With their $100M war chest, the largely-evangelical He Gets Us marketing campaign seeks to rehabilitate a very tarnished brand. But it's doing it in the worst imaginable ways.

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Recent stories indicate that the evangelical-backed He Gets Us campaign is still going strong. But the evangelicals responding to it have missed an important point that destroys whatever goodwill they might be fostering through their endless billboards and carefully-placed ads: their god does not have a brand, but his followers certainly do—and this tragically misguided marketing campaign utterly fails to redeem theirs.

He Gets Us has a stated goal: ‘to redeem Jesus’s brand’

Dysfunctional authoritarians often have a stated goal that they claim to want to achieve. This stated goal obfuscates their covert or hidden goal. However, we can ascertain the covert goal by looking at their actual behavior.

For example, if I were a space princess hovering above the planet in my sleek, shiny go-go spaceship, and I were looking down at evangelicals’ culture war against abortion care, I would not for a moment think that they were at all concerned with scare-quotes “saving precious babies” or preserving women’s health. Nothing they do actually leads to either one of those stated goals. It doesn’t even lower abortion rates. Rather, everything they do serves only to increase women’s need for abortion care. And they oppose absolutely everything that does work to achieve their stated goals, like easy access to contraception, sex education, and stronger commitments to women’s rights and the social safety net.

So if I were that space princess watching all of this, I’d conclude that evangelicals’ real goal in opposing abortion care is to utterly control women’s bodies, all in service to their greater goals of defeating feminism, which they (accurately) see as standing in the way of a full-fledged Republic of Gilead-style theocracy in America.

As I found earlier regarding He Gets Us, big-name evangelicals and evangelical groups can be found lurking behind it at all levels. Knowing that, I wasn’t surprised to find a recent Washington Post story containing the campaign’s stated mission: “to redeem Jesus’s brand from the damage done by some of his followers.”

And right there, right then, I understood exactly what this campaign is all about.

Jesus doesn’t have “a brand” to redeem, but evangelicals sure do

That WaPo story contains a number of sound bytes from the designers of He Gets Us. Here’s what Jon Lee, described as “one of the chief architects of the campaign,” said:

. . . [O]rganizers hope to start a movement of people who want to tell a better story about Jesus and act like him.

“Our goal is to give voice to the pent-up energy of like-minded Jesus followers, those who are in the pews and the ones that aren’t, who are ready to reclaim the name of Jesus from those who abuse it to judge, harm and divide people.”

Washington Post

Jason Vanderground, the president of a branding firm called Haven that conducted market research for He Gets Us, had this to add:

[T]he movement hopes to bridge the gap between the story of Jesus and the public perception of his followers.

Washington Post

And that public perception is awful, as his firm’s research revealed. It led Vanderground to conclude:

Vanderground said Christians see their faith as the greatest love story, but those outside the faith see Christians as a hate group.

“Jesus said, ‘People are going to know my followers by the way they love each other and the way they interact with each other,’ ” Vanderground said. “I think when we look at American Christianity now, we don’t see nearly as much of that — and that concerns a lot of people.”

Washington Post

None of that anywhere leads us to think that “Jesus” has a brand. These criticisms land squarely on the shoulders of evangelicals.

Why Jesus can’t have a brand to redeem

Jesus himself can’t have a brand to redeem, any more than Harry Potter can have a brand.

His creator(s) can certainly have a brand. His fanbase can definitely have a brand. The character himself does not and cannot have a brand. He has never written anything himself, and nobody can demonstrate in any real-world ways that they’ve ever heard or seen him say anything.

(Am I talking about Harry Potter or Jesus there? Oh, just you wonder.)

For years now, however, evangelicals have struggled with what advertisers would call a “tainted brand.” That’s a brand that’s so mired in controversy and scandals that consumers avoid its products just because they want nothing to do with that entire brand name. Since at least 2013, Southern Baptist leaders have known that if potential visitors even know that a church is affiliated with the SBC, about 25% of them would be deterred from visiting. Little wonder that so many SBC churches don’t note that affiliation—or bury it deep within their websites!

(And now, marvel with me at the thought of potentially tens of thousands of SBC-lings or more who might not even know that their beloved church is a solid SBC member affiliate.)

Mainline groups don’t really have a brand to redeem. Their leaders don’t tend to get caught up in scandals or hypocrisy. Nor do their members tend to be noteworthy hypocrites or culture warriors. Nobody is upset about mainline churches like PC(USA) trying to grab at anyone’s human rights, because they don’t do anything like that.

But evangelical groups have problems in every one of those areas. They’re the ones with the tainted brand that they want to redeem. And this ad campaign is apparently how they want to do it.

What is He Gets Us even trying to do with their $100M?

Within a short time, He Gets Us has gathered up USD$100M from various people and groups. Instead of feeding the hungry with it, they’ve been using it to buy ad spots for TV programs, on various YouTube channels, and on all kinds of websites. Almost all of them are geared toward young men, like wrestling shows and gaming channels and websites.

[Correction: The advertisements were reported on free wrestling shows, not on PPV features.]

If the goal is to make Jesus more relatable to young men, then the campaign is a solid failure. I’ve seen no indication whatsoever that the needle has moved in that regard. But if the campaign is also meant, as its creators said, “to give voice to the pent-up energy of like-minded Jesus followers” so they can “reclaim the name of Jesus” from all those ickie hypocrites in the religion, that’s not going to work either. Here’s how I can tell that:

Since I last wrote about the campaign, He Gets Us has revamped its website. Now, visitors can earn free swag if they “give love.” And boy oh boy, they have a lot of merch in their store now. If you want, you can get a free T-shirt by just “welcom[ing] a stranger“!

But they don’t keep track of any of those good deeds, or even require them to the exclusion of any other good deeds. When I selected the T-shirt and went to the checkout, this was the payment screen:

So I could have chosen “pay someone a compliment” instead of “welcome a stranger.”

Nor do they ask for any proof that the deed was done. Just trust me, bro!

This is the most exploitable reward system I’ve ever seen

My parents didn’t like the idea of paying me to get good grades in school because they didn’t like the idea of me learning to expect rewards for doing just what I was supposed to do anyway.

They had also already learned that presenting me with such a reward system was a bad idea because the last time they’d tried that with chores, when I was about 13, I abused the holy living tar out of it and nearly bankrupted them.

But oh, what a great couple of weeks it was until they yanked the chore reward system! Sure, I bathed our large dog every day—at $5 per bath—but I was rich, I tells ya, rich!

So when I say that this is the most exploitable reward system I’ve ever seen, please understand: I’ve got some very exceedingly high standards on that count.

My parents only wanted me to learn good habits like cleanliness and studying. Very quickly, though, they understood that giving me money wasn’t actually getting good habits captured for life. They were simply bribing me to do something good for myself that I didn’t want to do. Without a bribe, I wouldn’t do it, and thus I wouldn’t learn to do it regularly on my own. Thus, the bribe didn’t actually bring about the goals they wanted me to achieve, so they stopped doing it.

This He Gets Us merch reward system is reminding me very powerfully of those long-ago memories. But wait: the situation gets even worse.

The other problem: He Gets Us makes demands that are not at all exclusively Christian

When it comes to the so-called “Christian virtues,” I can easily understand the problem facing the organizers of He Gets Us. Namely, those virtues are not actually exclusively Christian at all.

I had a lot of trouble with this exact problem in college. For the first time in my life, I met a lot of people who weren’t Christian. And they tended to be much better people than anybody in my community of fervent evangelicals. That’s stayed consistent throughout my life, too.

This discovery conflicted mightily with my indoctrination, which stated that belief in Jesus led to his spirit dwelling within us. His spirit being within us, we thought, powerfully changed our behavior and thinking. And that shift in behavior and thinking, we thought, led to us being better human beings than heathens could possibly be.

As a result of that belief, if someone remarks on the kindness of a fervent Christian, then that Christian is likely to ascribe their behavior to their belief in Jesus.

For many, many years, Christians have done this. Many Christian leaders teach that the earliest Christians “stunned the ancient world” with their kindness and charity. (In reality, this claim is exaggerated, just like every other marketing claim Christians make.) They imply that Christians today still have the power to “stun” today’s heathens.

Indeed, when I was Pentecostal (in the 1980s and 1990s), my leaders taught that fervent belief in Jesus so changed Christians that heathens looked upon us with awe, confusion, and envy. We believed that they’d want to join us so they could obtain what we had. I still see that belief taught today as well, despite it being mightily criticized by other evangelical leaders.

Why evangelicals can’t even be bribed into capturing the habits He Gets Us wants to teach them

But as I discovered in college, heathens display these virtues far more reliably than evangelicals. And nothing on the He Gets Us website is even far out of reach of heathens. As I also discovered in college, heathens are already doing most of this stuff regularly.

In truth, it’s Christians—specifically evangelicals—who need to be doing all this stuff.

It’s also specifically evangelicals who, decades ago, decoupled those exact behaviors from their internal ideal of Jesus-ing correctly.

Thanks to that decoupling, evangelicals now treasure fervor and correct beliefs over practicing anything like the so-called “Christian virtues.” In fact, they give a lot of side-eye to any Christian who values correct behavior over correct beliefs. It is beliefs, they think, not behavior that earns their escape from Hell. Someone can behave correctly all they want, goes the logic, but if they believe the wrong things then they will still go to Hell.

That’s how Christians can gather up an eye-popping one hundred million dollars and decide that what they really need to do with it is make people think Jesus is relatable, instead of using it to do all the earthly stuff Jesus told his followers to do:

They clearly find that stuff irrelevant or boring and would rather focus on the fun stuff like evangelism and swinging their Jesus swag around. But it’s still his direct orders straight from the book they claim to cherish as “engaged Christians,” and they are disobeying his orders with this campaign.

Sidebar: Yes, Hell is evangelicals’ chiefest focus, always

There’s a reason for evangelicals’ laser-focus on escaping Hell, by the way. It’s the same reason why evangelicals are Christianity’s worst hypocrites.

Long ago, evangelical recruiters learned to press hardest on the fear of Hell. It’s what works best in recruitment. As a result, escaping Hell has become evangelicals’ chiefest goal in life. Behavior has nothing to do with escaping Hell, in their belief system, while displaying “Christian virtues” is not something the vast majority of evangelicals even want to do.

Thus, anyone seeking to add behavioral requirements to evangelicals’ lives will simply be ignored—along with their bait-and-switch attempts. All evangelicals really want is “fire insurance,” to use their own crude phrase.

(They’re happy to try to impose these rules on other people, of course. I’ve lost count of evangelicals who have told people, Listen to what I say, not what I do. It never works. But oh, they do try!)

The survey that He Gets Us discusses needs to get a lot more attention

Earlier, I mentioned an interesting survey that the creators of He Gets Us commissioned. It really does merit a long examination in and of itself, but I wanted to highlight a few things about it that illustrate exactly who donates to this campaign, who it really aims to reach, and why its target evangelicals won’t care.

This survey divided respondents into four groups:

[N]on-Christians (16 percent of the sample), people who are “spiritually open” (20 percent), “Jesus followers” (34 percent) and “engaged Christians” (30 percent). It showed a wide gap between the first three groups and the last category.

Washington Post

Once they had their respondents, the survey creators asked them how they felt about Christians. That’s when they discovered that:

“[M]ost people in the first three categories said the behavior of Christians is a barrier to faith. More than two-thirds agreed with the statement: “Followers of Jesus say one thing, but do not follow those things in practice.”

Washington Post

However, only 5% of the “engaged Christians” group agreed with that statement. Similarly, only 6% of “engaged Christians” agreed that Christians “care only about stopping abortions, rather than caring for moms and their children.” Most of the respondents in the other groups knew better.

We’ve seen this before, this vast and gobsmacking disconnect between how evangelicals perceive themselves as a group and how everyone else perceives them.

A few years ago, a for-profit evangelical business called Barna Group ran a survey along similar lines. They discovered the exact same disconnect. When asked to rate themselves as a group according to positive descriptors, evangelicals couldn’t have been more proud of themselves. But they almost never copped to negative descriptors, even when those descriptors perfectly describe their behavior (like “homophobic”).

So even if evangelicals were willing to amend their behavior, which they are not, it’s very unlikely they’d ever recognize that they needed to do so⁠—even to redeem their tribe’s tainted brand.

He Gets Us does know one thing at least, and that’s how to set goals

From everything I’ve read about this ad campaign, He Gets Us is achieving engagement only with Christians who already resonate with its message. And that’s a problem, considering that one of its creators is on record as saying in March to its critics:

“The church needs to understand that this campaign isn’t for them, it’s for Jesus,” [Bill] McKendry said. “It’s to reach an audience we’re not currently reaching.”

Christianity Today

Further, the campaign has absolutely no measurable or testable goals. According to Jason Vanderground, the market research guy:

[U]ltimately, the goal is inspiration, not recruitment or conversion.”

[Bill McKendry adds:] “Is the goal that people become Christians? Obviously,” he said. “But more importantly for now … we need to raise their level of respect for Jesus, and then they’ll move.”

Christianity Today

Will they, though? I doubt it. If they actually read the Bible to see what Jesus said and did in the Gospels, they’ll likely get a very different view of Jesus as a character than He Gets Us portrays in their oh-so-edgy ads.

I haven’t been able to find any stats whatsoever for how many people they’re “inspiring,” much less what direction that “level of respect” is taking, much less a breakdown of how many of these inspired, newly-Jesus-respectful people are heathens who are now thinking of making their way to some church or other at some point in the far-flung future before the universe succumbs to heat death.

He Gets Us pushes the goalpost so far back it has receded into the mist

I used to laugh at evangelicals who moved their evangelism goalposts to the point where their actions became meaningless. But now, we have evangelicals who have moved them so far back that they cannot even be discerned.

That nearly-invisible goalpost, more than anything else, has solidified my suspicion that He Gets Us is simply a fundraiser aimed at Christians. Its existence self-justifies to them. It doesn’t need to recruit a single person, reverse a single church’s fortunes, convince one evangelical to stop being a hypocrite, or elevate Christianity’s reputation even one iota.

Moreover, tons of Christian market researchers, ad designers, and idea committees are getting paid thanks to this campaign.

Two years ago, nobody knew who any of its creators or organizers were. Now their names are all over Christian news sites. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

Correction: Well, actually, it sure seems that apparently you can. And it costs approximately $100 million dollars that could have gone toward doing all that boring stuff Jesus actually told his followers to do.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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