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Hi and thanks for landing here. It might seem a bit backward, but I decided to start blogging only because I've been enjoying Twitter so much. While I love the 140 character limit of tweets, I realised that a blog would give me a place where I could have the luxury of saying a bit more. I've also set up here because I have a blogging project in mind... but more on that later.
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Category: advertising
Photo of a business card with The Wages of Sin printed on it
Day-glo believer

Posted on 04 December 2012, 19:14

I couldn’t help being guiltily delighted by this evangelistic business card which I found on Reddit atheism this morning (thanks be unto rchayes89 for snapping and then posting it). In fact, I love it almost as much as I love my Barry Manilow record collection.

The card, which puts the cheese back into ‘Jesus’, is brilliant on so many levels. There’s the day-glo red card and the budget heat printing which dollops shiny black ink on the surface – both so 1970s. But best of all is the reversible type in the middle, straight out of the School of Heavy Metal. It’s tacky. It’s cheap. It’s in your face. What’s not to love?

From the scuffed edges of the card, it looks like this has been given back a few times. Which is a shame. I’d endure a 20-minute ear-bashing from a street evangelist just to get one.

P.S. Just to be clear, that Barry Manilow reference was ironic, OK?

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Clergymen in the 1966 Vanheem catalogue
Clergy chic

Posted on 14 November 2012, 4:30

I love these illustrations from a clergyman’s fashion catalogue published in 1966. In the year when the Beatles started recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and mini skirts were all the rage, clergy were being told, ‘The clerical frock coat suit is still the correct wear for strictly formal occasions’. See scans of the pages here, including clergy raincoats, cardigans and dressing gowns.

They are from the May 1966 catalogue of clerical outfitters Vanheems. They were scanned by Steve Goddard, whose uncle, Canon Sydney Goddard, had kept the catalogue since the 60s.

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The Godbaby poster

Posted on 05 September 2012, 5:05

I’m a member of the team behind ChurchAds.Net, which has been producing national advertising campaigns for Christmas and Easter in the UK for almost 20 years. We’ve been running our ‘Christmas starts with Christ’ campaign for the past three Christmases, and the 2012 poster, featuring Godbaby, was launched yesterday. In the week or two leading up Christmas Day, Godbaby will be up there on billboards and bus shelters and outside local churches.

The poster comes with a choice of straplines. For a no-nonsense take on the incarnation, there’s ‘He cries. He wees. He saves the world.’ But for the faint of heart, which will probably include some churches, there’s the alternative version: ‘The gift that loves you back’. See both versions here.

I admire the poster for doing two things. First for talking in the language of today. During the autumn, advertising on buses, billboards and TV screens will be full of toys and products promising to make Christmas better. This poster will raise the same expectation, but it points to the Bethlehem baby as the one thing that can save us. And it undercuts commercial Christmas by saying in effect, ‘It’s not products you need, but Godbaby’.

Second, I appreciate its strong take on the God who becomes one of us to the point of bodily functions. For me, ‘He cries. He wees’ is a brilliant and unexpected connection between the world of dolls, where the hair ‘really grows’, and the world of the Christian faith, where God really becomes a living, breathing, crying, sneezing, weeing human being.

Some Christians will heartily dislike the boldness of that, which they’ll argue is irreverent or even blasphemous. In fact, hostile comment has already started to arrive, with someone emailing to call the poster ‘awful and repulsive’. That’s fair enough, as all Christians are entitled to have strong feelings about how their faith is publicly portrayed.

What do you think? Do you like the poster for its risk-taking attempt to communicate Jesus today? Do you disagree with it for portraying the Son of God as a plastic doll? Or what?

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Red Bull gives up Jesus for Lent

Posted on 17 March 2012, 3:38

‘Do you think Jesus had a sense of humour?’ The question was posted this afternoon on Twitter and was quickly followed by a chorus of right answers.

‘Yup He did!’
‘Yes, and does :-)’

Most Christians I know think Jesus could be funny, and that he did the 1st century versions of standup with gags such as the story of the exploding wineskin, or the chap happily walking round with a great big plank of wood in his face.

But when you think about it, being funny is only half the story. If someone’s asked, ‘Have you got a sense of humour?’ it usually means, ‘Can you take a joke?’ After all, it’s easy to be funny at the expense of someone else, but what happens when they do it back to you? Can you laugh at yourself?

So what about Jesus? Does he mind having his leg pulled? Is he OK if we crack jokes about him? Is he cool with ‘Jesus H Christ’? Something tells me that most Christians think not, and think not quite strongly, as they believe even mild jokes about Jesus are blasphemy. This unfortunately paints the Lord as someone who laughs at others, but gets monumentally angry when they return the compliment. It makes him look like a bully.

I’ve been thinking about this on and off the past day or two because a Red Bull advert being screened on South African TV was pulled when Christians (with Muslim backup) said it was deeply offensive. The ad features an amusing – to me, at least – cartoon where Jesus walks on water and the disciples question whether he’s been drinking Red Bull, as (in the product’s oft-used slogan) ‘Red Bull gives you wiiings’.

Jesus denies drinking Red Bull, and when one disciple asks if this is another of his miracles, he says, ‘It’s no miracle, you just have to know where the stepping stones are.’ He then almost slips off a stone and says ‘Jesus’ under his breath.

Cardinal Napier, Archbishop of Durban, issued a statement immediately after the ad was aired saying how ‘disappointed’ he was with Red Bull whom he chided for their ‘satirical manner’ and for ‘overstepping a mark’. He suggested that Catholics should fast from consuming the drink until Easter and added that Red Bull’s advertising and PR people ought to get some ‘sensitivity training’. My counter-suggestion is that the cardinal gets some therapy for sense of humour failure, especially focusing on the gift of humility which the Lord bestows when others laugh at you.

The advertising standards authority received over 499 complaints, at which point Red Bull withdrew the ad from broadcast.

In fairness to Red Bull, I think there’s something inherently funny about the walking on water miracle. The few times I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee, I’ve always seen people at the water’s edge larking about, pretending to walk on the waves and getting friends to snap them doing it.

It’s the flashiest of Jesus’ miracles, almost like a bit of divine showing off, and it comes close to Jesus indulging the second temptation, where the Devil tries to get him to stage this exact same miracle of defying gravity.

The story seems to attract humour like a magnet. Even the liberal rationalisations of it in weighty commentaries can’t help veering off into farce. One scholar suggested that Jesus walked on a hidden sandbank (which makes Red Bull’s cartoon look like the exposition of a viewpoint rather than outright satire), while another suggested he was just wading through the surf. In 2006, a professor of oceanography argued that Jesus walked on ice, which raises the question, why not throw in a pair of skates too?

Even before Jesus’ time, walking on water was spoken about as laughable. ‘He was rash enough to think that he could make ships sail on dry land and men walk over the sea,’ says a verse about an arrogant king in the Second Book of Maccabees.

My biggest problem with Christians who get uncontrollably ‘offended’ by mildly amusing cartoons such as Red Bull’s is not just that it makes Jesus look like a bully, but it undermines his humanity. I think I can just about make the case that refusing to countenance jokes about Jesus belongs to an ancient heresy called docetism.

In that heresy, the belief that Jesus was God was held so strongly that the belief in his humanity withered. The average docetist would say that Jesus only appeared to be human, and that he never actually ate, drank, slept, suffered, died… or had a physical life at all. It’s a very damaging belief, because if Jesus was only God, and was never truly human as we are human, how can he be ‘God with us’ and give us the help we need? It destroys the Christian story.

If Jesus was a real, living and breathing human being, then comedy given and received was part of his experience. And since Christians believe he remains human after his resurrection, then comedy, jokes and funny cartoons made at his expense are an expected part of the Jesus experience too. Most Christians (and probably 100% of cardinals) might not want to join in that comedy themselves, but they shouldn’t be surprised by it or nurture offence about it.

Edward Abbey, the American author and hellraiser, once said, ‘Jesus don’t walk on water no more; his feet leak.’ Now that’s sterner stuff, comedically, than the Red Bull ad. But it’s still a joke I think Jesus would be able to take without reaching for a thunderbolt.

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The poster showing Jesus in a baby scan
Jesus in an ultrasound scan

Posted on 16 December 2010, 0:05

One of the groups I’m really pleased to be involved in is, which every year produces an advertising campaign for churches to opt into at Christmas. Our most famous campaign was Meek. Mild. As if, which featured an image of Jesus in the style of the photo of Che Guevara by Alberto Korda, which ran in Easter 1999.

This year’s campaign is now hitting the streets in the UK, with a new image of Jesus (above) that I’m sure hasn’t been seen before in 2,000 years of image-making. I talked to Chas Bayfield, one of the creatives behind the ad, who’s previously created ads for Tango, Birdseye and Pot Noodle – see his knockout Blackcurrant Tango ad, which won a D&AD silver award.

Simon: How did you come up with the idea?

Chas: We needed a new way of telling the Christmas story, something that was more 21st century than 19th. Baby scans are a contemporary way of telling others about the good news of an impending birth. So why not use a baby scan of the Christ child to announce the impending celebration of his birth?

No one’s tried to depict Jesus in the womb before… why did you go for this image, and what do you think it says about Jesus and Christmas?

We’ve seen Christ the infant, Christ the man, Christ crucified – but this is a new image, a pre-Christ. It says that the divine became human. It reminds people that we are celebrating the birth of a new world order where peace, justice, equality and love arrived on the world agenda.

How have people responded to the ads so far?

Generally the poster has been welcomed. We’ve had a huge uptake from the churches and there has been lots of positive press coverage. However, some of the press are concerned that we are tampering with the sacred and that if we modernise the message too much we make the original unrecognisable. Vanessa Feltz described it as ‘Benetton-esque’ in that it was all a bit too intimate and bodily. It seems that some people are happy to watch the gorefest of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, yet they find the physical birth of Jesus too confronting to contemplate.

Thinking about this image and the Meek. Mild. As if image, what’s your purpose in showing Jesus in such non-traditional ways?

The human Jesus was an historical figure and there’s a danger that we use traditional iconography to imprison him in the past. The risen Christ however is contemporary. That’s why the rennaissance painters portrayed Christ and his followers in the fashions of the day and why the 19th century Christ looked more Victorian. The images we have used will date over time, but the plan is to constantly remind people that Christ and his message are relevant whatever time you are living in.

Ideally, what do you hope the ad achieves?

It is already achieving it – we are getting people talking about Jesus at Christmas. Job done. Box ticked. The bigger picture is that the unchurched see Jesus and the Christian message as something that might be relevant to them and that the churches realise there is an alternative way to winning souls than bashing them over the head with Bibles.

Note: To support the campaign and increase the number of posters which appear, go here on the website.

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Ice cream ad with pregnant nun
Ice cream, sex and blasphemy

Posted on 30 October 2010, 4:26

It was Häagen-Dazs who first put ice cream and sex together in a commercial. Their TV ads in the mid-90s showed sexy young couples spoon-feeding each other with creamy gloop, and suddenly ice cream had passed the age of consent and was an adult rather than a kid thing.

So when ice cream maker Antonio Federici launched a campaign of magazine ads, they decided to go a bit further along the road of naughtiness. This summer, their two ads featured a pregnant nun and two Catholic priests about to move in for a kiss (click the links to see large images of the ads). ‘We Believe in Salivation’ was the text on the priests ad.

Eighteen people complained when they were run in the UK’s Grazia, The Lady and Look magazines. In two judgments, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld the complaints and ruled that each ‘ad must not appear again in its current form’. The reason? The priests ad ‘was likely to be interpreted as mocking the beliefs of Roman Catholics and was therefore likely to cause serious offence to some readers’.

That sentence has the word ‘likely’ twice, which should have given the ASA a very good reason to think a bit harder about this poor judgment. The adjudications are here and here and include the defence put up by Antonio Federici.

The National Secular Society has complained that the ASA is ‘reintroducing blasphemy restrictions back into Britain’, two years after the offence was abolished by parliament – and it’s hard to disagree with that. Religious faith in Western culture is publicly debated today as it has never been before and it’s largely lost the deference and privilege which used to surround it like a shabby halo.

The weapon it still has, though, is a passive-aggressive one: ‘Don’t offend us, because our beliefs are sacred and above humour and mockery.’ It’s a weapon which has clearly worked wonders with the ASA.

A few years ago, we ran a competition on Ship of Fools called The Laugh Judgment, in which we invited readers to send us the funniest and most offensive religious jokes they knew. One thousand jokes were sent in, and we published the best of them so we could talk about what made them so funny and so offensive.

I noticed at the time that the most popular jokes included a small cast of stock comedy characters: the Nun, the Pope, Mother Superior, the Priest, the Bishop. All of them were put into comedy situations involving sex. It has ever been thus, since the time of Chaucer at least. As a subject, sex and religion simply is funny, because the latter makes such heavy weather of the former.

pregnant pope advert

The Antonio Federici ads are hardly the height of original comedy, and so there’s really no reason for surprise or offence. Even nuns and priests make these sorts of jokes behind closed doors. And British advertising used to understand that too, as witnessed by the press ad above from the 1980s. People probably complained then, but the ad still ran.

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