarayan Puja on the internet making it easier than trying to book the neighbourhood pandit. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite come through with the same feeling as pujas are largely metaphorical. While one coconut can represent your ancestors, another may represent your progeny. All those little niceties and intricacies of a holy 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 that relies on modern technology to attract followers.
In general however, it would be wise for marketers to avoid material that will either cause widespread or intense offense to a small group; which 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.
There is little doubt that the web is changing the way religion is being experienced on a global scale. On a trip to Badrinath, I noticed devotees instagramming their entire experience of the well-known spiritual journey.
But does religion really 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 to them. Some may also feel that making religion a commercial consideration might well offend their religious sensibilities. So in effect, you may be walking a razor's edge if you're looking at gaining commercial profit by using a religious theme.
The Meat and Livestock Australia Group just 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. Rise in cholesterol cases is killing the red meat industry and thus, it has killed the lamb too. 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, and Catholicism. On the other hand, it takes the risk of offending every religious group in the world.
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.
(The author is chief mentor, HGS Interactive; a digital marketing consultancy)