The devil is in the detail: tackling religion and humor in advertising

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) lamb ad aims to bridge religions

A lot of my work tackles race, religion, and politics in marketing and consumption across cultures. The things that you’re told to steer clear of. But I decided to ignore those rules of thumb for a number of reasons.

I’m the son of a white father and a black mother, who grew up in a Christian household, surrounded by Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. I fell in love with martial arts and the whole mysticism of the Eastern religions. And on my travels I decided to convert to Islam in 2000, after a nightmare of a boozy New Year millennial celebration in Moscow. Those experiences make me a minority within minorities.

It then dawned on me that I should experiment with the counterintuitive idea of allowing myself to be positively stereotyped warts and all, and giving up on trying to be mainstream. The result: being authentically me, accepting other’s perceptions of me being peculiar and exotic, and actually creating a new lane that has mass appeal.

If you want to be a rock star, rapper, or a comedian, then this is what you are supposed to do – to make it real and keep it real. However, for many of us in agency land, this attitude and approach is often read by clients as posing a risk – especially when you want to fuse religion with humor.

Profits and prophets

I spend a lot of time working on activities targeting Muslim majorities and minorities, in the Halal industry. As this multi-trillion dollar global industry grows, there are challenges in how the Halal we keep Muslims and non-Muslims happy, we can celebrate the spirit of spirituality, and profit from prophethood.

Humor is a key bridge builder for me - and my conference talks, even in conservative countries, are punctuated with a splash of stand-up. What I learned is that, if done properly, humor can be used to tackle tough issues and pain points - whilst creating confidence, intrigue, intimacy, allure, and swagger. For me, the boxer Muhammad Ali was the master at this. He was a cultural zeitgeist who disrupted convention and transcended labels.

Now here lies the challenge: the stakes are high and the devil is in the detail. To pull it off you need a cross-disciplinary team of nerds and this is where many agencies fall short – especially if their workforce lacks diversity in all sense of the term.

You need wordsmiths that are as popping as rappers and spoken word artists. You need people who have genuinely studied the craft of humor – from the underpinning psychology through to stand-up execution. You need practicing religious and spiritual people who are plugged into communities.

Social media communication, emojis, and snacking on mobile video content are honing a sophisticated sweet tooth in all of us – and the quest for viral and pithy content has become the holy grail of advertisers. These are eliciting what psychoanalysts would call ego states that bring out the ‘free child’ in us.

Religion has become more important

I would also go further in saying that as branding takes centre stage, religion has become more important – because brand strategy encourages or demands their worship, with an increasing number of associated consumer rituals, and brand theory uses terms like icons and avatars.

We know the downside to all of this - and that’s the fear of the backlash. The now famous Pepsi campaign that lasted 24 hours had an iconic celebrity, timely subject-matter relevance, a trophy hijabi charater (because hijabis trend) – but it trivialized and sanitized the core message in preference to plugging, proselytizing and evangelizing the religion of Pepsi.

Brands have to take a stand and align themselves with a higher cause, not just to remain authentic and relevant, but also to avoid being called out for being fake and inhuman false idols.

I met Adam Khafif over the Summer at a Personal Branding workshop I was running and we chatted about his wife Noor Tagouri, the first hijab wearing woman to appear in Playboy magazine. She took a massive risk to raise her profile and take her message to an audience that she felt otherwise wouldn’t be interested. There was a massive outcry and flurry on social media from Muslims around the world - many who didn’t realize that she was fully clothed in the photos (many who didn’t want to check), and some who live in countries where this publication is banned.

Religion is serious business

Religion is a serious business. There’s a high degree of navel-gazing and soul-searching on the inside, and the wider community still remain largely uninformed and off the pace. But it’s clear that for millennials in a post 9/11 theatre where they are typecast as villains, finding a way to cut through the noise - by being edgy, flirtatious, and funny is their only option.

If we look at the recent Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) advert, then the positives are that they tried to do something different and inclusive. Religion offers a fertile ground for storytelling, and scenes of fluffy lambs in fields or even worse in abattoirs are played out and don’t really encourage people to consume more lamb. They were also mindful of Muslims’ strong prohibition on the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. However, they missed out on some key market intelligence and played it too safe.

The humor wasn’t up to much and felt more like a public service broadcast in identity politics. You could see the gags coming miles away and the skit was too long. I think at best an elementary school child would be interested in the novelty of seeing different religious figures, or it's going to be used by teachers as religious studies class material.

Jesus and Moses are actually viewed as prophets of Islam by Muslims, so they’re not too keen on seeing them depicted either. For some people of color now, the idea of a factually incorrect white Jesus or Moses isn’t going to resonate. Many Hindus and Buddhists don’t even eat meat! In fact, red meat consumption is on the decline amongst many and veganism is on the rise. Having said that, a significant proportion of lamb produced in Australia is Halal and exported to the Middle East, with Muslims consuming more lamb than other consumer segments.

So when you look at the facts, lamb is widely consumed and does have strong symbolic relevance amongst the monotheistic religions in their holy books. Halal Australian lamb has developed a strong presence in Muslim markets and is respected for its quality. It contributes greatly to the Australian economy and has created a significant number of jobs for non-Muslims, which is under-reported.

Also, Muslims last week celebrated Eid al-Adha, which is the biggest celebration of their year - in which the story of Abraham is commemorated, where all adult Muslims who have the means are encouraged to pay for a lamb or cow to be slaughtered and for that meat to be distributed to the poor.

The elephants in the room

So to wrap up: there are elephants in the room - big issues that we have to tackle like achieving diversity in the industry, how we can harness this diversity to gather deep consumer insight, and then deliver campaigns that are more than painting by numbers.

Finally, social media and globalization are driving increasing levels of intersectionality, dynamic nuances, and sophistication. That means that the way we look at humor, religion, and taboos has to move with the times too. These things aren’t going to go away, they’re just getting started – so let’s hook up with some talent that’s got game.

Professor Jonathan A.J. Wilson PhD is an academic and consultant specializing in the ‘ABCDs of Business and Culture: Advertising, Branding, Communications, and Digital’.

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