In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business ilLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Rebecca Wang and Mathew Isaac about the recent study they co-authored with Dr. Isaac's colleague, Carl Obermiller, titled “The Downside of Divinity? Reputational Harm to Sectarian Universities from Overtly Religious Advertising.” It was published in the Journal of Advertising.

Dr. Wang is an assistant professor of marketing in Lehigh’s College of Business. Her research reflects her interests in marketing, data science, and technologies, and focuses on digital and mobile channels, social media, and data-driven marketing.

Dr. Isaac is a professor of marketing at Seattle University, a Jesuit Catholic University in Seattle, Washington. His research focuses primarily on consumer judgment and decision-making, examining how contextual and motivational factors influence product evaluations and purchase intentions.

They spoke with Jack Croft, host of the ilLUminate podcast. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript. 

Jack Croft: For the purposes of the study, what did you consider as overtly religious advertising?

Mathew Isaac: We looked at a few different things. One thing that was interesting to us was trying to understand if even fairly subtle cues could make a difference in terms of being seen as more or less religious. We conducted a number of experiments where oftentimes we provided participants with slightly modified descriptions of a university. Sometimes, this was a real university. Sometimes, this was a fictional university because we didn't want people to bring in their own preconceptions about the university to the experiment.

In one study, we just manipulated the presence of a logo. So it was the exact same university that was described, but one included a logo featuring a Christian cross, whereas the other group of participants saw the exact same description, but without the cross presented. In another study, we had a little more descriptive information text about the universities—in one case, highlighting its religious programs, in the other case, this was de-emphasized a bit.

Dr. Wang did a really interesting analysis for us because we wanted to understand whether there was variation in the amount of religious language that's being used on websites of sectarian universities. There are about 879 sectarian or non-secular universities in the U.S. And we were curious whether, if we looked at the home pages of these universities, we would find differences in the amount of religious content. I think that was really valuable convincing us that there's a lot of differences in how universities communicate.

Rebecca Wang: There really is a wide range. There's a list of Catholic universities in the U.S., maybe 200 or so web links. I looked through all the web links and basically scraped the texts from those home pages and do some simple text analysis, and then calculate how many religious words using a software called LIWC [Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count]. It's a very established method, established dictionary. I looked at how many words are considered religious and how many words of these web pages are used. What's the percentage of that? And it really is a wide range. I think some universities may only have half a dozen and some can literally range in the hundreds, just the home page alone. … I think the word “tradition” is probably one of the key words and also anything related to church or Bible, Christianity, of course, even Christmas and faith. … Saint is a big one as well. Theology and seminary, chapel. All of these are religious words that would signal how religious a school is.

Croft: Let's briefly talk about what some of the main findings from the study [are] that leaders of religious universities and colleges need to know.

Isaac: I think the first is that even these fairly subtle religious cues that we've been discussing can, it seems, impact judgments about the academic quality at a university. And yet, that doesn't happen across the board necessarily, but it is very specific to disciplines. So it's perhaps not surprising that if a university comes across as being more religious based on the use of certain cues or content, that it is considered to be stronger in religious-related disciplines, things like divinity, theology. And in fact, that's what we find.

But what we also see is that the university seems to be penalized in other disciplines. It seems that science and engineering [are], in particular, penalized. We see that universities, when they advertise more in terms of religious cues and icons, they're seen as being worse in terms of academic quality for their science and engineering programs. And also, we saw a similar effect in other quantitative areas, including business and economics.

Croft: And how does the concept of zero-sum outcomes and resource allocation factor into what the study found?

Wang: Zero-sum allocation refers to a person's way of processing judgments, basically. They assume that people make tradeoffs in their decisions. In this case, science versus religion, you would automatically assume that one strength would come at the cost of the other because the idea is you only have so many resources available, so it is zero-sum. If one is stronger, then the other one must be weaker because the total sum of resources stays fixed. So zero-sum allocation is essentially a short way of saying that. Since humanities and religious studies, or perhaps even art, history, and literature, lean toward more theology and religion, it's more closely aligned with that. So when I make a judgment, a religious school is very strong and seems to put a lot of emphasis and focus and perhaps even resources on religion. So they must have taken away from some science.

Croft: The three authors on the study are all in business schools. And I also found it interesting that in addition to the way that STEM programs are perceived by students based on overtly religious advertising, that so are schools' business and economics programs. What's going on with that?

Wang: I think it's probably because people think about science and religion, or hard science, soft science on the spectrum. Even though we do see the effects being strongest for STEM fields, we still observe that effect with business and economics fields because we still rely on data and evidence in business arenas, whereas humanities and literature [are], relatively speaking, more aligned with religious studies. So that's my take.

Isaac: We ran six experiments with almost 2,500 participants for this article. And I think in general, what we find is this positive effect of religious advertising on judgments of disciplines directly related to religion—theology and ministry, religious studies. And we find a very clear negative effect when you're looking at science and engineering, but it was almost as strong for business and economics. For arts and humanities, the effects were a little more mixed and harder to document across studies. But I would definitely agree with Becky that we certainly seem to think it's related to logic and quantitative methods, and that is something that is constant or consistent between STEM and business and economics, and maybe less so when you think about religious studies or even arts and humanities. And so that could explain why we see this pattern.

Croft: For those universities that are looking to attract people to science and engineering, as well as technology and mathematics, or for that matter, for business and economics, what is the main takeaway? It seems like if you have programs in both religion studies and science and engineering, that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the best way to go.

Wang: I think it's important for a university to segment their students by their intended majors or interests and then craft personalized messages, emphasize more or less of a university strength or religious background. Some people might be more interested in humanities, and that probably would be the right message to them. But then, if someone else is interested in STEM fields, it's very hard for them to be perceiving your school to be better than others if you send just a blanket message. So I think it's important to do some sort of customization.

Isaac: And I think one of our central messages is not that we're telling religious universities they have to walk back away from being a religious university, especially if that's a key part of their identity. But really, just to be aware of how communicating the religious aspect of their identity might have repercussions that they were not aware of. I think it could be as simple as just being extra careful to really communicate the STEM aspects or the science aspects of the university earlier. You might do both, but maybe in a communication about Seattle U, we should be stressing the fact that we have a new Center for Science and Innovation earlier in the message so it doesn't get lost or overlooked because people really seem to focus on religious cues.

The other thing I'd like to mention, too, is that even though our work looked just at religious advertising in the context of higher education, I think there could be some implications for this work for the many other types of religious organizations that are out there, outside of higher ed: Hospitals, donation centers, charities, etc. And it could be that for all of these religious organizations, consumers might be making these kinds of judgments that they may not realize based on the fact that they are using religious cues more or less in their communications.

Tags: advertising
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.