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I'm Offended By the Church of England's Cinema Advert PR Stunt

23/11/2015 14:07 GMT | Updated 23/11/2016 10:12 GMT

It wouldn't be Christmas without ads for everything including food, furniture, perfume, toys, Coca-Cola, John Lewis and, of course, the Church of England. Even though we forget between Christmases, the Church of England has a long history of festive ad campaigns and this year's ad is a classic PR stunt.

Church of England has 25 years' experience in commercial advertising

In 1990, the Broadcasting Act opened up advertising to religious organisations. The Church of England embraced this change with gusto, producing a report entitled Paying the Piper, which inserted commercial advertising into their communications strategy. They, along with other Christian organisations also created the Churches Advertising Network (CAN), now known as ChurchAds.net.

Since then, they've been paying for advertising all over the place, usually accompanied by radio ads, especially at Christmas. For example in 2005 they produced a rather curious billboard poster showing the Baby Jesus as Che Guevara, accompanied by a radio ad. In 2011 they began a more sophisticated campaign under the umbrella Christmas Starts With Christ, and last year they upped the ante and produced a video ad, which played across social media.

The Church knows exactly what it's doing

Why am I detailing this history? Well, I wouldn't want anyone to get the impression that the Church doesn't know exactly what it's doing when it comes to commercial advertising - it does. Far better than many not-for-profit organisations in fact. It would like us all to think that it has been unfairly treated, singled out when, in its naivety, it didn't know any different. It wants us to feel sorry for it. But you know, that would be like feeling sorry for sugary-drinks manufacturers not being allowed to advertise between cartoons on TV at 4pm.

The Church of England knows the rules. It knew that its Christmas ad would not be run in cinemas. It knew there was absolutely no chance. Digital Cinema Media (DCM) - a.k.a. the baddies who won't show the ad - have terms and conditions; they're on their website right now for all to see. They say: 'To be approved, an Advertisement must not in the reasonable opinion of DCM constitute Political or Religious Advertising'.

The Church of England knew that DCM wouldn't run the ad and that's why they chose the biggest blockbuster in years - the new Star Wars film - to hang their PR stunt on. Star Wars is what we call in PR, the hook. If they'd tried to book advertising during a low-grossing foreign-language film, no one would even have noticed and they wouldn't be plastered all over the media.

'Disappointed and bewildered'

The Reverend Arun Arora, director of communications for the Church of England, said: "We find that really astonishing, disappointing and rather bewildering." When I read this I did literally spit out my cornflakes. I've never know a director of communication for any large, national organisation to be bewildered by anything at all.

At the moment, the Church is protesting too much and if it's not careful, everyone will start to twig that this whole thing is a PR stunt. In fact, I see on Twitter that they are now threatening legal action against DCM. Good luck with that. It'll be quietly dropped once they've wrung a few more days of PR out of that angle.

I've got nothing against these kind of PR stunts. If this was a business I'd say 'well played'. But the Church of England is not a business, it's a religious organisation, one that expounds the virtues of transparency, honesty, truthfulness and morality.

Do we actively want religious advertising in cinemas?

According to Giles Fraser writing in the Guardian, secularists like me are trying to ban 'peaceful religious speech' from public places. I'm not, but even if I was, the cinema is not a public space. Cinemas are commercial premises, they're businesses, and as such it's up to them what ads they show. They treat all religions equally; basically, their 'ban' doesn't just apply to the Cheesemakers but all manufacturers of dairy produce. And when it comes to religious advertising they've got it spot on.

Imagine if they didn't 'ban' religious advertising. Global religions are not poor entities. They have more than enough money to create campaign after campaign. And do you really think they'd be satisfied with just advertising during Star Wars? Nope. Of course not. There could be back-to-back adverts for every flavour of religion before every single kids' movie; Scientology and Frozen? Catholicism and Toy Story. Islam and Minions. The Lord's Pray advert is not offense - but it is the thin edge of the wedge.

Keep ads out of the cinema

I went to see Spectre the other day - great movie. But thinking back, there was no way I could avoid watching the adverts - nor would I have wanted to. The cinema is a collective experience and the film trailers and ads are part and parcel of the event - they set the tone and are part of the fun. But it's nothing like watching stuff on telly. Whoever suggested that you could just not watch, or ignore, the Lord's Prayer advert at the cinema, clearly hasn't actually been in one recently. The sound and vision experience is huge - it's completely in your face. You can't ignore it - you are a captive audience.

No one wants to ban freedom of religious expression in public places. Even secularists like me don't want that. Freedom to practice your own belief system - even evangelise in order to gain converts, if it's in a public place - is vitally important in a free society. I'm not seeking to ban religious imagery and messaging. I'm seeking to uphold the right of commercial businesses to turn down messages that they feel might upset, frustrate, insult or, yes, offend, people of different faiths or no faith at all. So next time the commentariat jumps to defend a not-for-profit, a religious or political organisation, it might be worth them taking a deep breath, challenging their own core principles, and looking at the bigger picture first.