Arts / Faith and Humanities / Business and Ethics

Study Finds Reputational Harm to Sectarian Universities That Use Overtly Religious Advertising

August 9, 2021

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Overtly religious advertising by religiously affiliated universities can negatively affect perceptions about academic rigor, according to a new study co-authored by Seattle U researchers.

When religiously affiliated universities use overtly religious advertising or marketing communications, prospective students and donors react more positively toward academic programs that are closely related to religion, while their evaluations of programs and disciplines in areas that are more related to science decrease in positivity, according to a study by researchers at Seattle University and Lehigh University.

Specifically, religious advertising negatively affects these stakeholders’ judgments of disciplines such as science, engineering and other STEM fields, as well as disciplines indirectly linked to science that similarly rely on logic and quantitative methods, including business and economics, according to the study.

“This effect, which we observe across six experiments with over 2,400 participants, occurs when institutions highlight their religious background and affiliation using either religious iconography (e.g., the Christian cross) or more religious language/wording,” write the authors.

The study, “The Downside of Divinity? Reputational Harm to Sectarian Universities from Overtly Religious Advertising,” was published online by the Journal of Advertising. The authors are Seattle University professors of marketing Mathew S. Isaac, PhD, and Carl Obermiller, PhD, and Rebecca Jen-Hui Wang, PhD, assistant professor of marketing at Lehigh University. While Seattle U is a private Jesuit Catholic institution, Lehigh is a small private university in Pennsylvania with no religious affiliation.

Why? Zero-sum allocation

The evaluations and perceptions of academic programs at religious schools occur because individuals infer zero-sum allocation. 

“They believe that when a university prominently advertises its religious aspects, this implies that greater resources and monetary budgets are devoted to religion but fewer resources are left for other academic programs—especially disciplines that seem diametrically opposed to religion,” the authors write. “In short, religion and science are perceived as conflicting archetypes representing faith and logic, respectively. Because people presume, either consciously or subconsciously, that religion and science are in opposition, they seem to make zero-sum tradeoffs between religion-related programs and science-related programs at universities.”

University leaders might believe that zero-sum thinking about science and religion only occurs among atheists or agnostics and that their religious constituents will always respond favorably to overtly religious advertising (and not engage in zero-sum thinking). “But this is not what we observe,” the study continues. “Our results suggest that everyone engages in zero-sum thinking about science and religion, at least to some extent, irrespective of whether they themselves are religious or not.”

Additionally, a substantial proportion of students at universities in the U.S. that identify as religious do not self-identify with the university’s religious affiliation.

“As a result, religious universities must be sensitive to how potential students who are not religious or who come from different faith traditions may be influenced (or alienated) by advertisements that highlight (or spurn) the university’s religious affiliation.”

Pressures on enrollment and finances

The findings have significance because small religious colleges are already at a disadvantage compared to secular schools in competing for qualified students.

“Colleges and universities are feeling the pressure to maintain student enrollment and demonstrate the value of the education that they provide,” the authors write. “These concerns have only been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted nearly every aspect of higher education.”

As these religious universities continue to navigate through enrollment and recruitment challenges, “they need to be aware of how the extent to which they focus on their religious background and affiliation in their marketing and communications affects the perceptions and evaluations of their stakeholders, especially prospective students and potential donors.”

The authors believe their findings are relevant for the 879 religiously affiliated universities and colleges in the United States that are associated with a religious group, which comprise approximately 21.8 percent of the country’s 4,034 degree-granting post-secondary institutions. In addition, many of these implications may be informative for non-university religious organizations as well, like places of worship, charities and hospitals, of which there are more than 350,000 in the U.S. alone.


How can the research help college marketers? The authors note that they are not prescribing that all religiously affiliated universities temper their advertising. The ideal set of advertising tactics for any given university will vary depending on the desired brand identity of the university and the specific segment it targets.

However, the authors make some suggestions, including:

  • Advertising may need to be adjusted by emphasizing—or deemphasizing—a university’s religious background and affiliation to appease a particular segment. This approach could meaningfully impact enrollment given the recent growth in the United States in both the percentage of undergraduate degrees awarded in STEM fields and the number of college students interested in studying STEM.
  • Creative agencies should exercise caution when designing visual content or writing advertising copy on behalf of their university clients. It may be surprising to advertisers that changing a few words or a single image in their advertising copy can have dramatic effects on zero-sum thinking about religion versus science. Relatively subtle religious advertising cues may intensify zero-sum thinking and thereby produce inferences about resource allocation and academic quality that university leaders might find undesirable.
  • Even the order in which information about a sectarian university’s scientific programs, relative to its religious programs, is presented on its website may affect the inferences made by prospective students and donors. Decisions about the use of religious content cannot be ad-hoc but instead must be made thoughtfully and strategically.

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