With perhaps the exception of the recent Asbury revival, it’s rare to see Christianity referenced in popular culture in a positive way. Be it debates over Christian nationalism or the tragically unending list of church abuse scandals, Christianity’s portrayal within modern media often swings on a doom-and-gloom pendulum, between the cheery endpoints of authoritarianism and abuse.
Enter “He Gets Us,” an ad campaign trying to change the way Christianity is perceived in popular culture. The brand gained tremendous popularity following a $100 million gambit that put two ads in the 2023 Super Bowl. The first, a 30-second ad, exhorts viewers to be “childlike” over images of children at play. The second, a 60-second spot, told viewers to “love your enemies” over images of violence and division. The Super Bowl strategy isn’t the only messaging employed by “He Gets Us”—the brand’s been making appearances on billboards and social media since its launch late last year, fueled by a group of donors that includes David Green of Hobby Lobby.
“Whatever you are facing, Jesus faced it too,” says “He Gets Us,” be it an appeal to the archetype of the rebel, the refugee, or the unwed single mother. For an inside look at the production and reception of these ads, I talked to two individuals connected with the campaign: “He Gets Us” spokesperson Jason Vanderground and Bill McKendry, chief creative officer at HAVEN, a creative hub associated with the HGU ads.
What’s the denominational background of the production crew behind the “He Gets Us” campaign?
JV: “He Gets Us” is not associated with any specific group or denomination, and the team behind it includes a variety of denominations and viewpoints.
Who’s the main audience for this ad campaign?
JV: “He Gets Us” has two primary audiences and goals: first, to reintroduce spiritually open skeptics to the Jesus of the Bible and his confounding love and forgiveness. Second, we want to call up Christians to reflect the authentic Jesus in how they treat others.
Think about your ideal consumers for this ad. What do you want them to walk away from the ad thinking and feeling?
JV: The ultimate goal of “He Gets Us” is to raise respect and relevance for the Jesus of the Bible. The goal was that the two commercials would not only inspire those who may be skeptical of Christianity to ask questions and learn more about Jesus, but also to encourage Christians to live out their faith even better and exhibit the same confounding love and forgiveness Jesus modeled.
What’s been the most common bit of feedback you’ve been getting on this ad campaign?
BM: The most common feedback we get are questions regarding our agenda and the sources of funding for the campaign. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, but audiences on all sides (Christian and non-Christian, conservative and progressive, etc.) seem to be skeptical about our motives and desired outcomes. Understandably, in these divisive times, it is hard to believe that our goals are simple and free from political leanings. We’ve been surprised to see that, since the Super Bowl, the media have been fair and balanced in their analysis of our work and stated goals. It is not that they haven’t been critical, but they’ve also been complimentary and objective about what it is we are attempting to accomplish and communicate.
What’s been the most useful bit of feedback you’ve gotten on this campaign?
BM: Our campaign over the last year has created significant buzz, but that was brought to a new level with our Super Bowl efforts. Many were discussing Jesus and the ads in national and regional media, as well as on social media. But perhaps the best feedback we’ve received is to see that Google searches for the term “Jesus” went up 3,800% in January as we began promoting our ad presence in the Super Bowl. The key to understanding the significance of this is that “Jesus” is already a top search term, so to see numbers swell as they have is a very encouraging outcome from our presence in the market.
How do you balance the corporate responsibility of creating an ad campaign to create business and generate traffic and the evangelical responsibility to actually reach people with the Gospel?
BM: We’ve established KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for the campaign which both measure standard responses (e.g., web traffic, shares, likes, views, chats, texts, etc.,) and shifts on attitudes and behavior, so we’re measuring both the return and impact of the campaign at a level of sophistication expected for an effort of this scale.
Looking at other people who’ve sought to create broad-based Christian advertisement, what lessons did you learn in the production of these ads that Christians should take to heart?
JV: “He Gets Us” is about the radical forgiveness, compassion, and love that Jesus embodied and nothing else. We learned through extensive research what to focus on and what to avoid to be successful. Most other broad-based Christian campaigns we’ve observed were not driven by developing strong insights through extensive market research and message testing. No other effort we are aware of has spent the time and resources we have to prepare their effort at the level and scale we have.
“He Gets Us” has presented a well-funded, sleek Christian product for a secular audience. To a point, it’s worked—both of the “He Gets Us” spots ranked in the top 20 Super Bowl ads via consumer ratings. But is the emphasis on relatability really humanizing Jesus and making Christianity appealing to a younger generation? Or is it actually undercutting the transformative power of the Gospel? Is it the motives behind the campaign that are suspect, as McKendry implies, or is the campaign’s efficacy that should be questioned?
To hear a conservative critique of “He Gets Us,” I spoke with Douglas Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. Wilson has written for decades on subjects from classical education to Christian engagement with culture, and garnered a legacy as one of Reformed Christianity’s most outspoken and controversial advocates. Wilson sat down to explain the conundrums inherent in modern Christian marketing, but began by giving credit where he believes it’s due. “I’m grateful for people who are out there sharing the Gospel, and I’m sure there are people who will be helped,” says Wilson, before giving a pastoral analogy, albeit one that puts “He Gets Us” in a less-than-amazing light. “The reason I’m not completely hostile is, if I went through my congregation, ‘When you first came to Christ, how much of your initial discipleship was dumb and stupid,’ a lot of people came into the church in a big-box evangelical church and then outgrew it.”
In Wilson’s words, the content created by “He Gets Us” is nobly intentioned but falls into the category of what he deems “ad-copy Gospel”—marketers trying to preach the Gospel. “It’s calculated to offend no one. Jesus and the apostles and the prophets just didn’t talk that way.”
To him, the offense-free evangelism strategy has traded authority for relatability: “One of the things that people require is a sense of authority, that brings security,” he asserts. “We don’t want to present Christ as the sky-buddy, and neither do we want to portray him as how-do-you-do-fellow-kids.”
Yet what’s the difference between the kind of relatability created by a “He Gets Us” ad and the kind of relatability that a pastor seeks to create when preaching? For Wilson, once again, the problem arises from the marketing-first approach. “Every preacher’s task is to connect that word with where the people are. You have to connect that word with the temporal word and where the people are. You have to understand cultures and mores,” he admits. “But what is it that I’m trying to relate to? I’m talking about a Savior that’s there to save them from their sin. I’m trying to relate the Gospel to their sense of sinfulness, rather than their felt needs.”
At the end of the day, though, Wilson maintains that the “He Gets Us” strategy has merit, even if more conservative Christians differ strongly with the tone of the messaging. “Let’s say my critique is correct and that it’s too ad-copy-gospel and it’s too ‘relatable.’ It’s odd for me to say that God can’t use that.”