Jonathan Bartley

Subvertising (not advertising) on the buses

By Jonathan Bartley
January 7, 2009

The launch of the atheist bus advertising campaign carrying the slogan: ‘There’s probably no God – now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ has highlighted the extent to which belief has been commodified in the UK.

But it was not the rather harmless adverts, or indeed those behind them, that sealed the deal. Rather it was the Christian response which packaged and placed faith in the shopping centres and high streets alongside the plethora of products to be consumed.

No sooner had the atheist campaign been announced, than Theos – the Bible Society’s thinktank - made a £50 donation. It was of course a public relations stunt which attempted to take the wind out of atheist sails in the ongoing war between some religionists and secularists. But it sought to make a point. They suggested that the adverts would backfire. The campaign would, they said, inevitably point more people in the direction of their own product (faith in God).

Beyond a charge of 'cynicism', nothing much wrong with their tactics many Christians might argue. Except that churches are amongst those who in recent years have been the most vocal critics of consumerism, and the advertising that drives it. Advertising is usually destructive. More often than not advertising is built around creating and fostering a sense of inadequacy or fear, in the hope that the product on offer will be seen as a cure, and bought in large quantities.

Theos chose not to make this point. Quite the reverse in fact. They have instead bought into the advertising strategy. Indeed, it is what they are banking on. They have supported the campaign in the hope that the atheist ads will sow enough doubt and discord to get people looking at their own alternative brand. In their zeal to upstage and subvert their secular opponents, the religionists have taken on the very consumerist values that Christianity ought to stand against.

They even seem to be positively championing such values. In the words of Nick Spencer of Theos, explaining the rationale for supporting the atheist campaign (albeit somewhat ironically): “When competition arrives, it forces a re-evaluation of attitudes and creates an opportunity for the product to connect again with a market suddenly forced to the point of choice. Consumers are faced with the need to make a conscious decision about whether and what to buy. In such circumstances, growth in the overall market is not uncommon. Thanks be, then, to the atheists.”

What then of the product that Christians should push? The atheists it is claimed are poor advertisers for leaving room for diversity of viewpoint, or questioning. “Where did that ‘probably’ come from? It doesn't suggest the sales staff is overly confident about its product” Spencer concludes.

The Christian faith on offer, by implication, seems to be one which leaves little room for doubt. Gone are the notions of spiritual journey, exploration and discovery. But this is a dangerous route to take. Where does it stop? Do we also dispense with Christianity's message of weakness, vulnerability and sacrifice? Turning the other cheek and love of enemies would perhaps have to go too. Such things will only weaken the appeal of our faith in an increasingly competitive market, after all.

The desire of Theos, and for that matter many other Christans, that the Christian faith should be able to say something to the world it inhabits, is a good one. But the medium must be in line with the message. The message must not change to suit the medium. Playing the consumerist game and supporting your opponent's ad campaign because you believe it will work in your favour, isn't the best way to go about it. Better surely to show that your faith can challenge and transform the values of society rather than pander to them.

We’ve suggested that a good name for such initiatives would be ‘subvertising’.

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