A Christmas Billboard War Between Catholics and Atheists

A Christmas Billboard War Between Catholics and Atheists

December 15, 2010 by

Last Christmas I reported on what a so called ‘progressive’ church in New Zealand were doing promoting their version of Christmas on a billboard. This Christmas American Atheists have had a go at attacking Christmas on a billboard causing the Catholic League to respond.

The American Atheists spent $20,000 on a billboard at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey with the headline “You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason.”

In an exchange of artillery fire the Catholic League responded with a retort to the atheists and put up their own billboard on the New York side at the exit from Lincoln tunnel “You know it’s real. This season, celebrate Jesus.”

The question I have for both billboards is, do they work as a creative execution? Will either convince someone to change their opinion or are they simply both preaching to the ‘converted’?

In my previous career out there in the creative industry, Australian advertising guru David Mattingly gave me some tips on successful billboard creative executions.

  1. No more than eight words in the headline. Any more and the driver won’t have time to read it. The Catholic League billboard has eight, the American Atheists nine (The by-lines at the bottom of both billboards get lost for me).
  2. You need to be able to read the headline in three seconds from your car. The Catholic billboard type is legible and clear, but I can only read the first four words of the atheists billboard and the font the atheists have used is hard to read.
  3. Have a ‘hero’ picture that stands out. Both do that, although there are nothing original or new from a creative point of view. Both take a traditional approach to the nativity scene.
  4. Make them think or laugh. To help recall and with cut through say something which will give the viewer something to think about. Neither of them do that for me. They are speaking largely to their existing audiences who would agree with them.
  5. Give the audience an simple next step. If the billboard has no next step such as a telephone no. or a website then it will be a passing thought and more easily forgotten in the tsunami of advertising messages we all receive every day. The Atheist billboard at least as a web address, but the catholic league has no next step.

David says, “If you want to be noticed you must create a disturbance. Only the unusual gets seen, understood, remembered and talked about because the usual, no matter how tarted-up or elegantly contrived, is easily ignored, passed by, little noted and soon forgotten.”

What do you think? From a creative point of view, do they work or not? What would you do?

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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29 Responses to “A Christmas Billboard War Between Catholics and Atheists”

  • Ian
    December 15, 2010

    It seems to me that religious messages on billboard…s serve, in general, only to address the insecurities of the people who put them up. As a form of outreach, such an advertisement is absurdly ineffective. I don’t choose what brand of cheese to buy based on advertising; why would you expect a billboard to influence my choice of worldview?


    • Rob Wu
      December 15, 2010

      I’d have to agree with Ian. I’m not sure if advertising faith on a billboard really touches someone’s heart. By the nature of billboard advertising, it’s really low engagement while true outreach seeks to understand the audience/person first.

      All in all, creatively it might be interesting just as a bypasser to see clever billboards though.


      • @stevefogg
        December 15, 2010

        Thanks Rob, I do think religious advertising could have the potential to catch someone’s attention, it’s how the advertiser helps the person take a next step is what counts for me.

        We can’t change or shifts people’s worldviews through 8 words, but we can lead them into a next step that may.


    • Craig
      December 15, 2010

      I agree that religious billboards are pretty ineffective – at least these types. But simple billboards for local churches are probably not a bad idea – if you can afford them. People don’t buy a brand of cheese based solely on advertising, but you might give a certain brand a try if you feel a familiarity with the name and get a good feeling when you see it. That name recognition is why advertisers spend so much on commercials, etc. Just so that when you ARE ready to go looking for cheese (or a church) you might be willing to give them a try. However, I find the most influential advertising is the “free sample.” I might be willing to try a new kind of cheese that I’ve never tried before if I get a free sample and if I like it. Christianity should do the same. Offer free samples of Christ’s love. People might be willing to try it if we were practicing what we preach.


      • @stevefogg
        December 15, 2010

        Interesting idea Craig,

        how would you communicate that expression through a billboard? would you have people on standby ready to do something underneath it with a headline that directs people there?

        Love to know your thoughts on this!


    • @stevefogg
      December 15, 2010

      Hey Ian,

      I’m don’t agree that putting up a billboard address the insecurities of the people who put them up. Both the Atheists and Catholics are sincere and I would say they are both secure in their beliefs/non-beliefs.

      Sorry I think you have been influenced by advertising before, maybe not cheese, but I’ll eat my shorts if you haven’t been influenced by advertising before.

      I agree you can’t expect a billboard to change a worldview, but billboards can shift perceptions of other worldviews.


  • Peter Hamm
    December 15, 2010

    I like the 5 points, I think you don’t need a next step on something like this.

    The Catholic billboard is pretty much “freedom of speech” in marketing.

    The atheist billboard is, too, but is insulting and offensive (if it was indeed first).


  • Amanda
    December 15, 2010

    I’ve been watching the atheist billboard campaign, and most of the time I don’t understand what the fuss is about – most of them aren’t insulting Christians by acknowledging that (shocker) there may be people out there who aren’t Christian and haven’t had a place where they felt welcome (one of the many benefits of Christianity is a built-in social service). The hullabaloo always seems to be that atheists dare to declare they exist, and that’s automatically insulting, we must stop this CHARGE!

    This is the first billboard that I felt called Christians out instead of calling atheists in. And that’s when I feel the billboards start being an unnecessary poke at the wrong people


    • @stevefogg
      December 15, 2010

      Hey Amanda, the point of this post isn’t to kick up a fuss about atheists advertising.

      In fact, I expect we’ll see alot more of it in the future.

      What do you think their respective creative executions?


  • Amanda
    December 15, 2010

    “built-in social service” should be “built-in social circle”


  • Michael Buckingham
    December 16, 2010

    Billboards are either a. directional (McDonalds next exit) or b. reminders (remember what that kid told you at school, and the poster you saw, etc).

    In this case the atheists are using it for a less often use c. awareness, or more pointedly in this case they are stirring up thought.

    I wish the Catholics had found a more clever angle. As it is they really play into the atheists goal of stirring up thought and reminds you of their message.

    I say let them stir things up, then put up a billboard that says “have ? about Christmas…let’s talk.” with a url that encourages community and allows the church to have a voice in the conversation.

    Too often we try to shut down anyone challenging our beliefs. It’s okay to ask questions, that’s where faith comes in. I think the messaging in this missed an opportunity to set themselves apart.


    • Steve Fogg
      December 16, 2010

      Hey thanks for the Michael,

      I agree, rather than stating a closed fact which shuts down conversation provoking conversation with a URL lead would of been better.

      I also wonder if a message that has a bit more attitude would bring a different angle to the conversation.


      • Michael Buckingham
        December 16, 2010

        Yeah Steve…how about:

        “You’re a myth.”
        or
        “Look who’s getting coal in his stocking this year”

        :)


    • Jason
      December 16, 2010

      “Too often we try to shut down anyone challenging our beliefs.”

      This is the problem we (Christians) have in America today. We appear to be preoccupied with the dominance of our religion over the government and society, which is why there has been such a major blow back in the last few years. David Kinneman’s book “unChristian” unpacks the popular thinking of people who are outside the church and their perceptions of Christians in the institutional church.

      We should be influencing culture, not dominating it. Christ was not the political Messiah that the Jewish people thought he was, he did not lord his power over the people “as the Gentiles do.” This is what it means when Paul says that he lowered himself and became a servant to the human race so that we would not be banished forever from God’s presence (Philippians 2:1-11). In fact what if Philippians was applied to our thinking when advertising/evangelizing? I think we would be imitating Christ instead of litigating for him!


      • @stevefogg
        December 16, 2010

        Hey Jason,

        I would argue we no long dominate culture, certainly not in the major cities of the world anyway. Those opinions about us would exist without us engaging in culture or politics.

        I think applying one selective piece of scripture like this is actually way off base.

        Paul used many methods to spread the gospel, I’m not debating whether billboards do or don’t work, I’m asking do you think the creative execution works?


  • Tony
    December 16, 2010

    Wow, 20k! Think how many meals, socks, gloves, blankets, sleeping bags etc. could have been bought for the homeless no doubtable enduring the cold near those signs.

    Think what 20k would have bought in Haiti, Uganda, Sierra Leone, etc. where one of those signs is the equivelant of 20yrs GDP. What did they gain? What impact was made?

    Sad. When are we going to focus?


    • @stevefogg
      December 16, 2010

      Hey Tony,

      I think reducing the argument down to feeding the poor vs advertising on a billboard isn’t a strong argument.

      I think feeding the poor vs a very bad piece of advertising is a strong argument.


  • Kevin Shorter
    December 16, 2010

    One thing I think has not been addressed yet is the need to market to your base. The atheist billboard creates unity and strength to its based during a season they may lose hope. The Catholics response helped secure its base after having to look at the atheist billboard every day to work.

    It is the same sort of reasoning for why you give a Christmas party for your employees. It doesn’t drive new customers, more sales, and such. It allows for your base to know it is appreciated and affirms their worth.

    There may be plenty to say about the actual billboards, but I think that both needed to do something to lift the moral of their base.


    • @stevefogg
      December 16, 2010

      Hey Kevin,

      That’s an interesting thought. How would you market your church/denomination to your base outside of your church?


  • Jason
    December 16, 2010

    To me this billboard wall can be boiled down to “yes it is, no it isn’t” argument much like children engage in. If it were me I would use suggestion #4 and find something from one of those books like “The Case for Christmas” or another “Case for…” book. Choose an interesting fact that would appeal to many people and get them thinking about who Jesus is. Use the brain teaser to get them to visit a website on the billboard and lay out the logical processes of human nature, the need for reconciliation with God and how Jesus fulfills that through death and resurrection.


    • @stevefogg
      December 16, 2010

      Thanks Jason, what interesting facts do you think there are about Jesus that people would be interested in to find out more?


  • Dennis Wilhoit
    December 16, 2010

    The winner is…the advertising company. And a little entertainment for the rest of us. And a tie for third place. They both accomplished their purpose of irritating the other. And we all lose.


    • @stevefogg
      December 16, 2010

      Hey Dennis,

      I honestly couldn’t call either of them entertaining, they are completely dull and obvious in my not so humble opinion.

      Another way to see the sucess for either billboard is to see from a PR perspective how many column inches/radio/tv they have taken up and what led or shaped the audiences opinions. that would be interesting to know!


  • Pam N.
    December 17, 2010

    I think that most drivers viewing the atheists’ billboard will see the image more than the words… and think someone is wishing them a traditional Merry Christmas. Of course, if people are stuck in traffic, then they’ll get a chance to actually read the words, but I bet half the viewers will dismiss it as a typical Christmas message and pay no further attention.


  • Aaron B.
    December 17, 2010

    The atheist billboard is clever, but I think it may be a little too bold and offensive to be effective.

    The Catholic response is drab and missed a great opportunity to come back with something even more clever. When there’s the back and forth going on like this, the Catholics had the chance to really make an impact because a), the atheist billboard will be remembered all by itself (even if it is offensive), so b) an even more clever response by the Catholics would have really stuck in people’s heads.


    • @stevefogg
      December 19, 2010

      Aaron, what kind of ‘clever’ response would you come back with.

      It’s a very fine line between ‘clever’ and ‘too smart’


  • Sheila
    January 12, 2011

    Seems like a very expensive tit for tat exercise. While I am a proponent of church advertising, I would agree that this is poor advertising for both atheists and Catholics. It makes them both appear childish. If atheists have nothing better to do than “attack” other people’s beliefs because they have none of their own, this billboard is only a reminder of this. If Catholics have nothing better to spend 20K on, then that says a lot of about loss of purpose. Better to have bought food supplies for Haiti on both sides. I don’t think either billboard will produce what perhaps each camp thought it would do – produce converts; it is more likely that it will polarize people more.


  • Christie
    January 14, 2011

    If I had driven by and read the first billboard, I would have thought, “Man, they are an irritable bunch!” Then I’d have probably thought that it was weird to spend so much money to state your opinion with nothing to gain. Maybe they are not quite content with their disbelief. When you KNOW something to be true, the fact that someone else doesn’t believe the same thing shouldn’t rattle your cage to the tune of $20 grand. I’d expect an atheist secure in their beliefs to roll their eyes when the holidays come around and get on with their life.

    If I had then driven by the second billboard, I would have groaned inside and felt embarrassed FOR THEM that a pecking “Yes it is” No it isn’t” match was a public spectacle. And I’d have thought less of both groups instantly.

    I can clearly remember when I was neither an atheist nor a Christian and if I’d been such a person reading those, I would probably have assumed that neither group had anything of value to tell me. Neither billboard did anything to convince me of anything. Or get me asking questions. They just sound childish. It is like two angry parents fighting with a child in the room- the child having no more allegiance to either and feeling trapped in a nasty conversation and being left feeling queasy about the entire thing.

    I imagine the church’s response should have been directed either to the atheists disturbed enough by the holiday message to have to crow like a rooster about it (maybe brainstorm about why and target that in their response with a positive “Let’s Talk About It”l) and directed towards those in neither “camp” who instead ended up feeling caught in the middle. The independent driver who felt the hostile sarcasm of the Atheist sign and was turned off by it. Counter it with a warm and positive message that boosted the driver’s morale (sounds a bit good cop – bad cop I suppose) and take the higher ground. Doing that goes against human nature and would be noticed for that reason and cause people to wonder what makes them different and able to handle attacks with such courtesy and tranquility. It would have made me take notice as a party in neither camp.

    They could have even included a Facebook group link or some other social media outlet as an open invitation to witness the discussion on the sign so the entire city could have joined in to watch what happened next (without having to foot a $20,000 tab). If both the Atheists participated, so much the better. If they didn’t, it might make them look insecure and unwilling to debate the issue – boosting the position of the church.

    Anyway, just ideas!



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