Religion and Advertising of Controversial Products

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Template:Cleanup-reorganize The influence of religious beliefs on individual and social behavior is well documented, however a related topic – influences of religion on Marketing Communications is unfortunately not researched extensively. Most of the studies which did research the impact of religion on Marketing Communications, limit their focus only on the influence of Islam on advertising content and regulation in Saudi Arabia and related Gulf countries.

The effects of religion on advertising of controversial products remained largely unstudied until a study was published in The European Journal of Marketing[1] discussing the influence of religion on attitudes towards the advertising of controversial products in 2002. The study was conducted under the leadership of Kim Shyan Fam, David S. Waller, and B. Zafer Erdogan.

This study analysed what influence religion and intensity of belief has on attitudes towards the advertising of particular controversial products and services. A questionnaire was distributed to 1,393 people across six different countries and resulting in samples of four main religious groups. The results indicated some statistically significant differences between the groups.

The study aimed to examine whether there is a relationship between religious beliefs, the intensity of those beliefs and offence towards the advertising of controversial products.

Controversial products are described by Wilson and West (1981, p. 92) as: “products, services, or concepts that for reasons of delicacy, decency, morality, or even fear tend to elicit reactions of distaste, disgust, offence, or outrage when mentioned or when openly presented[2].

Methodology, Survey Development and Data Collection

  • To obtain some measure of offensiveness towards the advertising of specific controversial products, a questionnaire was distributed to a convenience sample of university students in six countries (Malaysia, Turkey, Taiwan, China, Britain and New Zealand)
  • A total of 1,393 respondents were sampled for this study.
  • The questionnaire took approximately 10 minutes to complete and was administered in a classroom environment.
  • The survey instrument included a list of 17 products/services from which respondents were asked to indicate their level of personal “offence” on a five-point scale, where 1 means “Not at all” offensive and 5 means “Extremely” offensive.

The 17 products/services can be grouped as follows:

Gender/Sex Related Products Social/Political groups Health and Care Products Addictive Products
Female contraceptives

Female hygiene products

Female underwear

Male underwear


Funeral services

Guns and armaments

Political parties

Racially extremist groups

Religious denominations



Sexual diseases (AIDS, STD prevention)

Weight loss programs




Managerial Implications of this study and the key findings:

  1. Social/Political Groups
    • What they are – Funeral services, Guns and armaments, Political parties, Racially extremist groups and Religious denominations
    • Findings – All four religious groups scored relatively high on the offensiveness scale
    • Implications – Marketing or Advertising Managers should understand that advertising this ‘product’ will be in opposition to most religious teachings and hence advertising will be distasteful and possibly ignore
  2. Addictive Products
    • What they are – Alcohol, Cigarettes and Gambling
    • Findings – These products scored the second highest on the offensive scale, however Buddhism and Islam followers scored these products higher than Christianity and the Non-believers.
    • Implications – Marketing or Advertising Managers should avoid the mass display of such ‘products’ in public. In societies where Islam is the main faith, advertising of alcoholic products is totally banned or heavily restricted. However, one can circumvent the rule by advertising in specialist media, such as direct mails and/or Internet, to reach the small pocket of visitors and expatriate populations.
  3. Gender/Sex Related Products
    • What they are – Female contraceptives, Female hygiene products, Female underwear, Male underwear and Condoms
    • Findings Muslims in general and the more devout Muslims in particular, found the advertising of gender/sex-related products more offensive than other religions. However, this perceived offensiveness was not limited to Islamic faith, other religions as well as Non-believers took offence to these products, just on a lower degree.
    • Implications Marketing or Advertising Managers need to know their target market very well and devise campaigns that do not look unclean or distasteful. The advertising of condoms and female contraceptives will be seen as propagating sex before marriage, a strategy best avoided in an Islamic society. One should also avoid antagonizing your target market during certain times (Holy Month of Ramadan, Chinese Spring Festival, etc.). Lastly, think about changing the media or even the time or schedule of your advertisements to reach a certain target market without offending others. 
  4. Health and Care Products
    • What they are – Charities, Pharmaceuticals, Sexual diseases (AIDS, STD prevention) and Weight loss programs
    • Findings This group scored the lowest in terms of advertising offensiveness. The low score could be attributed to people getting used to such advertisements.
    • Implications – Marketing or Advertising Managers need to know that advertising of these products will be seen as challenging the obvious and hence the advertisements may get ignored. 

Summary of the Research:

1.      Even though people are accepting the reality of modern society and breaking down religious containment, not all religions accept the change with the same speed

2.      A major implication for the advertisers, while catoring to diverse religious groups is the choice of media and media scheduling

Further Reading

David S. Waller, Kim-Shyan Fam, B. Zafer Erdogan, (2005),"Advertising of controversial products:a cross-cultural study", Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 22 Iss 1 pp. 6-13

David S. Waller, (1999),"Attitudes towards offensive advertising: an Australian study", Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 16 Iss 3 pp. 288-295

Nejdet Delener, (1994),"Religious Contrasts in Consumer Decision Behaviour Patterns: Their Dimensions and Marketing Implications", European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 28 Iss 5 pp. 36-53 http://