My take on the Humanist bus ad campaign

I thought I would chime in on the bus ad campaign by the American Humanist Association. Bill Baar (Pfarrer Streccius) and Steve Caldwell (Liberal Faith Development) have said their piece, but I’ve actually seen one of the ads. Just a few minutes ago, and I’m not impressed.

I’ll admit: I’m hard to impress with respect to the AHA. They function like an organization is aging and declining, whose historic moment of currency has past and if not for a large endowment — so I’ve heard; correct me if this is not the case — would have dried up years ago. (I am equally unimpressed with churches like that.)

Let me set the scene for the bus ad. At dusk. I had just walked Hubby to work, passed back through our old neighborhood, stopped at Whole Foods and a yoga store — my physical therapist recommended a yoga mat for continuing my core exercizes — and was on my way home. (So much for Buy Nothing Day.) This is an affluent neighborhood where middle-aged gay men carrying yoga mats and organic food are not a rare sight, but where the churches can be a bit threadbare. I mean, I was less than a block from Ralph Nader’s (reportedly) favorite restaurant. Savvy? That’s when the bus passed. What’s this campaign going to prove here? Perhaps joke fodder for the Georgetown University Jesuits at the end of the line?

  • -1 point for relevance.

It was posted on the back of the bus, and I made out the words god and goodness before the bus, which had stopped, pulled off. Because I had seen the poster on the other blogs, I looked to see if I could make out the URL of the associated Web site. Nope.

  • -1 point for branding
  • -2 points for legibility

I made a point of looking at other bus posters on the way home, about a 15 minute walk. I saw a government-placed notice — much bigger; running along the side — encouraging HIV testing and another (back-of-the-bus) sign discouraging baby shaking. A big oil company made a flaccid appeal to its customers to consider the possibility of using less gasoline. The picture of a uniformed man on a fourth poster suggested something related to basketball.

The oil ad was pretty poor, but the company has high name recognition and is running a huge campaign. Only the public health ads were really memorable, surely because they encouraged discrete actions. Not sure what I’m supposed to do with the AHA message.

  • -1 point for memorability

And here’s the funny thing. Even knowing the organization and the campaign, thinking about god and goodness — the words I remember — makes me feel better about my own faith. I’m sure there’s a lingering Ad Council-influenced feeling about religious participation. And the design was modern and pleasant, not unlike the chi-chi frozen yogurt place nearby. Surely this wasn’t intended.

  • +1 point for design
  • -1 point for messaging

Which leaves me wondering why. And I can’t shake the feeling that the AHA ran this bus ad to show an action, rather than to do something productive for their mission. And that brings me back to my suspicions about the AHA, and why I’m not going to encourage them by linking!  (See the other bloggers, above, for details.)

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Scott — I’m wondering if the intent here wasn’t just the bus ads but the subsequent discussion about the bus ads on cable news TV, the blogosphere, etc.

    This would be similar to the political group who cannot to broadcast a controversial ad but rather depends on the ad’s controversy to get it on TV and the internet for free.

    The bus ads may be illegible when used on buses but the graphic does make a great web banner ad.

  2. Hmm. For “discussion” I read “press clips”, many of which are from hostile anti-Humanist sources. Seems to me if you’re going to open a new front in the Culture War, you’d better be willing to fight to win. You can only lever $40k so far.

    I finally did go to the featured site. Why — heavens above!– is it all black? Should have been snowy-silvery white like the bus ad. And their designer didn’t get the memo that the shiny, reflective images on the ‘Net are so last year. This year is chunky and homemade-looking, with layers of muted color. If the idea is to attract a new generation of organized Humanists, these things matter.

    The AHA link to give money is OK — or would be, if there wasn’t a recession — because that helps their mailing list, which is a productive outcome for the campaign. The AHA site itself is pretty good, but the link to it is buried and I’m still not sure what a motivated Humanist is supposed to do with the campaign. Tell friends to back off with the “Merry Christmas”-ing? Send Festivus cards? Storm the Congress?

    I also looked at the site of the Washington Area Secular Humanists — another link from the campaign site — and want to gauge my eyes out, cause their big event is a holiday dinner in Fredericksburg (that’s more than an hour away by car) to watch a Jefferson impersonator. (What, did the John Dewey potluck fall through?) This I will link, for who would believe me otherwise? But more telling is that there is no reference to the campaign on the WASH site. That’s really bad.

    The third link is “See more Freethought Advertising” — ugh, I think not. Because, apart from sounding like an appeal to join the Individualists’ Club, (a) don’t we get enough advertising to not have to seek it out? and (b) it’s really crappy.

  3. Scott — I don’t know if you’ve seen a related humanist/atheist ad campaign in Colorado that was recently mentioned on Hemant Mehta’s “Friendly Atheist” blog:

    Questioning God is Apparently Hate Speech

    Hemant is the author of I Sold My Soul on eBay which describes how a series of church visits that he made to a wide variety of churches and describing how it felt to be a visitor in these churches:

    It’s a book-length version of “What if Starbucks Marketed Like a Church?” and worth reading for anyone who is active in church leadership as paid staff or volunteer.

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