The church: Ads that keep the faith

Christians as well as retailers are now prepared to use every trick in the advertising world to remind us of the real meaning of Christmas. Meg Carter reports
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Part adman, part aspiring rock star Chas Bayfield is a busy man. Fresh from collaborating with Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins on his forthcoming solo album, he has co-created a poster in which baby Jesus resembles a pint-sized revolutionary. It's the centrepiece for this year's Christmas campaign from the Churches Advertising Network which with interactive radio ads, SMS texting and a website is set to cause a stir.

"The idea is simple: to return to the focus of Christmas by placing Jesus centre stage, and position him as a revolutionary," Bayfield says of the poster. The image, in fact, is of a childlike Che Guevara - a variation on a theme used by CAN six years ago in a controversial poster which divided opinion both within and outside the church. However, plans to add a twinkling halo above the child's head - an echo of Che's familiar beret - were shelved after a mocked-up version too closely resembled a child soldier.

"Obviously, there were lots of things Che did that were controversial. But the image is that of an instantly recognisable, Trivial Pursuit-style revolutionary, and that's why we chose it," adds Bayfield, a former creative with the HHCL ad agency who now splits his time between writing ads and fronting his own band, The Christian Playboys. "We try to gauge what the public rather than the church will find acceptable because the church tends to be more conservative. We don't like offending people - we wouldn't show the Virgin Mary as a porn star, for example - but people in the church do need to be shaken up a little bit. If our work gets people outside the church thinking about the Christmas message, that can only be a good thing."

Bayfield is a founding member of Christians in Media, a group of ad industry creatives who offer their services free to CAN - a cross-denominational group whose members include representatives from the Church of England, Salvation Army, Baptists and Methodist - which has been running Christmas advertising campaigns for local churches for the past 14 years.

CAN receives funding from the Jerusalem Trust, a charitable organisation which supports initiatives to promote Christianity. This covers the cost of producing the Christmas campaign ads - which typically straddle posters and radio - and buying airtime on a handful of commercial radio stations. Local churches and Christian groups are encouraged to raise funds to buy additional local radio campaigns. Last year, airtime on more than 50 stations was funded in this way. Posters, meanwhile, appear on rail and roadside hoardings left unbooked in the run-up to Christmas. This spare capacity is provided free by outdoor poster company Maiden whose managing director, Francis Goodwin, is CAN's chair.

"This isn't about trying to convert someone on the spot, but encouraging them to think about the true values of Christmas," Goodwin explains. "What's hard is getting them to do so, so you've got to work hard to stop them in their tracks. Like any brand we have good years and not so good years, but overall I'd say our canon of work is really pretty good."

Last year, heaven was depicted as a call centre. The year before, the baby Jesus was dressed up as Santa. Some previous posters, however, have attracted criticism - not least from within the church: the Bishop of Manchester has been a particularly vocal critic of ads such as the one in 1999 depicting Jesus as Che above the line "Meek. Mild. As if". The most notorious poster, however, was "Bad Hair Day" in 1996: "You're a virgin, you've just given birth, and now three kings have shown up." A number of Anglican dioceses banned the poster, and CAN now admits with hindsight that Bad Hair Day was widely misunderstood by the over-40s.

For this reason, radio has always played an important role for the church at Christmas, and this year is no exception. A series of eight ads voiced by Simon Mayo pose listeners questions such as "Are you thinking of a white Christmas, or do you think Jesus was black?" accompanied by a call to respond by texting. Listeners will also be directed to check the results on a dedicated website, - an online introduction to Christianity which goes live later this week.

"It's the first time we've used SMS texting for the church, but it's a natural step given that our brief this year is to appeal to late teens and early twentysomethings," says Adrian Reith, managing director of Radioville, the radio agency that created the ads. "Questions like 'Did Jesus Christ bring peace or war?' get people thinking. SMS allows us to build in some fun and encourage people to engage in a way they're familiar with."

Although the church is embracing mobile telephony this Christmas, however, it has no intention of cashing in on texters' participation. "This is not in any way a commercial activity," insists Reverend John Carter, communications officer for the Diocese of Ripon and a CAN trustee. "Texts will cost only the standard rates. And we certainly won't be using texters' details for anything else, or passing on information to third parties."

Response from commercial radio stations has been positive, Carter adds. "In past years the Christmas ads have gone down very well with participating stations and we see no reason why this year will be an exception," he says. "While BBC local radio has an obligation to air some religious content, local commercial stations don't. But we've found if they like our ads then that often provides an opening for a closer relationship between a station and its local church. A number of local stations to have run our ads have gone on to invite their local church representatives to present a regular thought for the day."

It's a Trojan horse effect the CAN and its supporters hope will encourage more of us to remember the true meaning of Christmas this year.