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Preaching to the unconverted

By Paul Harrison - posted Thursday, 3 September 2009

News that Christian Churches in Australia are about to start an advertising blitz to persuade people to bring Jesus into their lives, once again shows how naïve and uninformed businesses, government, and people are generally when they believe that advertising has some magical power to persuade people to behave the way they want them to.

It seems that thousands of churches across 15 Christian denominations in New South Wales are behind a project that aims to promote the message that the teachings of Jesus are still relevant. The campaign, based around the slogan, “Jesus. All About Life” begins in two weeks. Unfortunately, those with faith have probably placed too much of it in the ability of an advertising campaign to convert non-believers, and even lapsed Christians.

Yes, advertising does have some influence over attitudes and behaviour, but the reality is that it can only really work as a "nudging" tool. In other words, an advertisement will incrementally move you towards a decision, but there are a whole bunch of other variables that will determine your final behaviour or decision. In reality, one-way advertising is a relatively weak motivator when it comes to consumer behaviour (although the ad agencies wouldn't tell you that when you are about to give them $1 million).


It's quite a romantic notion to think that advertising is powerful. It is a myth partly propagated by the advertising industry, and partly supported by our experience as consumers. We see a lot of ads, we know that businesses spend millions on it, so it must work ... mustn't it? We see hundreds, even thousands of advertisements every day, but when you think about it, we mostly do nothing in response.

Advertising works best among people who are predisposed to notice your ads. In other words, it is your loyal customers and current users who are most likely to notice your advertising, followed by people who have been primed to notice them.

For example, when are you most likely to notice advertisements for companies that sell car tyres?

When you have a flat tyre or need to replace your tyres, of course. You are primed to notice these advertisements, because you are cognitively predisposed to seek out information about that particular attitude object.

Even before the Christian ads have gone to air, their background research found that people hate church or messages related to religion. So, they've decided to be more subtle about the message - which seems to make the campaign even more confusing and pointless.

Who is most likely to notice, and be persuaded by a Christian advertisement, then?


The people who commissioned the advertising campaign; current, faithful, committed Christians, and maybe people who were already willing to be persuaded. It's a simple proposition, but one that is often not stated - advertising works best among current users. It makes current users (who are satisfied with the product) feel good about themselves, and it has the potential to increase loyalty towards the product. In some cases, it increases advocacy, which is what Christianity has always been good at, that is, being fishers of men.

The campaign might bring some lapsed Christians back to church, although this would be less likely to occur purely through an advertising campaign. One mistake is that the objective of the campaign seems to be a bit confusing. Do they want people to embrace Christianity, think about Jesus, or do they want people to go to church?

I get the impression that they want people to come to church, but this isn't implied in the slogan. Karl Fasse, a consultant involved in the campaign says that what they are "seeking is do is help people reconsider being re-engaged in faith", although I am not sure how they will measure this. It would be foolhardy to think that there will be a direct correlation between people reconsidering being engaged in faith, and those people actually returning to church. Already the message is confusing, and if the message is confusing, then the target market is likely to be even more confused about what they are meant to do in response.

So an expensive ad campaign is not going to do the trick. Advertising is most effective when combined with a complete and thorough marketing mix, i.e., a product people "want", a product that is easy to access, and something that requires little cost (including factors such as effort, and social and psychological risk). One of the mistakes I can see the Churches are making is that they are putting their money into old, interruptive broadcast media, rather than clearly defining what they want to achieve, who they want to target, and how these people might actually respond to the message.

If you ask me, I think the thousands of churches spending so much money on an advertising campaign like this are not really getting good value. They would be better off spending the money understanding why people are turning away from Jesus, and then examining whether the church is able to respond to this.

But maybe I don't have enough faith.

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About the Author

Dr Paul Harrison is Senior Lecturer in Consumer Behaviour and Marketing at Deakin University, Melbourne. His research is focused predominantly on the social nature of consumption in all its forms. Paul’s blog can be found at

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