How not to use billboards, and other things the Australian Christian Lobby should learn about the media

Nathan Campbell —  June 2, 2011

What a fortnight it has been for the outdoor advertising industry. Never has religion won them so much mainstream media coverage. Well. Not since the last atheist outdoor advertising campaign in the states.

Here’s the thing. From an advertising perspective, campaign wise, billboards are a pretty rubbish way to do things. If you have a $10,000 budget for a campaign just about the last thing you want to do with it is hire a billboard. You could phone the number of people who will care about your billboard for less than that cost. Billboards are good as part of an integrated media campaign, and they are an especially good way to get media coverage if you put up something outlandish. In fact, the only reasons I’d ever advise using a billboard (and ever have in the past) is a) if it’s free. Like a prize, or some sort of in kind deal with the billboard company, b) if you’re selling high volumes of low value impulse products (like a chocolate bar or a soft drink – Coke reckons if you see their logo six times in a day you’ll buy a bottle), c) if you’re saying something incredibly outlandish and you want to generate media coverage.

This last option is where my interest lies, and in the last few weeks (well months) there have been some interesting case studies in outdoor advertising from religious groups that have become mainstream media stories.

PR companies calculate the value of their marketing efforts using a metric called “equivalent advertising value” or some multiple of the advertising value to get equivalent exposure. I think this method is bollocks, but it can be hard to quantify the value of PR. You can ask why in the comments. It’s not really worth going into.

First cab off the rank was the hugely successful rapture readiness campaign that probably received, in EAV terms, significantly more than the initial advertising spend globally. Billboards don’t come cheap. But neither does TV air time, and this billboard campaign was getting a story an outlet per bulletin for days leading up to the event on broadcast media and features pre-and-post. All because this guy bought some billboards. That’s what you want when you buy billboards. People to notice, to talk, and for buzz to start. That’s why billboards, generally speaking, are more shocking than other ads. You only see them for short bursts so they have to grab you, but they also need to be newsworthy if you want maximum exposure. This is why the push to get g-rated ads is bound to fail, eventually, because shock value is so intrinsic to the medium (we’ll talk more about the ACL below).

Some people would say this billboard is offensive because of its use of Papyrus and the fact that the guy in silhouette looks like he’s constipated. But the message got cut through because it was such an outlandish claim, and because the guy buying them had spent so much money. But you don’t have so spend millions of dollars not talking about Jesus to get media coverage for your religious billboard.

You can also, as it turns out, make claims about Jesus that shock people. Especially if you’re Islamic. And you claim Jesus as your prophet. One wonders if most Muslims have stopped to read what Jesus claims about himself in the Bible which would seem like a pretty natural approach to history (though the Bible is seen as an unreliable witness to Jesus’ prophecy, or so I’m told). So this billboard campaign offers interesting opportunities to have that conversation (see DavidOuld.net for how that might work). But not all Christians view the billboard this way. Evidently. Because some clown tried to tear it down. Which would be a masterstroke of media manipulation if it ended up not being a Christian who did it – because again, a controversial advert, with a controversial follow up, is gold for newspaper editors everywhere. And represents value for money for the advertiser.

Generally speaking, I’m a fan of freedom of speech, which means I am naturally opposed to censorship. Not viewing guidelines. But the prevention of ideas being able to be freely transmitted. Some ideas are criminal, and transmitting them is worthy of being locked up. But as a general rule people I disagree with should be allowed to advertise their messages. Because that’s consistent. The playing field is level. I hate the idea that we are a “Christian country” so therefore other religions shouldn’t be allowed to advertise. It’s wrong on about eight levels. Well. Two. We aren’t really a Christian country, and even if we were, that shouldn’t stop us letting minorities have a voice. There’s censorship of ideas, which is bad because liberty is good, and there’s restrictions on liberty for the sake of not hurting others. Which is good, because hurting others is bad… which brings me to the big gay controversy…

Two people. Cuddling or engaging in foreplay. Necking. Condom in hand, lowered suggestively towards groin. Clothed. The words rip and roll displayed prominently.

Safe sex message or not, I think you’d have a hard time convincing most people that the above scene is “G Rated”… it’s simply not. The subtext is clear. And while being “G Rated” is framed as being about children, it’s really not. It’s about protecting people from things that offend them in public places. I don’t think you need to worry about protecting people from things that offend them where they have a choice to turn off. But a bus stop doesn’t present you with that sort of choice. So even if the subtext goes over the heads of children, which I think it probably does, and even if the message of that ad is important, and it is. I don’t think a bus stop is the place for it.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had somebody out there fighting for G-Rated outdoor advertising.

Oh wait. We do.

The Australian Christian Lobby.

I’ve said before that I’m not really a fan of the Australian Christian Lobby. I’m not a fan of their approach to church and state, to morality, to the fundamental assumptions they have about what is a good witness to people, what will change behaviour, and how Christians should contribute to society. But I could support them on the outdoor advertising thing. I really could. But in this case. Their message is lost. And the advertisers win again. Because the Australian Christian Lobby’s Wendy Francis has a track record of being “homophobic” – thanks to an ill-advised tweet while she was running for Family First. I use the quotes there because she’s not actually homophobic, but rather is said to be. I don’t think she’s scared of gay people, I just don’t think she knows how to approach the issue of homosexuality in public from a Christian perspective. For more on homophobia and a Christian response to homosexuality you should read Brad’s post. I’ve written a couple of things about a Christian approach to gay marriage too.

The problem with the ad described above is that it features two males. Which meant that rather than being about “G Rated Advertising” this was always going to play out as a Christian Lobby Group being homophobic gay haters. “They’re not just scared, they don’t want gay people in the public eye.” That is how the response played out. It was like watching a car crash. And it has made this campaign, and this billboard, one of the most talked about advertising campaigns in Australia at the moment. One of the most talked about topics. And Wendy Francis and the Australian Christian Family First Lobby played right into their hands. Poe’s Law says Christian fundamentalism will be indistinct from Christian satire, and if the ACL hadn’t complained about the billboards the company behind them should have started a Christian satire organisation and complained. It was predictable. It was geared perfectly to not be outrageous and be outrageous at the same time. The company behind the campaign said:

In designing this advert to appear in general settings we were careful to ensure:

  • the models are fully clothed
  • the picture does not depict or imply a specific sex act
  • there are no rude or offensive words used
  • the men are depicted in a non-discriminatory way

While this might be true, I’d still suggest that the ad wasn’t G Rated, and therefore isn’t suitable for outdoor advertising, which should be designed to accommodate the twin poles of freedom of speech and reasonable protection of people (including children) from offense. This was an ad designed to evoke a response. Rip’N'Roll is provocative. I don’t think you can dodge that. Be it describing condom use, or the situation in which such use arises, it is clearly not family friendly.

But the real clincher, and what must have had the company rubbing their hands together with glee was the way the story unfolded. Adshell, the company responsible for the ads, pulled them (strategy anyone?), as a result of a “grass roots” campaign from ACL supporters, possibly in response to this Facebook update from Wendy Francis (that again sails close to the “homophobic” wind – it is clear the two males are an issue, despite what she might have said to Sunrise this morning).

This prompted an outcry. A hoard of angry men and women descended on the ad company waving placards featuring the picture from the ad. This made the news. Politicians got involved. Twitter erupted. The model in the photo chucked a tantrum throwing emotive language around. The billboards are now back up and everybody wins. Except the ACL. Whose important campaign about Outdoor Advertising standards is doomed to failure because they’ve got some idiot idea that talking about your opponents campaign and marketing message is somehow going to get it less attention.

If you get a bad review from the media you shut up. You don’t show all your friends. You don’t fan the flames. You wait for the hubbub to die out. Why bring attention to somebody else’s story. The better move from the ACL would have been to take photos of the billboards and interview people catching buses from the bus stops in question to build a case against non G rated outdoor advertising. But they’re all about pigheaded tenacity in every battle. And not about the war. And apparently about as interested in talking about Jesus as Harold Campling. How can a “Christian Lobby” bang on about stuff so much saying so little about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. You get a free hit on national television on a popular breakfast show and you paint us all as moralising potentially homophobic wowsers. Why not talk about Jesus, even if it’s linked to what Jesus said about marriage and sexuality.

The more we get distracted on the little things, and the more our reputation is built on the way we deal with the little things, the less people listen to us on the big ones. It’s interesting to me that while a guy like Wilberforce was obviously motivated by the gospel, and a passionate witness for Christ, the good deeds he did are in some sense kept separate from that. I can’t ascribe motives to the guy. I don’t know what he was thinking. But I like that things like the RSPCA and the abolition movement, while motivated by his faith, had their own identity. While I think the outdoor advertising campaign is a good thing for society I’m not sure it needs a “Christian” stamp. Maybe we’d be better served if we weren’t creating confusion between what Christians are on about (Jesus hopefully) and what people interested in morality (Christians included) are on about. We don’t want our good deeds to be separated from our motivations – but we don’t want them to cloud the gospel either. That needs to be clear.

We’re Christians because we love Jesus, not because we don’t like other people putting safe sex messages on billboards. Even the Muslims want to talk about Jesus. And we can’t get it right.

That is all.

Nathan Campbell

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Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His Daughter. Coffee. And the Internet. He is currently a student at the Queensland Theological College and a mercenary PR Consultant.

26 responses to How not to use billboards, and other things the Australian Christian Lobby should learn about the media

  1. The funny thing is, and the media have failed to pick up on this, that advertising company, cunningly, wasn’t celebrating gays, but exploiting them. They knew it would cause a stir, and that’s why they did it, not because they wanted to portray gay couples as normal or anything like that. That doesn’t really pay much respect to gay couples, does it? Instead, AdShell are seen as the heroes in this story.

  2. Great column. I work in PR and agree with pretty much everything you’ve written. Well done.

    • Nathan Campbell June 2, 2011 at 4:26 pm

      Hi Dylan,

      Nice to hear. Were you the fellow PR comrade I met on my visit to Church By The Bridge a few weeks back, or maybe a month?

  3. Great stuff, Nathan. Spot on in every regard. Will be shamelessly citing you in the coming days.

  4. Nathan,

    A well-written piece. However, I have a couple of questions.

    If the ACL, Family First and Wendy Francis seem unable to present a positive Christian engagement with our culture, who does? Do you know of any Australian Christian leader who actually is able to present Christianity in the way you think it should? Just curious to know who you think gets it right.

    Also, you suggested that we shouldn’t get caught up on ‘the little things’, but instead cut straight to presenting the person of Jesus. A noble sentiment, to be sure. However, is it really possible in our secular society to present Jesus in the public square without Christianity’s “moral baggage” (i.e. affirmation of heterosexuality) being in close proximity? What kind of Jesus are we to present? Is it a therapeutic Jesus that’s more like a life coach, or is it the Jesus whose radical love was matched by his demand for radical obedience?

    I really love the fact that you don’t want to present a ‘moralistic’ and ungracious Christianity to the Australian public. Amen to that. However, such a positive and ‘balanced’ approach is much more easily achieved in a blog post than when the cameras are rolling. I so want to believe that what you’re suggesting is possible, but in the midst of a permissive secular cultural paradigm and a left-leaning media bias, is it really possible?

    blessings.

    • Nathan Campbell June 2, 2011 at 11:09 pm

      Hi Matt,

      I think this is one the Sydney Anglicans do brilliantly. Peter Jensen provides a model for gracious engagement with issues that always somehow lead to the presentation of a clear and concise gospel message. I think Mark Driscoll also does a pretty good job of this – when he is given a platform he usually makes it count.

      The problem I think is that for a lobby group or a political party the main game isn’t the gospel, it’s what they’re lobbying for that is why they’re given a platform. Which I think is where the Wilberforce model has some appeal. Quoting Bonhoeffer has become so cool that even Kevin Rudd does it… so I’ll stick with Wilberforce. I think in contemporary Australian politics that John Anderson was a great model of what being a Christian in politics should look like.

      Using a little thing to cut to Jesus is fine. It’s hard to do that when your little thing is morality and the gospel is about grace for sinners. As for the media stuff, and their bias, it really depends where you go. I think Sunrise, for example, is a pretty soft and unbiased media avenue. It would be much harder to take a free hit on Q&A and they would eat Wendy Francis alive. So I’m glad she’s at least getting some good media advice in terms of her outlets. You’re right that the hard hitting journos lean left. Unless you go for some sort of breakfast radio shock jock (though they’re not journos). But even the SMH, probably the most left paper in Australia, usually quotes Peter Jensen pretty accurately even if the story is negative. You still no he’s on about Jesus. I think it’s easier to get the gospel across with an unsympathetic crowd actually, because the right wing guys want to make the story conservative moral protectionism, while the left want to make it about how odd we are that we still think Jesus is relevant to how we approach contemporary issues.

      Sorry this is a bit mangled. It’s sort of a stream of consciousness response to your questions. Feel free to come back at me. I probably haven’t answered your questions about what sort of Jesus very well, I think my problem with the ACL message is it’s often grounded in “family values” rather than in any depiction of Jesus at all, even lifecoach Jesus is better than no Jesus at all? Maybe. Perhaps my problems with the ACL are so numerous they begin to overlap. They are poorly thought out in their understanding of church and state, how morality relates to the gospel, how to approach issues of public morality, how to use the media, and what a “win” for a Christian group looks like. All these issues are important, and I just don’t think they’re being handled particularly well and perhaps are too badly tarnished by previous efforts (like the gay marriage = child abuse comment).

      So I’d say the way forward is to completely remove a moral message from a Christian message. Morality in the public square is important. We need standards. The recent public swearing laws are an example. But we probably need to be doing some more nuanced thinking about censorship and freedom of speech and issues that could have ramifications for the gospel than we’re currently getting from the ACL. And a Christian group should at least in some sense be able to talk about Jesus clearly. Shouldn’t they? I don’t think we want to make the mistake of becoming like the religious right in America where Mormons, Snake Handlers, and Sarah Palin become our nominal representatives.

      Anyway. I’ve probably said enough in this comment for another post.

      • Reading Matt and your interaction has helped to clarify some things.
        The body who are able to present gospel (Jesus, the need for Jesus to be received and what a life of responding to Jesus should look like) is the church.
        Parachurch groups hit one note and if they substitute for the church in public discourse then balance is lost.
        I too like the ‘just present Jesus’ approach, but presenting Jesus as Saviour means sooner or later people are going to hear what it is in their lives from which they need to be saved.
        The church can do that because they are a body in which those sorts of truths can be communicated in the context of relationship. With parachurch it’s going to be a press release or a campaign.
        This isn’t to say that churches are not going to be portrayed as loopy. Even Sydney Anglicans. But the broader scope of their work and witness allows their moral positions to be contextualised with greater nuance than single issue concerns.
        Ah, I’ll sleep on it.

      • thanks for taking the time to reply. As usual you’ve given me heaps to think about. Thanks mate.

        • Andrew Millsom June 4, 2011 at 9:06 am

          You guys are onto something here. Increasingly we’re getting painted into the far right “Sarah Palin is my representative” corner. And no matter what your thoughts on Sarah Palin, you alienate people when you’re associated with one side of politics (any side).

          I agree that the connection of morality and Christianity is hurting us. Not that we’re amoral(!) – far from it. But in the public mind, Christianity is being equated with morality alone. When a Christian organisation (like ACL or even Family something – there seem to be a number of them out there), when a Christian organisation speaks about morality alone then the public hear that Christianity is about morals. And that’s bad. Gospel + morals = good. Gospel alone = good. Morals alone = bad.

          Perhaps as Nathan suggests, the John Anderson model is a better way forward.

          A related issue is the increasing presence of petitions from ACL & others in churches – in church services I mean. I’m still thinking through this but my gut feel is discomfort. In trying to present the gospel to people in church (to enquirers and even to those who’re pretty young in the faith) I do wonder whether the encouragement to sign an ACL petition clouds the message unhelpfully. Thoughts?

          • Andrew Millsom June 4, 2011 at 9:22 am

            Perhaps if they called themselves the “Australian Morality Lobby” it would be more helpful.

    • Nathan Campbell June 3, 2011 at 2:39 pm

      John Dickson, Greg Clarke, and the CPX team are another example of people who use issues well to present the gospel.

  5. Nathan, I haven’t read much if your blog for a while, but I reckon this is one of your best posts ever.

  6. great post.
    (sorry i haven’t read the comments, so can’t interact!)

  7. Nathan Campbell June 3, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Interesting profile piece on Wendy Francis in the SMH. Highlights four things:

    a) her argument about G rated advertising is worthwhile and it was consistent with that argument for her to oppose this ad. She genuinely believes in this campaign.
    b) she’s not a homophobe.
    c) you can’t split the person from their role in an organisation – so if Wendy comments, the ACL, and even Family First, will be involved in the story. And it is impossible to differentiate her opinion on the morality of these ads from the ACL position.
    d) Therefore her position needs more Jesus.

  8. Fantastic post. Thought-provoking blog. You’re sharing a Christian perspective without using emotive, non-rational language. Thank you!

  9. maybe i’m naive about what is so called ‘g rated’ advertising is, but i initially saw this ad in print form on the front cover of a music street press. i threw it into my bike’s basket and road to work (a school) and then threw it on my desk and got to work. it wasn’t till later in the day i realised it was a band posing but actually about safe sex. it was the fluro condoms that helped. also, ‘rip & roll’ while suggestive is no more suggestive than ‘rock and roll’ or ‘jazz’ when those terms were first coined.

    also i think a lot of christians are probably scared of homosexuality (at least the act), and i think probably need to acknowledge this – just like we need to acknowledge we have racist tendency at that it gets in our way of christ-like loving people. i have racist and homophobic views on occasions. there i said it.

    • Nathan Campbell June 4, 2011 at 4:04 pm

      Hey Joel,

      I guess my thoughts are that “g rated” advertising is pretty similar to “g rated” programming, I think I’m operating on a category of inoffensive to 99% of the community.

      My thoughts on advertising are that it should always be opt-out for the consumer. On TV you can change the channel, in a magazine you can turn the page, etc. You can’t opt-out of public space so it should be inoffensive to all. Choosing to be offended may or may not be right. But having two people clearly about to tear their clothes off and ravage one another – straight or not – is likely to not only present awkward conversations with children for parents who don’t really want to be talking about sex, and likely to offend some elderly people.

      But you’re right. We do need to acknowledge our prejudices and be prepared for other people to be able to put their views across in a g-rated way. Otherwise we’ll have our pants pulled down when we try to advertise the gospel. Which is foolishness to those who are perishing. And offensive.

    • True dat.

    • Yeah, what Brad said. By the way, nice post Nathan – and interesting to see how it’s unfolding. Maybe you and Brad should become politicians so I can have someone to vote for.

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