In God we may trust, but can we trust how God is reviewed?

From 9 to 14 August, nearly two and a half million followers of Islam from across the world will join the Hajj pilgrimage to the Grand Mosque in Mecca. All Muslims are required to make this journey at least once in their lives. This massive movement of people dates back 1390 years to the time of Muhammad. Back then, pilgrims journeyed for months, many of them by camel train.

Of course, modern-day followers of Islam fly on jet aircraft and make their travel arrangements after reading reviews posted on websites. Interestingly, our research indicates that these online reviews are unreliable. Pilgrims are being misled by those who have gone before them.

Accommodation, apparel stores, restaurants, transportation – many pilgrimage reviews appraise these basic travel necessities. Perhaps surprisingly, we find that the star ratings of these reviews are much higher than can be reasonably expected. It seems more likely these star ratings reflect the contributor’s spiritual experience than the physical aspect of the pilgrimage.

Hajj pilgrims are not alone

To see if this phenomenon was specific to reviews of the Grand Mosque, we also analysed online reviews of the most sacred sites of the world’s other major faith groups. According to religious scholars and holy texts, including the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, the Tanakh, and the Qur’ān, these sites are Christianity’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Hinduism’s Ganga Aarti, Buddhism’s Maya Devi Temple, and Judaism’s Western Wall. For these sites, we found the same result. Based on our research, we therefore advise pilgrims to ignore online rankings when preparing to journey to their religion’s most sacred site.

With unreliable rankings, potential pilgrims are left with the review text itself. Here, consumer culture theorists suggest  that people are increasingly comfortable blending the spiritual and physical aspects of their lives. Like Buddha pendants, halal nail polish, healing gemstones, megachurches, and Wiccan spell kits, we find that pilgrims in their reviews also combine the spiritual and physical aspects of their pilgrimage.

Be that as it may, pilgrims reserve different writing styles for each aspect of the pilgrimage. They use storytelling, characters and events to review the spiritual aspects of the pilgrimage. See for example the next 5-star review of the Western Wall:

No words can adequately describe what happens to a person here spiritually at this wall. My husband and I were both blown away. For my husband everything went white and completely quiet, he felt incredibly spiritually uplifted. For me a quiet buzzing radiated throughout my whole body and everything went quiet as well when I touched this wall. One has to go there to experience the incredible effects. We will be forever changed because of it.

Pilgrims use analysis, rationales and rhetorical questions to review the physical aspect of the pilgrimage. See the following 5-star review of the Grand Mosque for instance:

A marvelous and spiritual experience and the sight of the Kaabah is truly special. Be patient with the crowds and remember Allah at all times. Be careful with your shoes/slippers as it might disappear. Bring them with you using the plastic bags available. If you lose them during the hot day, be careful of the hot floor surface which are not marble. If you are lucky you might find someone selling slippers.

Pilgrims seem to feel the need to be advisory and analytic when reviewing the physical aspect of their experience. In contrast, the spiritual lends itself well to the story vessel apparently. Marketing research shows  that these stories are more effective and persuasive than rational communication in social media and beyond.

Tread carefully

In conclusion, potential pilgrims shouldn’t trust the star ratings of reviews if they want to know about the physical aspect of a pilgrimage. The ratings only reflect the spiritual aspects. They should also be careful when reading review texts: think critically, learn how to reconcile differing sets of opinions or perspectives, and try to understand the roles that both the spiritual and the material aspects of the pilgrimage played for the reviewers to write in the way they did.

Read the original research article: van Laer, T. & Izberk-Bilgin, E. (2019). A discourse analysis of pilgrimage reviews, Journal of Marketing Management, 35(5-6), 586-604.

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Tom van Laer

Tom van Laer

Tom van Laer is Associate Professor of Narratology at the University of Sydney. The functions, structures, causes and effects of stories are his speciality. His research is published in leading and highly-regarded academic journals, including the Journal of Consumer Research, International Journal of Research in Marketing, Journal of Interactive Marketing, Journal of Management Information Systems, European Journal of Marketing, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Marketing Management, et cetera. His work has been covered by the ABC, SBS, the Sydney Morning Herald, Newsweek, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, the Independent, Financial Times, and national TV and radio stations in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, among other news outlets.

Elif Izberk-Bilgin

Elif Izberk-Bilgin is Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She studies consumer activism, faith-based marketing, and sociological aspects of consumerism in emerging countries. Her work has been published in leading academic journals, such as the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Academy of Marketing Science, and Consumption, Markets and Culture. Her research has been featured in Time and has garnered international attention. Elif serves as Associate Editor of Consumption, Markets, and Culture and she is on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Journal of Islamic Marketing.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.