This post was written by Mathew S. Isaac (Seattle University; isaacm@seattleu.edu), Carl Obermiller (Seattle University; carlo@seattleu.edu) and Rebecca Jen-Hui Wang (Lehigh University; rjw316@lehigh.edu).

As the sun beams and flowers bloom, the arrival of summertime marks a time-honored tradition—preparing for college life in the upcoming fall semester. It is a season full of hope and excitement for many students as they ready themselves to head back to campus for the resumption of in-person instruction. Despite students’ excitement to get back in the classroom, colleges and universities are feeling the pressure to maintain student enrollment and demonstrate the value of the education that they provide. These concerns have only been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted nearly every aspect of higher education.

According to a survey conducted by Huron Consulting Group in 2020, 86% of 495 leaders of four-year colleges and universities predicted that competition for qualified students would intensify in the near future. Especially in light of the financial challenges brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic, student recruitment and enrollment retention have become even more precarious than previous years. Small, religious colleges were already in a disadvantageous position compared to secular schools, given that fewer Americans identify with an organized religion today than ever before. 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.

In new research, recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Advertising, we find consistent evidence that when a university uses overtly religious advertising or marketing communications, stakeholders’ evaluations of academic programs that are closely related to religion (e.g., Theology & Ministry, religious studies) increase. Concurrently, their evaluations of programs and disciplines in areas that are more related to science decrease. Specifically, religious advertising negatively affects judgments of disciplines directly related to science (e.g., Science & Engineering, STEM) and disciplines indirectly linked to science that similarly rely on logic and quantitative methods (e.g., Business & Economics). 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.

Our research provides evidence that these effects occur because individuals infer zero-sum allocation; that is, 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. Tension between religion and science has always existed, going back to the Middle Ages when Copernican views (e.g., the sun at the center of the universe) were branded as heretical and scientific reasoning perceived as a challenge to religious authority. In short, religion and science are 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.

Our 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% of the country’s 4,034 degree-granting post-secondary institutions. Leaders of these universities might think that zero-sum thinking about science and religion might only occur 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! 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. Furthermore, a substantial proportion of students at religiously-affiliated universities in the United States do not self-identify with the university’s religious affiliation anyway. For example, over half of all students enrolled in four-year Catholic universities in the United States do not consider themselves to be Catholic. 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.

How can our findings help college recruiters, admissions officers, and marketing staff? Our work shows that religious advertising can influence evaluations of a university’s academic disciplines and programs, with consequences for crucial brand equity metrics such as individuals’ overall likelihood to recommend the university. A religiously-affiliated university may be able to adjust its advertising by emphasizing (or deemphasizing) its religious background and affiliation in order to appease a particular target segment. For example, if university marketers can segment potential students in terms of their intended major, they may be able to craft advertising messages for different audiences that focus more or less on the university’s religious background and affiliation. 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.

Our work also suggests that in the advertising execution phase, creative agencies should exercise extreme 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 (e.g., the presence of a cross in the logo of a Christian university) 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.

It is important to clarify that we are not prescribing that all religiously-affiliated universities temper their religious 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 that it is targeting. Furthermore, it may not always be possible for a religiously-affiliated university to curb its religious advertising, particularly if the institution has a strong, non-marketing motive for ensuring that its religious association is visible. Our goal in this research was merely to make religiously-affiliated universities aware of the potentially unintended consequences that overtly religious advertising might have on evaluations and judgments of their all-important constituents.

Rebecca J.H. Wang

Rebecca J. H. Wang

Rebecca J. H. Wang, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at Lehigh Business.