Christian bus ads are more “offensive” than Atheist Bus ads
The Atheist Bus blog and the BHA website carried news early this morning that the annual report of the Advertising Standard Authority (ASA) will name the Atheist Bus as the sixth most complained about advert last year.
But a Christian Party parody ad (which flopped) received well over 1,000 complaints to become the single most complained about non-broadcast ad ever handled by the ASA.
The Christian Party bus slogan read, “There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life”, as a riposte to the Atheist Bus slogan, “There’s probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Unlike the Christian Voice effort against the Atheist Buses, there was no push by secular organisations to report the Christian Party to the ASA. The BHA even welcomed the Christian ads, saying “We entirely support free expression and freedom of belief, and so fully support the right of these Christian groups to place their ads on buses. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” (The BHA has referred other adverts to the ASA only when something quite serious is at stake.)
So, with religious ads not a novel invention on public transport in London, and with no concerted effort to report “There definitely is a God” to the ASA, what did go wrong for the Christian Party buses?
Telling the world
Beliefs and propaganda have been “advertised” for a long time. Martin Luther’s theses were nailed to the church door in Wittenberg. Ancient leaders inscribed tales of glorious war and their own rise to power in the stone walls of monumental structures. Early twentieth century war propaganda has a distinct style, not too dissimilar on on either side of the battle lines, ranging from comic rosy-cheeked cartoons to unashamed glorification.
This is, I admit, a bit of a guess, but in recent years it seems the diversity of ‘campaign’ advertising has increased. Here are some examples of more or less successful recent campaign ads that we might draw some lessons from.
The NSPCC received criticism as far back as 2000 for its ad spend. Their ongoing “Full Stop” campaign has made its own headlines several times, either for the spend, or for the controversy of the ad. But they point out that preventing cruelty to children is not all about front line services. Raising awareness, letting people know that child abuse is something that they can talk about, tell others about, and report, is a preventative measure. The NSPCC have pointed out that awareness campaigns do also increase usage of their front line services.
Last year Greenpeace ran ads in the airport at Copenhagen aimed at the very specific audience of climate conference attendees – and of course at the media which would report the ads to a wider audience .
Amnesty in the UK raised funds earlier this month to place an advert in the Financial Times on the day of Shell’s AGM to draw attention to its activities in the Niger Delta. The campaign successfully raised the money, only for the Financial Times to pull the ad. The London Evening Standard and Metro did run the campaign.
About all these campaigns there is something novel. In the case of the NSPCC the Full Stop campaign is occasionally shocking enough that some would disagree with the approach, but even a climate change denier or Shell apologist is unlikely to object to the Greenpeace or Amnesty ads. From those organisations’ points of view it is “fair enough” for them to place the ad. It fits with their ethos. It is novel but fair game.
Atheist Bus versus Christian Party Bus
Atheistic advertising is novel enough that it can provoke minor outrages in some places, naming no names, the United States. But again, the response even amongst theists in the UK was usually that Atheist Bus ads were “fair enough”. The ads weren’t mean or churlish, they were at most a bit of a cheeky nudge back against religious advertising.
And the story behind the campaign was often reported and re-reported. The campaign had an organic origin with a small ask from a named individual. It was a response to advertising by an organisation which was threatening hellfire and against a backdrop of many years of religious advertising in the public space. So it was already the underdog. It had a grassroots feel. Its origin and motivation were transparent.
over the past month I have had to be at my most tolerant as the 149 bus passes my office bearing the words “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.“
Was it really so hard to tolerate? Even if it was hard, should it have been hard? After all, atheists saying chill out on a bus was a new thing, not something he’d had to put up with for all that long. Protesting that he was being tolerant and trying to make himself sound like the underdog was never going to fly.
Hargreaves’ article went on to call the BHA and the bus donors “foolish” (taking his lead from the Bible). In fact he uses ‘fool’ or ‘foolish’ six times in the short article, uncritically proclaiming that Atheist Bus donors and organisers definitely were ‘foolish’. This casual, biblically inspired cruelty, combined with the opportunism, by a political party no less, was bound to sour the campaign. It wasn’t “fair enough”. If the Atheist Bus was a cajoling nudge, the Christian Party Bus was a kick to the shins.
And there’s that word again, ‘definitely’. Many people wrote to the BHA about the word ‘probably’ in the Atheist Bus slogan (see the FAQ page). BHA Vice President A C Grayling pointed out that the word ‘probably’ is quite unnecessary when promoting atheism and the burden of proof is on the believers. But in the context of an advert for public consumption, about metaphysical issues on which many of the public is often agnostic, the word ‘probably’ probably helped everyone – from convinced atheists like me, to the agnostic just on the side of skepticism – to get on board. The word ‘definitely’, on the other hand, writ large on buses and billboards, will look arrogantly sure-footed about an issue that has vexed wise minds for millennia.
Finally, its worth considering money. The Atheist Bus ads, like the Amnesty Shell ads, were publicly funded. Thousands of individual donors gave to both campaigns. If the Christian Party asked existing members to fund its ads, this wasn’t part of the story. Instead of a grassroots attachment to a novel message, it came across as a one man band trumpeting the message of a party far too morally conservative for most British Christians. It wasn’t democratic, it was a little opportunistic dictatorship.
So, against a long history of Christian advertising, including the ads which the Atheist Bus was a response to in the first place, the Christian Party ad couldn’t be seen as novel. Its motivation – to find members for the Christian Party – was too partisan after the open and transparent approach of the Atheist Bus fundraising. It was too ‘definite’, seeming arrogant. It looked opportunistic rather than organic. It was churlish enough to motivate over a thousand people to write and complain.
But hey, maybe Hargreaves has a very long game plan, because today the media quickly picked up on the story. No publicity is bad publicity?
Bob Churchill is Head of Membership and Promotion at the British Humanist Association