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September/October 2006 Issue

How to Advertise the Good News
By Stephanie Douglas

Should Christian groups spend big money on professional advertising campaigns?

What was black and white and read all over transit systems in the early 1990s? An award-winning advertising campaign by the Canadian Bible Society. The ads generated 500 to 1,000 phone calls in 1993-1994, largely from enthusiastic young people, according to the Society’s Erwin van Laar.

The first ad debuted in a bus shelter in Toronto’s financial district, picturing a black leather Bible and the words “We’re committed to prophet sharing.” The series later expanded to subway stations, to outdoor signs, to buses themselves and was run in Vancouver and Calgary as well.

The clever series still brings smiles to the staff at the Bible Society. Unfortunately, although they would love to hold another campaign like it, there is no easy way. That memorable campaign came at a bargain basement price thanks to a unique mix of designated gifts and a major donation from an advertising company, explains Van Laar, director of donor support and development at the Bible Society’s Toronto headquarters. 

“If I had to pay the normal fee for these campaigns, would I do it again? I would have to say no. Our [supporters] donate money not to advertise but to provide Bibles people can afford and in a language they can understand.”

The Bible Society’s experience highlights a dilemma facing many congregations, church groups and ministry organizations. Advertising could do them a lot of good but the cost is considerable. 

Ministry experts say advertising is worth considering but there are some key questions to address before jumping in with both feet.

Be Realistic

First of all, advertising doesn’t come cheap, and no group should consider it without taking into account this reality. The Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, which runs yearly ad campaigns, most recently on the tails of buses, spends about $30,000 per year.

In addition to high costs, the results are hard to measure.

“That’s the tension, of course,” says John Longhurst, director of communications and marketing at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. “When you spend that kind of money, you want to know results.”

So why advertise? What’s the appeal of such an apparently risky venture?

It all boils down to pragmatics, says Rich Birch of The Meeting House, a tech-savvy Brethren in Christ church that has grown dramatically by setting up satellite locations throughout the Greater Toronto Area. 

“We live in a media age,” says Birch, who serves as “site development pastor” for the church. “For us, it’s never a matter of ‘Should we do this?’ [because] this is how people are used to being communicated with.”

There’s another important reason. Advertising can be effective in communicating a general spiritual message. The Ottawa Anglicans can attest to that.

“While we have no way of measuring whether a bus tail ad puts a [newcomer] in an Anglican pew, we do know they create dialogue,” says Bill Prentice, director of parish and diocesan services.

Hits to the diocese’s website increased by a factor of seven the year it ran the bus tail ads, and Prentice regularly receives feedback from Anglicans about the conversations the ads generate.

Name recognition can be another benefit. “Ads generate a fair bit of attention,” says Brad Crassweller, pastor of the LightHouse Church (Christian and Missionary Alliance) in Winnipeg. His church ran a billboard campaign in 2003.

“Oftentimes, when I get to talking to someone downtown, they’ll say, “Oh, I know your church!”

Be Professional

Obviously, it’s not only about name recognition. Ministries want to create a good impression. There’s a clear consensus that to do so it’s best to rely on professionals.

Prentice remembers one TV ad a church put together with a handheld camera featuring fuzzy images shot in the rain. Needless to say, this is not the way to go. 

“It’s got to be a good product,” Prentice says. “In this culture, if you can’t get people in the first 10 seconds you’ve lost them.” 

For their campaigns, Ottawa Anglicans rely on a volunteer committee to do the grunt work, then hire brokers or production houses to take their ideas to the next level.

Longhurst commends this approach and adds that the most successful campaigns are a little “edgy.” He cites the popular billboards that purported to be messages from God, such as: “If you must curse, use your own name. – GOD.”

Good campaigns such as this Godspeaks.org series from the United States get people to think, and professional advertisers can help generate a message that works.

What worked for Crassweller and LightHouse Church in Winnipeg was a provocative bit of billboard advertising. Their 2003 campaign began with a teaser picturing a stick man on top of a church with the caption: “Blah, blah, blah.” 

The “reveal,” shown a few days later, had a similar picture with a new caption: “LightHouse Church, Bringing Life and Hope.” 

The signs got coverage not only in the print media but also on local radio shows. Crassweller agrees that the attention was largely due to the ad’s eye-catching message.

Be Focused

A good campaign is not only eye-catching, it aims to catch a specific set of eyes. Identifying a “target market” is basic to good advertising, explains Barrie Doyle, president of Gateway Communications, an Ontario firm with a church clientele.

“Is it a church trying to reach the Gen X crowd?” he asks. “Or it could be a geographic thing – or seniors, or young people or the homeless.”

In addition to focusing on an audience, organizations need to identify their areas of strength. In the case of The Meeting House, for example, most advertising centres on their preaching series. 

“People love the teaching [here], so we lead with that aspect to spur our growth,” Birch says. The Meeting House once ran a series on “the irreligious Christ” and spread the word about it using postcards with the tag-line “Godhatesreligion.ca.” 

“Other churches may have [different] strengths that people feel passionate about, and they can lead with that,” Birch adds.

Be Media Savvy

Focused or not, advertising is not going to get very far unless it’s coupled with some shrewd public relations. “PR” is working with the media – local or otherwise – to generate good news stories about ministry activities.

The importance of public relations is a message Doyle is passionate to share with evangelical churches. 

“PR and advertising, as a part of a package, is a form of pre-evangelism. What PR does is tell people we care, we’re doing things and we’re concerned about the physical, spiritual and moral health of this community. Advertising simply reminds people that this group aligns itself with that concept.”

The Meeting House is adept in the area of public relations, regularly issuing press releases and building contacts with members of the media. 

“We’ve been on CTV National News, in papers like the National Post and the Toronto Star as well as regional papers and on a number of radio and television stations,” Birch says.  It’s a strategic way to build profile in the community and, best of all, it’s free. [Editor’s note: For more on PR, see Read All About It in the Jan/Feb 2005 issue of Faith Today or at www.faithtoday.ca.]

Be a Witness

At the end of the day, advertising is clearly only one of many tools in a Christian group’s outreach kit. But it can identify that group with a message and, more important, act as a witness to a message.

This is what Erwin van Laar sees as an effective use of advertising by Christians. When the Bible Society ran its campaign, it was not promoting the Society so much as the Bible. “We wanted to say: ‘There’s relevancy in this book today. Open it.’ ” 

Van Laar says Christian organizations need to partner together more and more. For example, the Bible Society could work with the Gideons or Scripture Union on a campaign, or churches in Winnipeg could band together around a simple slogan such as “Come to church on Sunday.”

By partnering together, Christian organizations are more likely to find funding from foundations – funding that is so crucial for these campaigns. Plus, it’s not a bad principle for spreading the gospel, in advertising and elsewhere. 

Stephanie Douglas is a freelance writer in Brampton, Ont.

Other Articles
Sept/Oct 2006 Issue

Cover Story
Every Nation, Tribe & People: How to Become an Intentionally Intercultural Church

From the Editor
Sharing Space

Feature Article
How to Advertise the Good News: Professional Advertising Campaigns

Kingdom Matters
Website Brings Bible to Kids

The Gathering Place
An Uneasy Conscience

God at Work in Denominations
Transformers and Reformers

A Church You Should Know
Mill Woods Assembly, Edmonton

Ask a Theologian
What Does "Made in the Image of God" Actually Mean? 

   
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