Marketing the Messiah
As the digital age gathers momentum and multinational companies gain more power, one question that the iPhone may not be able to answer is ‘What would Jesus do?’ Would he be tweeting psalms? Or even Facebooking answers to prayers?
In January 2012, a poster displaying a facebook icon with the words 'You have a new friend request' could be seen outside Central Baptist Church in George st Sydney. Two months later there appeared a transformation of Coca Cola's popular 'Share a Coke with . . .' campaign featuring a can which read "Share your life with Jesus" which was accompanied by a quote from revelation 3:20, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to eat with him, and him with me”.
Both these graphics were products of Outreach Media, a non demoninational protestant agency designed to promote the Christian gospel through various media channels . Every month, Outreach produces posters designed to advertise Jesus in a way designed to challenge preconceived perceptions. These are then displayed outside 120 partnering institutions throughout Australia.
Outreach director Malcolm Williams says the goal of the posters is to promote discussion about Jesus among those who usually wouldn’t think about him in their everyday life. “Hopefully people will see these posters as they go past and think ‘That is witty’ or ‘That is charming’ and this will make them pay attention to what we do the next month” He says, “People have this idea of a plastic Jesus that has no relevance today and that is what we want to change.” Mr Williams is quick to emphasise the role of social media and other internet tools in conveying Outreach’s message. “Our latest poster which deals with Richard Dawkins is accessible on Facebook and most of our posters feature URL addresses.”
The message has not come without controversy however with some certain visuals provoking a fierce reaction from local communities. The February 2007 poster ‘Jesus Loves Osama’ made international news and even drew criticism from then Prime Minister John Howard when it was displayed outside churches. At the time Mr Howard said that “"The prayer priority of the church on this occasion could have been elsewhere". Mr Williams is unapologetic about the poster, saying shock value is not a factor in the design process. “We are having a conversation with the community which features both light and dark parts,” he says, “While it can be gentle, it has the potential to be forceful.”
There remain sceptics about what form of impact, if any, this new kind of advertising will have on the general public. John Cleary, a commentator on religious issues for ABC radio and television believes the methods used by Outreach are hypocritical and ultimately ineffective. “It seems as though they are playing on consumerist values when that is what the church is supposed to be against,” he says “It may provide reinforcement to people who are already faithful I don’t think it will have others talking for more than five minutes.” For Mr Cleary, the problem lies in the consideration of Jesus as a marketable entity, “You can’t sell religion like you sell insurance because you can’t buy religion like you buy health insurance” he says, “It is a life commitment and I don’t think they understand that.”
While testimonials on the Outreach media website from people within the church organisation paint a glowing picture of the images, “The posters miraculously keep changing each month!" (St John's Asquith), the reaction from members of the general public has been one of indifference . Lincoln Comans, a 24 year old student from Sydney who is agnostic says the posters would not lead to an increased presence of religion in his life. “I don’t object in any way but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of it,” he says, “I think the way they are trying to popularise religion is a bit shallow.”
Ardy Tan, a 40 year old hospital technician who goes past Central Baptist Church on his way to work says that he can understand why the church would think to use the Coke ad but believes their version is less effective. "The original idea is clever," he says, "But the way it is used outside the church doesn't seem right."
It remains unclear as to whether a societal church and advertising slogan seperation is needed.