Ethics: Should faith be used in advertising?

Every Monday, I explore a different ethical dilemma. Today, I examine whether aspects of faith should be included in advertising.

A friend on his commute spied a cleaning service van. The twist? Their services were faith-oriented, and they weren’t shy about advertising their work on God’s behalf. (Or perhaps God’s admiration of their labor.)

Is this sort of marketing ethical? Does it boast refreshing honesty? Or does it pander to please, thereby generating additional revenue?

Let’s get one thing straight. There is no “separation of church and state” in the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights contains two dicta concerning religion. They are:

  1. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion
  2. or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

That’s it. Congress can’t establish a government-mandated theocracy, and can’t in any way interfere with your free exercise of religion. So first we can answer with impunity that it isn’t illegal for any faith to advertise its services, or for any service to advertise its faith.

But is it right to do so? That’s a different question.

For me, the answer lies in motive. While it is easy to say that some acts are probably wrong regardless of circumstance (like murder or infidelity), there are many gray areas where context matters. This is because one facet of the act seems noble and good, even brave, whereas the other appears insidious.

The sad fact is that for those of faith, religion is far less significant in everyday life than it ought to be.

Consider the graph pictured. Astounding percentages of the world hold supernatural beliefs.

Now imagine a different graph in your mind, but still a pie graph with only two slices. One slice is the number of conversations you have about religion, and the other is the number of conversations you have about virtually anything else.

Is the religion slice sliver-thin? I know it is. It’s probably about as small as, say, the “Atheist” slice in the above graph.

Recapture that same graph of your own experience, only instead of conversations, include all content. Of the television you watch, how much is related to faith? How many newspapers or books or magazines you read? How many billboards you see? How many activities you perform? How many jobs you’ve held?

The faith-based sliver gets smaller smaller, doesn’t it? If you’re an atheist or agnostic, I take no issue with either your graph or your beliefs.

But for those of you who consider yourselves people of faith, what does this say about how important faith actually is in our lives? The answer isn’t inspiring.

The advertisement for housecleaning under the Christian guise may be annoying, but you can say one thing about it:

It’s honest.

And it’s in your face.

Jesus was not about making people comfortable with him. Quite the opposite. So far as I know (though I’m no expert), neither was Mohammad. I’m quite sure the God of Abraham wasn’t.

If faith truly matters to you, it should be part of your advertising. It should be part of your business, if you run one. It should be part of your work ethic if you work for someone else.

But there is a darker side to faith in advertising. And that’s the motive.

If the motive is to spread the word, to be honest with customers (and with those who know better than to become customers), faith should be in advertising all day.

If it’s a cheap attempt to make an extra buck, it’s worse than any other form of profiteering I can name.

Is religion-based advertising more likely to generate customers, or turn them away? From the graph of how we identify ourselves, you would expect religion to be on every television commercial and billboard.

But in the other graph, the mental one of our real day, faith-based advertising doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in [insert bad place of your belief-system]. Religion is conspicuously absent from virtually everything we do.

So ask yourself:

Does religious advertising really generate more revenue?

Or is the business owner making a difficult choice simply because his or her belief required it?

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