How To Target Religious Conservatives

This unpredictable demo likes Oxygen's sex shows and Pax TV

Oxygen has worked hard to position itself with edgy programming about sex, women's rights and lifestyle issues. If the network had a political voice, it's probably left-of-center. So it's a surprise to the network—and its advertisers—to discover that it has a loyal audience base in religious conservatives: the same group political analysts say re-elected George W. Bush, wants women to adhere to traditional values and prefers discussions of sex be kept in the bedroom.

“[These findings] do fly in the face of what the conventional perception is,” says Debbie Beece, president of programming at Oxygen.

Simmons, a leading New York-based market researcher, a division of data giant Experian, conducted an analysis of the media habits of religious conservatives. This group isn't cookie-cutter media consumers who listen to right-wing talk radio and watch Fox News Channel. They are a complex consumer base, as likely to watch steamy sex shows on Oxygen as wholesome, family-values fare on Pax or the Hallmark Channel. (Simmons estimates they are 21% of the U.S. population.)

Advertisers looking to target religious conservatives are often stunned by their viewing habits. One reason the community has been overlooked to date: It is self-contained.

Jane Lacher, VP, director of research and consumer context planning at MediaVest, says, “There are networks of ministries. It's an industry of its own with contact lists that can be bought and sold. If you want, you can do a very targeted campaign against them, but unless you have a specific product, you might not think of them.”

That rationale may be changing as the demo's TV preferences are revealed.

Part of the Simmons analysis, which utilized its BehaviorGraphics system, matched the viewing patterns of religious conservatives to actual Nielsen TV ratings. Predictably, the spiritually slanted Pax has the greatest composition of religious-conservative viewers. But CBS ranks third and Oxygen fifth in the tally, which caught Simmons' analysts off guard.

“Pax was no surprise, but CBS and Oxygen aren't known for being conservative,” says John Fetto, a project manager at Simmons who conducted the analysis. Per his findings, religious conservatives are 40% more likely to watch Oxygen's and 47% more likely to watch CBS' programs than the average adult viewer.

Among their favorite TV shows are Oxygen's Talk Sex With Sue Johanson, Nighty Night and Bliss, a show based on erotic fiction for women. While initially taken aback by the findings, Beece says it makes sense. Nighty Night is a dark, edgy show about an evil woman ruining the lives of other characters. “It's really a religious setting,” she says, noting that even though bad things occur, the show is meant more as a morality play than simple titillation.

Beece also understands the appeal of Oxygen's sex shows: They are handled in a “sincere” and “thoughtful” way. “It's about increasing intimacy,” she explains. “Everyone wants to have a good sex life. Everyone wants to have a good relationship with their spouse or boyfriend.”

Similarly, CBS' popularity among religious conservatives may seem odd at first, given its reputation as a left-leaning news division among conservatives. But CBS' prime time lineup includes a host of family dramas, such as Joan of Arcadia and Judging Amy. The network also airs many crime dramas, like CSI,JAG and NCIS, as well as racy daytime soap operas that score with religious conservatives. This interest in unlikely shows explains why ABC's Soap Opera network, which indexes second behind Pax, performs so well.

“If you think about it,” says Andy Donchin, executive vice president, director of national broadcast at Carat North America, “it's kind of hypocritical. What's pushing the envelope more than daytime soaps? They're more edgy than prime time shows.” Religious conservatives may preach God-fearing, churchgoing conservative values as their core, fundamental beliefs, but they are just as likely to watch violent and sexually provocative programming as the average viewer, according to the study.

While the motivation behind the TV-viewing patterns of religious conservatives may be debated, Madison Avenue is focused on potential sales. Rob Frydlewicz, vice president, research director at Carat Insight, says advertisers are beginning to pay more attention to that segment.

“Products that do exceptionally well with this group include domestic autos and men's and women's clothing purchased at Dillards, JC Penney, Sears or Wal-Mart,” he says. Tools, mint candies, greeting cards, photo-related items and houseware that enhances gracious living are also popular.

“We're a trending society,” says Lacher. “Because we have a president who is a born-again Christian, the religious right has come out of the closet. Will this be a trend, like low-carbohydrate diets? I don't know.”

What impact the religious right will have on Madison Avenue and in the media-planning strategies of advertisers is unknown, but Lacher says she is been spending more time analyzing the underlying trends in this group.

“It is an undercurrent of our society. They seem to be in vogue currently, and if you look at what's happening with the kids, it has suddenly become OK to admit to spiritual inclinations,” she notes. MediaVest research suggests America's youth is becoming more open and vocal about religious conservatism.

While doing research in the youth sector, she discovered that teens were spending extracurricular time in Bible clubs. “They were admitting it openly,” reports Lacher. “That's not something that would have been cool to do a few years ago.”

According to researchers, addressing the religious right is akin to addressing the African-American and Hispanic communities. Both groups used to be about assimilation; now there is a significant amount of pride and influence on the larger culture, says Lacher. “The same thing is happening with religion. It's cool to be religous.”

Madison Avenue just needs to translate religious cool into its pitches.