Losing Your Message but Gaining Publicity

January 7, 2010 by

Just before Christmas, a church in New Zealand launched a new billboard that received extensive coverage from news outlets and blogs around the world.

The church was aiming to leverage the Christmas season to promote theological conversations. Specifically, they had five purposes:

  • To invite people to think about the virgin birth and the nature of God.
  • To say that there was more than one Christian way to think about the
    virgin birth and God. Indeed there are many.
  • To promote the Progressive view of Jesus having 2 human parents and God
    being the power of love in his life.
  • To ridicule the very literalistic view that God is a male and literally
    sired Jesus.
  • To invite people outside of the church to see a type of Christianity here
    at St Matthew’s that they might be able to relate to.

The scope of this post, however, is not their theology but their advertising. The billboard’s main point is that Jesus was conceived by Mary and Joseph. But this message did not get across.

Most Protestants and, likely, most with no church affiliation thought the billboard was simply comparing Joseph’s ability in bed to God’s. Catholics were outraged because the billboard implied Mary wasn’t a virgin. Still others thought it was a good joke and it was about time “the church” got a sense of humor.

It outraged many Christians throughout the country–so much so that it was defaced within a few hours. The church replaced it with another print. That, too, was ripped apart by a knife-wielding vandal. And the church replaced it with yet another print. The billboard was stolen again, and the church finally decided not to replace it. [Note: the local homeless people who the church ministered to tried to stop the Christians from vandalizing it: Christian Ethicists, work that one out.]

Their message was completely lost in the noise of the resulting media focus on those offended by the billboard. Their five aims with the billboard were completely missed by the majority of their target audience. Their message was lost (though the church’s vicar claimed success for three of the five aims and partial success on a fourth).

But this story begs the question: is all publicity good publicity? By that metric, the billboard was a raging success. The ad rose above the clutter and noise of the traditional Christian stories written or broadcast around Christmas. It provoked controversy, outrage, vandalism and thorough media coverage for the church.

So what do you think? Is this simply an adventure in missing the point, or further proof that there’s no such thing as bad publicity?

Post By:

Steve Fogg

Steve serves as the big cheese of communications at his church in Melbourne, Australia; he married way above his pay grade and has three children. Connect with him on his blog or on other social networks.
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23 Responses to “Losing Your Message but Gaining Publicity”

  • Jesse
    January 7, 2010

    “The billboard’s main point is that Jesus was conceived by Mary and Joseph.”
    Huh? Can somebody explain to me how this is supposed to be derived from the billboard?
    The notion that Jesus was conceived by Mary and Joseph isn’t even remotely biblical…

  • Joshua Cody
    January 7, 2010

    Jesse, I imagine it’s trying to make the point by association. To say, “Look at how dumb it is to believe this. God + Mary? Ha!”
    And we’re definitely not defending the theology.

  • jenn
    January 7, 2010

    wow. just…wow. i have no words.

  • Paul Steinbrueck
    January 7, 2010

    I don’t think all publicity is good publicity, but unfortunately I have to agree with the vicar that it was pretty successful.
    – They were successful at mocking orthodox Christianity.
    – They were successful at getting millions of people to consider a false doctrine.
    – They were successful at getting some orthodox Christians to look like idiots.
    Even if many people misunderstood the message, because of the international media coverage millions of people probably did get the message.

  • Alissa
    January 7, 2010

    Is all publicity good publicity? No. Not at all. Think about the olympic swimmer Phelps, when he got bad pubilicity, his sponsors cut him off. Also, Tiger Woods, same thing- now people know about his shenanigans and have a distaste for him. How is that beneficial at all?
    What Paul said above me is completely true. The only thing they succeeded in was mocking and deceiving.

  • Vin Thomas
    January 7, 2010

    I wonder if Steve is mistaken by saying that “The billboard’s main point is that Jesus was conceived by Mary and Joseph”.
    That would be strange to say (and biblically inaccurate). Perhaps he meant to say that the billboard’s main point is that Jesus was conceived by Mary, without the help of Joseph.

  • Mark van Wijk
    January 7, 2010

    I’m a Pastor at another church in the same city as St Matthews, and I was pretty torn on this one. In our incredibly un-churched culture here in NZ (think single digit percentages for church attendance), the billboard managed to create a discussion at Christmas that was actually about Jesus! On the other hand their ‘Progressive Christian’ theology is so far off the mark that I’m struggling to support them. It kind of sucks that Christians defaced it & tore it down though – not really helping there guys…

  • Mark van Wijk
    January 7, 2010

    @Vin: Unfortunately Steve isn’t mistaken, this really is what St Matthews are saying. As you said – strange & biblically inaccurate – but such is their ‘theology’. :(

  • Steve
    January 7, 2010

    Hey Mark,
    Thanks for commenting. It’s helpful to get a truely local perspective. Obviously their theology is not what I believe either. They got the publicity, but their message really didn’t get through that well.
    Is something other orthodox churches in NZ can use to offer an alternative perspective in the public eye?

  • Steve
    January 7, 2010

    I respectfully disagree. While they got massive publicity their theology wasn’t really the central focus. In most people’s minds what they read is that that God was better in bed than Joseph.
    The underlying theme most people got was church using crude/funny humour to promote someting to do with Christmas.
    Like my post said, they gained publicity, but their message was lost and never really got found.

  • Steve
    January 7, 2010

    Look at Phelps now. Back in the team. Will probably represent the US at the next Olympics. His sponsors never left.
    With Tiger, watch and wait for his very carefully managed public resurrection in 6 months to a year or so. The sponsors will all be back and then some once he has a few more majors won.
    The general public love a good bad boy comes good story.

  • Steve
    January 7, 2010

    Read their page about “Progressive Christianity” on their website. You’ll get a fully understanding of their theology. (link is in my post)
    What I said was accurate. They do believe that Jesus was conceived by Mary and Joseph. (For the record, I don’t believe that :-)

  • Paul Steinbrueck
    January 8, 2010

    How do you know “In most people’s minds what they read is that that God was better in bed than Joseph?” Was their polling done?
    Second, let’s just say conservatively for the sake of argument only 5% got the intended message. 95% of people misunderstood the billboard, never went to the church’s website, and never heard about the purpose of the billboard through the media. And let’s be conservative and say despite all the international media coverage only 1 million people heard about this. We’re still talking about 50,000 people getting the intended message. How can that not be considered successful?

  • steve
    January 8, 2010

    There was no polling done. But the majority of churched ppls orthodox theology is that God came upon Mary through the Holy Spirit.
    So they (like me) would think at 1st read that is what the headline is referring too.
    I would also suggest that the headline leads you to that response too even if you don’t have biblical knowledge on 1st read.
    But then that’s just my considered opinion.
    I don’t think from the majority of the reporting that I read, that the churches theology came through. You really had to dig deep to find it – and the average Joe just isn’t that interested.
    Would 50,000 be considered a success? He doesn’t qualify numbers as a goal, but if 50,000 changed from the opinion that Jesus was the Son of God to the son of Joseph from the one read, and achieve the other 4 goals that he wanted then it would be a raging success.
    But in his own review he scores himself down.
    In my opinion, the publicity side of it is a success. I don’t think the message really got through. The publicity was all about the outrage of Christians, and the crude statement that was the headline.
    Thanks for your response! It’s good to talk about!

  • Beat Attitude
    January 9, 2010

    I can’t see how the poster results in people seeing Christ any clearer. From that perspective, its a FAIL. I don’t care what their aims were, if its purpose was not to exalt Christ, then it was irrelevant. Making fun of other church doctrines is unbiblical and therefore another FAIL. It’s also a FAIL because it doesn’t even accomplish that, so it just makes this church seem incapable of even making a poignant observation.
    Modern culture is full of people shouting for attention. You can do it by taking your clothes off (and many do), but that is wrong. So compromising biblical values just to gain attention is to idolise publicity.
    All this will do is make people see the church as something which is the same as everybody else: vying for your attention at all costs. People will respect the church less as a result of this poster. Noone says “hey, I’ll definitely listen to what that guy teaches, because he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously!”. If your aim is to be *liked*, then be an inane joker at all costs, but if your aim is to make Christ’s glory visible, then you have to get your priorities in place.

  • Steve
    January 10, 2010

    Hey Greg,
    Interesting comments. I agree, that from my theological perspective they didn’t help people see Christ more clearly.
    I would say that they were definately attempting to engage people into seeing Christ more clearly from their theological lens.
    Did it work? We can only speculate about it’s success or failure – I would be asking the Vicar of the church, did your church attendence rise since? That would be one indicator as to whether it was successful or not.

  • James
    January 11, 2010

    You’ve got your facts wrong from the outset Steve.
    St Matt’s wasn’t “aiming to leverage the Christmas season to promote theological conversations”.
    The aim – as stated in the M&C Saatchi brief – was “To get people thinking about the meaning of Christmas and position St Matthew’s as different to other churches”.
    The five points you’ve lifted from the vicar’s comments weren’t “five purposes” they were answers to the question “What possessed you to approve this billboard?”.
    Point three talks about Jesus having two human parents. He did. Mary and Joseph. It doesn’t say “Jesus was conceived by Mary and Joseph”. My wife has two parents but she wasn’t conceived by them. The billboard never intended to communicate this. It did intend to get people thinking about the humanity of Mary and Joseph. Which it achieved.
    And it did “get people thinking about the meaning of Christmas and position St Matthew’s as different to other Churches”. On a global scale.

  • Steve
    January 12, 2010

    Hey James,
    Didn’t know an agency was involved. Would love to see the M&C saatchi brief. If we can connect on Twitter you I’ll give you my email address
    I disagree regarding the timing of the billboard. Of course they used the Christmas season to it’s maximum effect. If they launched the billboard in Febuary they wouldn’t of had no where near the media interest.
    Sorry James, the vicar clearly says purposes and lists 5 points here http://www.stmatthews.org.nz/news.php?nid=214&sid=88 I only report what I read.
    Read the points – the church is clearly trying to get people to believe that Jesus was conceived by Mary and Joseph. Of course May and Joseph were Jesus’ parents, but they are clearly trying to say that God wasn’t involved in the conception of Jesus.
    Did it position St. Matthews? I don’t have any data besides the news reports which suggest that the media storm was predominately about the edgyness of the ad which I believe many would of misinterpreted anyway. But’s thats just my subjective opinion.
    Grace and Peace to you bro.

  • James
    January 13, 2010

    You’d need to ask St Matt’s for the agency brief.
    They have published this:

  • Steve Fogg
    January 15, 2010

    Thanks James, that is an excellent link.
    I actually think the original concept is stronger. And clearer in what they are trying to convey.

  • Brad W.
    January 18, 2010

    You have to be either delusional or severely indoctrinated since childhood to actually believe a man (Jesus of Nazareth) was conceived of a virgin by supernatural powers, and then rose from the dead after he died.

  • Sheila
    February 11, 2010

    I went to look at the billboard and laughed my head off. However, that being said, I haven’t a clue why anyone would think that this billboard depicts anything regarding Christianity. Now looking at the pastor’s words etc, I would have serious concerns about his theology. But as for the billboard, sorry, it’s just plain funny, and who knows it might attract some people who are looking for a church with a sense of humour (and sadly get a church with bad theology and that’s the real tragedy here…)

  • tom rath
    March 7, 2010

    And everyone did what was right in their own eyes…

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