Research shows thoughts of God can make people less responsive to fear-based advertising

Life can be scary, and many advertisers try to appeal to this sense of fear when marketing their products. But consumers who have God in mind might not be as susceptible to this tactic, according to a new study. 

The research—led by Keisha Cutright, associate professor of marketing in the Fuqua School of Business—found that people who think about God feel a sense of support that makes them less responsive to marketing strategies based on fear. These results could help companies better determine how to promote their products to various markets.

For instance, advertisements that use the threat of a burglary to promote an alarm system might not work as well in highly religious areas of the country. 

“When God is top of mind for people, they are less likely to be persuaded by ads that use fear-based arguments,” Cutright said. 

Cutright worked with Eugenia Wu—assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh—on the study, which will be published in the Journal of Marketing Research. 

In one of their experiments, some participants watched commercials that discussed the dangers of plastic water bottle chemicals while sitting in a chapel. Others viewed the same commercial in a business school classroom. Those in the chapel were less persuaded by the fear-based advertisement. 

They also had participants watch a commercial that warned about the dangers of babies sharing a bed with their parents. Some viewed the commercial with religious background music, while others watched it with secular music. 

In another experiment, 217 participants wrote about either their concept of God or their favorite season before they viewed an ad for flood insurance. In both of these cases, the people who had God in mind were less persuaded by the fear-based marketing. 

The researchers then tested whether the findings were being driven by the feeling of having God's support. They divided 602 participants into three groups—one read a quote about God giving support in hard times, one viewed a quote about how God encourages self-reliance and one read a non-religious quote. 

They found that the people who read about God—but without the mention of support—responded the same as those who read the secular quote, suggesting the importance of feelings of God’s support in the study’s results. 

“Thinking about God makes consumers feel supported and capable of coping with any problems that might occur,” Wu explained. 

She noted that the research is important because fear-based appeals are used by for-profit and nonprofit organizations to encourage consumers to take preventative actions against potential problems. 

The research suggests that marketers need to be cautious about using these appeals in contexts that might remind consumers about God, such as ads in religiously-themed media and programming. 

“Demographically speaking, marketers may also think twice about using fear-based advertising in highly religious areas of the country, or perhaps even among people who are more likely to be religious, such as older populations,” she said. 

Cutright noted that for consumers, her findings mean that the salience of God could protect from undesired influence when fear appeals are being used. 

“But this may also cause one to ignore messages that they'd want to respond to,” she said. 

She added that in the future she would like to continue these types of studies and wants to understand how thoughts about God might affect different advertising techniques. 

“We think it'd be interesting to understand how other types of appeals like guilt or happiness might differ in effectiveness based on whether God is top of mind,” she noted. 


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