He Gets Us is now a billion-dollar advertising campaign, funded and supported by hard-right evangelical culture warriors with strong ties to hate groups. But here they are, trying to make Jesus sound like the ultimate good guy.
Recently, Super Bowl viewers got treated to an interesting ad: He Gets Us. Oh, I mean sure, Super Bowl ads are generally interesting. As an observer of human nature, I love checking them out. But this one didn’t act like it was selling anything. It just told viewers that Jesus totally gets them and is the ultimate good guy. Quite an interesting departure from the usual fare we get for this event.
It’s also dishonest in the extreme.
The people behind He Gets Us are thoroughgoing evangelical culture warriors: bigots, misogynists, sexists, racists, everything-phobes, the whole nine yards of awful hatefulness and cruelty.
So let’s look at this ad, see where it’s from, and make a few educated guesses about what its creators’ rationale might be for the billion-dollar cash grab they’ve pulled off.
Examining the ads for He Gets Us
No churches or denominations are named in the ads for He Gets Us. This YouTube short features the campaign’s typical imagery:
This short is par for the course: people doing good things or bad things, praising or silently criticizing them. The ads seek to make Jesus look like the ultimate good guy, a radical visionary preaching qualities that do not come naturally to anyone—and are missing entirely from those who do not really follow him.
Leading up to the big game, we also got this trailer that promised that viewers would “see Jesus in the Super Bowl.”
It also offered its website as a source for all kinds of marketing tools for Christians to use to spread the word of the campaign and help boost its visibility.
What you will not see in any of these ads:
Any specific flavor of Christianity, any particular church(es) or denomination(s), or any specific doctrines or theology.
That’s curious, considering that evangelicals are behind He Gets Us. When I was evangelical myself, they considered ecumenism downright demonic. But that was long before their death-spiral began. Now that they find themselves in the middle of an endless, unstoppable decline, their tune has changed considerably. Still, these ads contain a very curious lack of specificity for qualities that modern evangelicals have completely abandoned.
The people behind He Gets Us
The website for the He Gets Us campaign has shared its ostensible goals:
He Gets Us is a movement to reintroduce people to the Jesus of the Bible and his confounding love and forgiveness.
However, the people behind that campaign are anything but the embodiment of “confounding love and forgiveness.” In fact, they all inhabit the most hateful, cruel, controlling, stingy, and vindictive end of Christianity.
For some time now, I’ve been talking about the people behind He Gets Us. They are evangelicals. Worse, they are culture-war-embracing, right-wing evangelicals.
The Lever has identified these evangelicals as largely belonging to the Servant Foundation, “a little-known money machine quietly helping drive U.S. policy far to the right.” In addition to procuring a cool billion dollars for their project He Gets Us, the Servant Foundation has contributed $50M to the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). The ADF ironically fights freedom tooth and nail on issues like abortion accessibility, LGBTQ+ rights, and nondiscrimination laws. (In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Group, or SPLG, designated them as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group.)
Since I last wrote about the campaign’s backers, we’ve learned that they include David Green, the evangelical who owns Hobby Lobby, a large chain of hobby- and crafts-supply stores that ferociously fights human rights issues (and hugely supports evangelical pseudoarchaeology). To rationalize his involvement with He Gets Us, Green recounted for The Lever all the usual evangelical culture-warrior delusions about feeling increasingly persecuted fer jus’ bein’ KRISchin, while also erroneously imagining that his flavor of Christianity actually teaches “the greatest love story in the world.”
Related: Constructive anger in the wake of the Hobby Lobby ruling
Not a single one of these groups or people come to mind when I think about love, forgiveness, reconciliation, mercy, charity, or any of the other things Jesus commanded his followers to embody. They are the polar opposites.
So why are they behind this ad campaign?
How to gauge advertising effectiveness
To answer that question, let’s turn our attention to the world of advertising itself.
One clue to the meaning of He Gets Us is its utter lack of stated measurable objectives. When companies advertise a product, they have a measurable objective in mind. They want to see an increase in purchases of the advertised product. It can be difficult to gauge exactly how effective a marketing campaign is, but if the bottom line stays flat and doesn’t curve upward, that generally means that the campaign didn’t land with consumers.
When we look to this campaign’s stated objectives, how on Earth is anyone supposed to measure “reintroduc[ing] people to the Jesus of the Bible?”
(Definitely not through Twitter hashtag mentions, because those largely seem to be negative. OUCH.)
The opposite is true as well. Out of sight means out of mind, for many products. When Indra Nooyi became the CEO of PepsiCo in 2006, she wanted to take the company in a different direction. She wanted to focus more on its healthier products and less on its junk-food snacks and sugary sodas. She even decided not to run Pepsi soda ads during the Super Bowl in 2010. By 2011, PepsiCo was struggling. Though Fortune didn’t think these decisions were behind its struggles, the company resumed its Super Bowl advertising of Pepsi soda in 2011. And PepsiCo’s fortunes rose again afterward.
This rule of thumb works the same for Christian advertising.
How advertising in the Christ-o-sphere works
In religious ads, the product being advertised is, ultimately, active membership in the church sponsoring the advertising. Many churches obscure that fact, yes. They cloak their true product in many ways: by offering hope, safety from Hell, answers to life’s unanswerable questions, free live music or a stirring speech, or even just nice people who are promised to be friendly and welcoming to anybody who enters their building.
But these advertisers’ true product remains active membership in the sponsoring church. The consumer who picks up the ostensible product must convert into a buyer of the true product. (In advertising, this is even called the campaign’s conversion rate.) If someone shows up to their hangout session or Bible study or concert and leaves again without ever purchasing that true product, then the campaign failed.
This is why you don’t see many “pizza blasts” nowadays. Back in the 1980s, evangelical churches used to use these events to draw in unwitting teenagers. They’d advertise a big, safe, free party with a concert and unlimited amounts of pizza and soda. Parents felt safe sending their teenagers to a church-sponsored party, though they shouldn’t have—because at some point, the festivities always warped into a hellfire-and-damnation sermon.
However, very few of those teens converted into active church members. These faux-parties represented a huge expense with no payoff. Thus, churches stopped doing them as evangelism efforts.
So what is the ostensible product being advertised in He Gets Us? What customers does the campaign hope to attract?
One interpretation of He Gets Us: Evangelicals are the target
This ad campaign constantly talks about wanting “people” to heed its messaging. But general “people” are not reacting at all well to it. Everywhere online, we see general “people” criticizing the campaign—and for good reason. It’s an unthinkably-huge amount of money being poured into a campaign whose surface-level message appears to be general praising of Jesus as the ultimate good guy. That money could have gone to any one of a number of serious needs in America, but it went into billboards and Super Bowl ad spots instead.
It’s hard to fathom any real god of love and mercy being happy with this gratuitously-wasteful expenditure being made in his name.
On social media, I also see general “people” constantly pointing out the sheer incongruity of the love-messaging and the hate-filled, cruelty-is-the-point organizations pushing it. Others point out how strange it is that the campaign won’t even discuss its backers.
When I spotted a He Gets Us paid ad earlier this month on Reddit, though, my noggin began joggin’ when I saw the awards that Redditors gave it:
Though slightly outnumbered by people mocking it, the biggest single group of positive awards (9 total), “Bless Up,” came from people who are obviously already Christian. Moreover, when we look at their single-image ads, like those on their Instagram account, we see that He Gets Us clearly aims its messaging at evangelicals. Here’s a quoted sampling of those images’ text:
- Hate is loud. But love is louder. Jesus loved louder than anyone and we can all learn from his example.
- What does it mean to love your neighbor?
- He Gets Us has an agenda. Our goal is to move beyond the mess of our current cultural climate to a place where all are invited to rediscover the love story of Jesus. Christians, non-Christians, and everyone in between.
- We want to encourage Christians and churches to think about how to reflect the confounding love of Jesus.
And perhaps most telling of all, this one from February 12:
Jesus chose a third way. Jesus taught that fulfillment belongs to people who can represent their convictions and beliefs without losing respect for another person’s dignity.He Gets Us Instagram post, February 12, 2023. Also seen on Twitter.
That particular post was short, but it tells us everything we need to know. It positively thrums with evangelical dog whistles. Evangelical culture warriors have been trying to figure out how to have their beloved anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry and discrimination without its accompanying, inevitable abject cruelty and hatred for many years—all without success.
Rehabilitating the image of the Christian Right
Knowing all of this, it’s reasonable to think that maybe He Gets Us wants to rehabilitate the kind of evangelicals who constantly remind general “people” of the reputation and image of evangelicalism as a whole.
However, this desire is not idealistic. It’s purely pragmatic.
Evangelicals themselves are struggling with the aftermath of their adoration and literal idolization of Donald Trump. These days, he’s quickly falling out of political favor. So this campaign may represent an attempt to redirect them to more suitable evangelical-leader-approved candidates—like Ron DeSantis—who, coincidentally, have a much better shot at winning the next election. But to accomplish that switch, evangelical leaders must wean their hard-right followers away from Trump and Trumpist convictions.
An organization that can be accurately described as “quietly helping drive U.S. policy far to the right” is more than capable of having this motivation.
More to the point, it’s also possible that this ad campaign exists to defuse the anger of general “people” at evangelicals. The ads paint a rosy picture of what I’ve come to call TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. They implicitly assure viewers that those millions of hard-right evangelicals acting like complete asshats aren’t really followers of ultimate-good-guy Jesus. They promise that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would never. Hate the players, not the game, they croon. Gosh darn those ickie hypocrites who are out there messing up evangelicals’ image!
Even really nice, kind, compassionate, human-rights-embracing Christians fall for this No True Scotsman reasoning, so I find this potential explanation plausible as well.
Another possible interpretation: Slowing Gen Z’s estrangement from evangelicalism
When we look at Christianity’s overall decline, we can see that there’s a definite generational component to it. As PRRI discovered in 2017, every new generation is less and less likely to be Christian. That rule definitely also applies to evangelicalism. Though Gen Z evangelicals tend to be the most fervent evangelicals (and the most likely to evangelize others compared to older ones), they are also the smallest segment of evangelical followers.
For about five years now, Barna Group has been lamenting the estrangement of Gen Z from Christianity itself. They’re a for-profit evangelical business that creates and sells research to worried evangelical leaders. And not much worries evangelical leaders quite like the increasing tendency of each succeeding crop of young adults to leave evangelicalism.
Incidentally, this exact topic is what finally taught me to immediately archive everything that makes evangelicals look bad. On the Barna Group link above, it originally contained a mention that only 4% of Gen Z kids had what they called “a Biblical worldview.” That means only 4% of Gen Z were what Barna Group considered real evangelicals and TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Even the earliest archived link of that page lacks that figure—or really, any mention of “a Biblical worldview.” But I know I didn’t imagine it because other people online have mentioned seeing the same statistic in connection with the same link! That said, Barna Group repeats the statistic elsewhere, and other sites repeat it as well. It was just such a weird situation to see it missing when I went back to refer to it later on.
So Gen Z people today aren’t just post-Christian, with barely half identifying as Christian at all. They’re non-evangelical. Increasingly, they lack any kind of cultural connection with the central selling points of evangelicalism:
- Its members’ terror of Hell, stoked constantly by their leaders
- Manufactured needs for divinely-granted meaning and purpose
- Tribalism and cruelty to the poor and marginalized as a point of essential belief
- Distrust of reality-based science and the scientific method
And that ain’t Gen Z.
Looking at Wikipedia’s list of general Christians by country, you’d have to go to somewhere like Gambia, Senegal, or Saudi Arabia to find a country with as few Christians are there are Gen Z holders of “a Biblical worldview.” And you’d have to go to Austria, Mozambique, Canada, or France to find somewhere as non-generally-Christian as Gen Z is.
Seen in this way, He Gets Us may be evangelicals’ hamfisted attempt to connect with what they view as the cultural ideals of Gen Z. Once their young marks accept the idea that Jesus totally “gets” their ideals, then they might be easier to persuade into those central selling points in evangelicalism.
This exact approach worked on me at a Southern Baptist pizza blast in the mid-1980s. The fire-and-brimstone preacher I encountered there made a point I didn’t know how to refute at the time with my Catholic upbringing: If all we know about Jesus comes from the Bible, shouldn’t the Bible be our central guide to Christianity? For the next almost-decade, that exact point led me into worse and worse flavors of evangelicalism until my eventual deconversion.
But somehow, I don’t think Gen Z will prove nearly as gullible as Gen X was.
The more likely interpretation of the real goals of He Gets Us
But ultimately, we must reckon with the sheer gargantuan cost of this entire campaign. According to Christianity Today, at least one billion dollars has poured from the hands of the Servant Foundation. That money has gone and is still going to marketing directors, advertisers, media slots, social-media consultants, billboard companies, and everyone required to make it all happen—from the commercial directors to the photographers to the sound effects creators.
I’ve already characterized that kind of money as unthinkable. And it is. It’s also life-changing for the people who receive it. Game-changing. Utterly preposterous for an ad campaign that claims, all kitten-eyed and innocent, that it just wants to “reintroduce people to the Jesus of the Bible.”
And that’s where we must zero in on another possible interpretation, one that is all too common for these endeavors:
In evangelicalism, self-interest drives all too many of their outreach efforts. It’s why we’ve seen the cottage industry of church revitalization spring up amid evangelicals’ decline. Church revitalizers promise that they can totally turn around failing churches. But the main people who benefit from the fees paid to revitalizers are, well, the revitalizers themselves.
Similarly, all sorts of discipleship businesses exist to help evangelical church leaders foster stronger ties of loyalty and obedience with their members. Churches and denominations give these businesses millions of dollars to develop surefire solutions to their membership retention woes. But their decline continues, proving that the main beneficiaries of these efforts are the businesses promising discipleship improvements.
All those evangelicals who write books promising to fix America through Jesus-ing or to succeed in evangelism, similarly, get paid for their books whether their ideas work or not. They don’t need their ideas to work; they just need evangelicals to think so, so that they’ll buy their books.
A billion dollars represents legions of people in a wide range of industries getting paid for their professional services. Those people don’t work for free, even if they’re fervent evangelicals (and many probably aren’t even Christian). Their existence opens the door to an elegantly simple explanation:
The ultimate goal of He Gets Us might well be making donors open their wallets.
The real customers of the Servant Foundation might just be its donors
Nowadays, most people understand that if a social media’s services are free to users, then they aren’t its actual customers. In such cases, people understand that the site’s advertisers are its actual customers, not its users. Its users—and their private information—are simply the product that the social media site’s owners sell to its actual customers.
But social media sites have never made that connection obvious. Indeed, their owners seem to do everything they can to obscure their real focus on advertisers. When social media sites became super-popular in the 2000s, I noticed that these services never actually said how they made their money. Their users appeared to think that these free services existed purely to make users happy.
It’s a brilliant bit of chicanery, what these social media sites have pulled off. Many users still seem to think that they’re these sites’ customers. At most, sponsored advertising posts might bug them as they doomscroll, but all too many of them assume that these are the extent of the revenue-makers for the site.
Advertising works in similar ways.
When a marketing campaign’s product isn’t obvious, it likely targets someone else as its focus.
Those someone-elses don’t even need to watch its advertising. They’ve already seen it. They already fully buy in to its ideas.
And why shouldn’t they already buy in?
They’re the ones paying for the campaign, after all. So they’re the only ones whose opinion matters. If they’re happy with He Gets Us, that’s really all that should matter to the Servant Foundation.