Marketing and the Academic Study of Religion

kharaWhat connects red lipstick, racecars, and health care? The study of religion, of course! (Well, sort of.) Khara Cole, a 2013 graduate with a double major in Religious Studies and Public Relations, has found the skills that she developed in Religious Studies particularly important, as she designs products and their implementation for a health insurance company. She returned to campus last week to talk about her experiences working in the corporate world. The tasks of writing persuasive business proposals and accessible marketing texts clearly draw on her skills that she developed in our classes that emphasized various writing assignments. Solving problems, looking at both the little details and the broader picture as well as the ways different people might respond to the issues, employs the analytical and critical thinking skills that she, like many of our majors, considers a highlight of their work in Religious Studies.

In terms of lipstick and race cars, Khara provided this concrete example of the value of her religious studies major. When Khara began working on her current team implementing new products for her company, she noticed two previous marketing posters, one with a tube of red lipstick dominating the poster and the other with a racecar. Thinking of her first course in the department (Women and Religion with Prof. Simmons), she recognized the gender stereotypes implicit within these posters geared to different audiences and began developing more effective marketing efforts that avoided such gendered stereotypes that would alienate portions of the target audiences. Her story illustrates clearly the relevance of the questions that we often ask in our classes about the ways dominant symbols develop and the groups that those symbols exclude. Looking at those posters with a critical gaze enabled her to consider the ways a range of people might view them rather than accepting the symbolism of dominant stereotypes. In her experience, her skills in critical analysis, therefore, facilitate better marketing and communication strategies. As other graduates have told us, a major in Religious Studies helps students develop skills that provide vital contributions to a range of careers, including business and marketing.

4 thoughts on “Marketing and the Academic Study of Religion

  1. Hi Professor Ramey, thanks for an interesting post. It’s great to see students succeeding and applying the critical thinking skills they have developed in your Department to careers that at first glance might seem unrelated. As someone with an undergraduate degree in religious studies who went on to work in public policy in New Zealand before transitioning to a PhD programme in Australia, I am very much a firm advocate of the wide-range of skills and careers one can cultivate with a degree in religious studies.

    That being said, as a longtime reader of this blog, and appreciator of the critical approaches to the study of religion that comes out the Department in Alabama, I find this post and its emphases a little curious. I wonder if you could explain how this squares with what I at least have come to see as one of the general themes that unites a lot of the work done in your Department and among other critically minded scholars elsewhere in the field?

    What I mean is that, to paraphrase Bruce Lincoln’s caution that one should not confuse cheerleading for scholarship, there seems to be a disconnect between this particular post and the usual approach to many of the posts found on this blog. While, in my reading, many of the usual posts do a great job of critically un-masking a host of taken for granted assumptions, this one seems to uncritically promote the inner workings of capitalism and the markets created by privatised health care.

    Put differently, how might this post have read if the student in question got a job in marketing to promote and make more palatable the agenda of the AAR, or of one of the churches that helped promote Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, or if they simply became a missionary, which, after all, is just another form of marketing?

    1. Thanks for reading the blog and commenting. The continuity between this post and many of the others on the blog is a willingness to question common place assumptions, in this case the assumption that professional degrees prepare students for careers and humanities degrees do not. To push this further, using the analytical skills developed in Religious Studies to promote privatized health care also challenges the assumption that critical thinking works against the dominant political and economic systems. While both Khara and I have our own views about what healthcare systems and governmental policies should be (something that we did not discuss at the event or beforehand), we both also work in imperfect systems and benefit economically from them.

    2. Thanks for your reply, I appreciate it. I don’t have anything specific to argue with in your explanation, so this is more of a postscript. I have been trying to think through why I found this post in particular to be somewhat curious. I think what it comes down to is that it seems like the kind of post that often becomes data on this particular blog. However, in this instance instead of breaking down the taken-for-granted notion that degrees lead to jobs (while fully accepting that you have instead chosen to question “the assumption that professional degrees prepare students for careers and humanities degrees do not”), you have chosen to highlight the fact that your students get good jobs, and apply the critical thinking skills learned in rel courses in their occupations. I think this is great, but it also demonstrates to me an instance where the social theory loses a bit of its edge, by getting sucked into the capitalist machine and measuring success in terms of jobs. Thus, while on the one hand you have pointed out the fallacy that humanities degrees do not prepare students for careers, on the other you have seemingly reinforced the notion that a degree is primarily a means to a pay cheque, even if that pay cheque comes from a source that appears unrelated to one’s area of study. The choice, then, to highlight this as an example of a success story rather than further data to be critically analysed also suggests to me that it is a good example of something that I have learned well from you and your colleagues: that classification is always a political act.

    3. I’m sad to say I have not noticed this thread of replies until just now; so if I may, I’d like to step in and give my perspective on the matter (specifically since I’m the alumna mentioned).

      I appreciate your inquiry into the nature of this post. I would say you’ve found the right venue to entertain your questions since questioning systematic practices is the business we’re in around here, but something tells me “business” is a dirty word in this context.

      I hate to think my many successes are overshadowed in this instance by my career, but ultimately that was just one of many topics we discussed on this particular evening. I think it’s important here to remember that critical thinking and other skills gained through the study of religion in culture are not something to be monopolized by only one sector or industry, whether it be academia or health care. To suggest that I am somehow more “sucked in” to the capitalistic hegemony than anyone else makes it seem as though there is something else I could be doing that is somehow untouched by capitalism, to which I’m not sure I can think of anything at the moment that qualifies.

      Now, let’s take it a step further and add in the fact that I still have to pay for the critical education I received, and here’s where student loans enter (dun, dun dun…). It’s nice to think of private health care as the antagonist here, but is the insane cost of higher education not also a part of the problem? It would be a lot cooler if I got my education and subsequently had a life that didn’t require me to work for a corporation OR pay back my student debt; however, we all find ourselves succumbing to the rituals and practices of the culture and context in which we live, whether it’s intentional or not. Sure, I’d love to live outside the capitalist hegemony, but as Prof. Ramey mentioned above, most of us work in imperfect systems and benefit economically from them; sector/industry is irrelevant.