By Steve Tomkins.
An advert I’ve seen on TV a few times: weedy-looking man drives into petrol station, and beeps horn for service. Cue rock music. Three scantily clad ladies appear, and give the car a rather suggestive seeing to. Then we see that one of the cleavages of these attentive young pump attendants is sporting a magnificent gold cross. Voiceover: The Catholic church. We’ve... made a few changes.
Of course I’ve only seen it as part of The Simpsons. But still, it makes me wonder. I don’t suppose I’m the kind of target audience ads like that are aimed at. But what would an advert for Catholicism - or any religion - aimed at me look like? There’s a starter for ten. Why not try it at home? (You can do it for yourself rather than me if you like.)
The Alpha course have released a cinema ad which depicts a mountaineer reaching the summit, a model strutting the catwalk and as footballer scoring the winning goal in the cup final. 'Is there more than this to life?' they ask, and then the Alpha logo reminds us where we can find out.
Subtle, eh? I suppose it’s following in the tradition of those crazy Guinness ads full of white horses and surfers, ending with a little Guinness logo, that leave you going 'Oh, you want me to have a Guinness. Why didn’t you just say so? I’ve got one in the fridge.'
They must be very easy to write. In fact they are - I’ve just written one. You’ve got a flower pot on a high window sill. Cool looking couple snog nearby. A child blows a bubble. Then a persuasive voice says, 'Andrex' or 'Hubba Bubba' or 'Staedtler pencils, the sharpest and the best'.
I guess it’s a self-confidence thing. The Alpha ad, like Guinness, says, 'Alpha’s so big we don’t need to explain it any more.' But at the same time, it seems to have the opposite effect to. The ad assumes that by not mentioning God or Christianity or church it will create a more favourable impression, which hardly says a great deal for the self-confidence of the British church.
Different churches have different attitudes to selling their wares. One church in my neck of the woods takes out whole billboard ads promising visitors life changing ministry and miracles of all kinds. A claim that’s somewhat belied by their entire failure to work the miracle of making me want to go.
On the other hand, there’s the Strict Baptist - how’s that for a winning brand name - chapel I know, that puts no words on the outside of its building at all, other than the name of the minister and a contact number. These are the legal minimum a church is required to display. Their philosophy is that if God sends you to their church you won’t need a poster saying 'CH__CH. What’s missing? UR', or for that matter one telling you the times of services. And if God doesn’t send you, you can get stuffed.
One step up from that are the churches who will display no poster but Bible verses. 'The wages of sin is death' in big bold black on fluorescent orange. The philosophy here seems to be that the Bible is by God, other posters are by man and prone to error. Quite why a poster needs to be infallible is not clear.
Then somewhere in between you have all those spiritual thoughts, invitations and cheerfully painful puns. 'Let’s meet up, before lunch on Sunday, my place. God.' 'Body piercing saved my life,' 'If church is only 4 weddings and a funeral, then U are missing out,' 'God answers knee-mail.'
I don’t think they achieve much more than helping people categorise your church: nice, nasty or nuts.
So what would an ad targeted at me look like? Worryingly, the only thing I’ve come up with so far is:
“Church. We’ll look after your kids while you read the Observer.'