Nearly a year after the launch of one of the largest religious ad campaigns in American history, the desperate attempt to promote Jesus is still failing to get a positive reception.
You may have seen these ads over the weekend while watching the college football playoffs or on various websites like YouTube and Reddit (where commenters were quick to express their distaste). There are two more ads slated for the Super Bowl on February 12, according to the Catholic News Agency, at an estimated cost of $14 million for 60 seconds of airtime.
The ads aren’t new, though. A group of Christians, funded by anonymous donors, said last year that they planned to spend over $100 million to shove Jesus in as many faces as humanly possible by way of TV spots, billboards, and online ads telling viewers one message about Jesus: "He Gets Us."
(Follow above article link to view video/photos/PDFs that accompany this article.)
See? Jesus is just like you. He understands you. He's been there. (Now worship Him or else you'll burn in Hell for all eternity.) Very catchy stuff.
These are not ads for a particular church or denomination. It's a catch-all campaign that's meant to sell the idea of Jesus in the hopes that people will eventually want to connect with a church. But even if they don't, the hope is they'll at least be "saved."
Christianity Today explained the origin story of this marketing blitz last March:
The $100 million for He Gets Us comes from The Servant Christian Foundation, a nonprofit backed by a Christian donor-advised fund called The Signatry. (Both declined to name the donors who helped envision and pay for He Gets Us, who want to remain anonymous.)
Last year, The Servant Christian Foundation approached Bill McKendry, founder and chief creative officer at Haven, concerned that too many young Americans are leaving Christianity and that more people were growing hostile toward faith. Their idea: a national media blitz for Jesus at a scale that no single church could afford.
McKendry said approaching American Christianity’s image problem with business savvy is what Jesus would have done. “[Jesus] crafted his language and his storytelling to resonate with people,” he said. “He told agricultural stories to farmers. He told fish stories to fishermen. … This culture is immersed in media, and we’re using media to reach them for Christ.”
The campaign organizers weren't trying to convert atheists. They were aiming for what they called the "movable middle"—the people open to Christianity but who, for whatever reason, are not currently Christian.
Nowhere in that article or any of the group's press statements, though, did anyone talk about the biggest and most obvious flaw with this plan. And nearly a year later, they’re still pretending that flaw doesn’t exist.
You can't sell a product without acknowledging the side effects
Do you remember all those Super Bowl ads for cryptocurrency (that aged incredibly poorly)? There was a viral tweet sent after the game last year that read, "One reason I still have trouble believing crypto currency is money is that there aren’t commercials for money."
The point being: A good product that already has widespread usage shouldn't need a marketing campaign at all.
That's the problem here.
Marketing Jesus comes with an inherent flaw: Most of the people using the product aren't worth admiring. Between televangelists, megachurch leaders, Republican politicians, campus evangelists, hate-preachers, lazy apologists, everyone at Pure Flix, and Franklin Graham, the amount of harm caused by the most fervent Jesus followers can't be understated.
Why would you ever want to join a club that includes those people as members?
And why wouldn't you at least acknowledge that the biggest obstacle to selling Jesus are the people who've already purchased the product?
Just consider the marketing campaign's Facebook page, which has a few basic rules when it comes to interacting in the comment sections. One of them is "No Hate Speech or Bullying." It goes on to say that "degrading comments about things like race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, gender or identity will not be tolerated."
Well, guess what? It's Christian politicians, pundits, and preachers who routinely deliver degrading comments about ALL THOSE THINGS. It's not okay underneath their posts, but it's okay from the pulpit, I guess.
The same pattern continues throughout the site. Like the photo that says "Jesus confronted racism with love." There's no mention of how white evangelicals are more likely than non-religious white people to reject the idea of structural racism.
Another photo says "Jesus was a refugee." There's no mention of how the most powerful Christians in the previous administration opposed refugees entering our country.
Another photo says "Jesus fought systems of oppression." There's no mention of how Christians are responsible for the anti-LGBTQ laws passing in state legislatures across the country.
Another photo asks: "Have you ever been bullied?" The implication is that Jesus was bullied too. But there's no mention of how Christians are routinely the ones causing harm to others no matter how often they claim to be persecuted.
The whole campaign is like this.
Obviously, conservative Christians and white evangelicals and Pope Benedict-loving Catholics don't represent the full breadth of Christian thinking. It would be unfair to pretend otherwise. But the United States, right now, is not in a better place because of Jesus followers. Many Americans are suffering as a direct result of their faith-based cruelty. So much of our politics right now, at least for liberals, involves fighting against Christian Nationalism and Jesus-inspired bigotry.
These campaign organizers want to market Jesus but they don't give two shits about the consequences. In that sense, they're a lot like the Sackler family, eager to sell opioids to the masses while distancing themselves from all the harm caused by their products. As if the two things aren't intertwined.
The “He Gets Us” campaign is just like the “Forward Party” (and that’s not good)
Perhaps a more appropriate analogy is to Andrew Yang’s pathetic “Forward Party.” When it launched last July, it was hailed as a centrist alternative to the two-party system, meant to appeal to a “moderate, common-sense majority.” But on any important issue, the party had nothing of value to say. There was no platform. There were no stances. There were no principles.
How can anyone compromise on civil rights? Abortion rights? Gun safety? Democracy itself? If there’s a middle ground, Democrats are already there. (Just ask any frustrated progressive voter.) To treat both parties as equal-but-opposite in their positions is as lazy and inaccurate as comparing FOX to MSNBC. It reveals your own ignorance more than it illuminates your position.
It’s no wonder why one of the Forward Party’s former volunteers just wrote an essay for The Atlantic explaining why he left the group:
… when a party’s platform is no more specific than “free people,” “thriving communities,” and “vibrant democracy,” leaders are essentially saying “good vibes, good people—trust us.” Voters will respond accordingly.
The “He Gets Us” campaign has taken the same vibes-based approach. They won’t say what Jesus stood for on matters of abortion, LGBTQ rights, immigration, etc. because they know taking a position on anything will alienate people. Unfortunately, they’re so afraid of alienating bigots that they won’t spend their money to make Jesus actually look good. They never define Jesus. Instead, they say Jesus is just like us. But notice how they never say who “us” is.
A better campaign for Jesus wouldn’t be so damn afraid to say cruelty and bigotry and theocracy is wrong.
To paraphrase an idea that’s floated around online, if people refuse to tell you whether they’re liberal or conservative, it’s because they’re conservative.
The people behind the campaign have worked with right-wing religious groups
So why would the people behind this campaign choose to downplay all the faith-based bigotry? Just ask Haven, the "Michigan-based marketing agency" that created the ads for this campaign. The company, according to Christianity Today, previously worked for Focus on the Family and Alliance Defending Freedom, two groups that actively fight against civil rights, marriage equality, and pandemic safety.
Haven was hired to promote those groups. They were hired to change the image of those groups in a positive way. They clearly weren't bothered by the fact that their work was used to spread more hate in the name of Jesus.
Naturally, then, they ignored the worst aspects of their product in this marketing campaign too.
They can't separate Jesus from Jesus' followers, no matter how hard they try. The reason so many people want nothing to do with Christianity is largely because the kind of people willing to blow $100,000,000 on a marketing campaign for Jesus either don't care about or actively support the worst Christians in the country.
Even if this campaign "succeeds," by whatever metrics they want to use, who really wins? Learning about Jesus is useless without considering the applications of those teachings. And when the people behind the campaign refuse to take a clear stand against moral monsters, it's obvious where their loyalties lie.
Not taking a political position is a political position
There was a Christian preacher years ago who formed a ministry dedicated to helping Christians build bridges with LGBTQ people. Nice idea, right? But the preacher refused to answer questions about whether he thought homosexuality was immoral or whether same-sex marriage was okay. Whatever he thought personally, he felt any formal response would alienate one side or the other so he took the coward’s way out. His ministry no longer exists.
This marketing campaign will inevitably end up in that same grave. If Christians aren't willing to denounce fellow believers in positions of power, despite the glaring link that ties them all together, their religion is not worth adopting. And when Christians with hundreds of millions of dollars in pocket change want to pretend that Jesus (as a concept) rises above the worst Christians' interpretations of biblical teachings, you're better off avoiding anything they put in front of your face.
Of all the ways that money could've been used to show the world why Christianity is worth following, this has been the biggest waste imaginable.
Let's hope that utter lack of self-awareness is obvious to the audience they're hoping to reach. In the real world, Jesus isn't the solution. Jesus is the problem. And refusing to acknowledge that only makes everything worse.