Overtly religious advertising can harm a faith-based college’s STEM reputation

Mathew S. Isaac and Carl Obermiller are marketing professors at Seattle University. Rebecca Jen-Hui Wang is a marketing professor at Lehigh University.

Seattle University is a midsized private university in a booming technology metropolis that is home to some of the biggest names in tech, including Amazon and Microsoft. It is also a Roman Catholic, Jesuit university that just built a sparkling new Center for Science and Innovation, with the intent of ushering in a new era of STEM education.

Mathew S. Isaac

Permission granted by Mathew S. Isaac


Interest in science, technology, engineering and math is rising at many institutions. But given that two of us are faculty members at Seattle University, we were curious how, if at all, a sectarian university’s religious identity and advertising affect perceptions of its academic programs and quality, particularly its STEM programs and offerings. As business school professors and behavioral scientists, we wanted to know whether religious advertising elevates or diminishes a sectarian university’s academic reputation. Simply put, does it attract or dissuade students?

On average, religious universities tend to be smaller than their nonreligious counterparts (think large state universities) and may be disadvantaged by their marketing and recruiting budgets. In a seemingly logical attempt to differentiate themselves, religious universities may be tempted to double down on their religious affiliation and identity in their advertising and marketing communications.

Carl Obermiller

Permission granted by Mathew S. Isaac


Religious advertising can be conveyed through language, such as the repeated use of religious words or terms like faith, Christian, God, or church on the university’s website or recruiting brochures. It can also be visual — expressed through the religious imagery, symbols, or icons (for example, a Christian cross) that appear in a university’s logo or marketing materials. 

As detailed in our new research article in the Journal of Advertising, we find that religious advertising can, in fact, influence perceptions of a university’s academic quality, but it impacts evaluations of different disciplines very differently. Interestingly, religious advertising adversely affects perceptions of a university’s STEM disciplines the most. Given the burgeoning demand for STEM education, this is a finding that should give religious universities real cause for concern.

Jen-Hui Wang

Permission granted by Mathew S. Isaac


Why do people penalize STEM programs at universities that emphasize religion in their advertising? Our work shows that people engage in “zero-sum” thinking when considering the strengths and weaknesses of a university. They believe that when a university prominently advertises its religious aspects, this implies that greater resources are devoted to religion and fewer resources are left for other academic programs — especially disciplines that seem diametrically opposed to religion. 

As a result, whereas evaluations of academic programs closely related to religion increase, evaluations of programs and disciplines either directly or indirectly linked to science suffer. While religious advertising bolsters perceptions of programs like religious studies, theology, and ministry, perceptions of programs such as science, engineering, and even business and economics fall.

Interestingly, zero-sum thinking about science and religion is not unique to atheists or agnostics. Our results — from six experiments with over 2,400 participants — suggest that everyone engages in zero-sum thinking about science and religion, at least to some extent, irrespective of whether they themselves are religious.

So, what should marketers at Seattle University and other religious universities do with these insights? First, recognize that one-size-fits-all communication should be avoided whenever possible. Instead, consider taking a page from the corporate world and emphasizing personalization and customization in most marketing communications. If university recruiters and marketers can segment prospective students based on their intended majors, they may be able to craft customized messages that emphasize more or less of the university’s religious background and affiliation. This approach could meaningfully boost enrollment, especially among students who are interested in careers in science but consciously or subconsciously presume that religious-oriented universities can’t possibly excel in STEM.

It may be possible to strategically select the best brand elements for the audience depending on whether an advertisement is intended to emphasize the quality of a religious or a scientific program.

Second, reevaluate the university’s overall brand image and examine mass media placements where customized marketing is more difficult, such as recruiting brochures, billboards and websites. Do these placements fit with the university’s strategic objectives, brand identity and positioning?

Finally, be mindful that even subtle cues, such as a cross embedded in the logo of a Christian university, may be enough to trigger zero-sum thinking and thereby generate inferences about academic quality that university leaders find undesirable. Although changing a university’s longstanding logo might be infeasible, many universities have multiple brand marks, including word marks, seals, signatures and spirit marks. It may be possible to strategically select the best brand elements for the audience depending on whether an advertisement is intended to emphasize the quality of a religious or a scientific program.

In short, as leaders at religious schools navigate the challenges of demonstrating the value of higher education and managing enrollment, they need to realize that there may sometimes be a tangible and financial downside to divinity