Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Ejector Ad Eight Years Later

Since I want to do a bit of reflection this year about where this blog has been in anticipation of its big tenth anniversary, I thought I'd recount one of its more notable moments.

Starting in 2003, my denomination, the United Church of Christ, began rolling out a new identity campaign known as God is Still Speaking. It was centered around the symbol of the comma, borrowing from a saying from comedienne Gracie Allen: "Never place a period where God has placed a comma." The idea behind the campaign was to position the UCC as a distinct, progressive place for people of faith wondering if there could truly be a welcoming, inclusive church for them.

As part of this campaign, the UCC produced three commercials. The first two, "Bouncer," and "Steeple," rolled out at about the same time, with the former in particular causing plenty of conversation and controversy along the way.

About a year after these first two commercials were released and after an appeal for money to help it along, a third ad entitled "Ejector" was introduced:

In a few places on social media, the UCC recently pointed out that it's been about eight years since this commercial first appeared.

That means it's also been about eight years since perhaps one of the most infamous moments in this blog's history.

Let me recap. Before the ad was revealed, Ron Buford (the chair behind the campaign at the time) gave a brief synopsis to the Sojourners website:
Many mainline churches see multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns as the latest evangelistic tool, but none hit the news like the “God is Still Speaking” campaign from the United Church of Christ—in part because major TV networks classified the ads as “advocacy” spots and rejected them. The first series, aired on cable networks, showed gruff bouncers turning away select worshippers at the church door—including racial minorities and gay and lesbian couples—followed by the text “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” The newest ads, launched in November, show “unwelcome” minorities being shot out of church by ejector seats, accompanied by the text, “Jesus didn’t reject people.”  
“These commercials are like modern parables,” campaign coordinator Ron Buford told Sojourners. “When people see these ads, they get it.” In fact, the ads won the Association of National Advertisers annual award for multicultural excellence. Buford is confident that future ads will build on this response, saying, “They will be funny, hard-hitting, and they will make the point.”
The bolded part was in the original, and I quoted it here before someone seemingly went back to remove it.

And that was the issue in a nutshell. Sojo printed that quote with the description, somebody passed it along to the UCC website's forums, and I quoted it here 1) thinking it was fair game since Buford was the original source, and 2) I didn't really think that the ad sounded like it would be appealing to people who'd experienced "ejection:"
I thought the bouncer ad worked because it spoke to people's experiences. This ad attempts to duplicate the communication of that experience, only, as Buford has said in other publications in a 'whimsical' way. A gay couple and a guy in a wheelchair being 'ejected' through the air is supposed to be the 'whimsical' part, but I doubt that anyone who has been ejected from a church in real life will see the ad and say, 'That's me!' Not while chuckling, anyway.  
This ad is making light of the ejectee's experience, while the bouncer ad was seeking to take it seriously. 
Why would the formerly churched laugh at this?
UCC watchblog UCCTruths (which appears to be defunct nowadays) got a hold of my post and quoted it nearly in full, and the UCC went into damage control mode. Among other things, they actually complained about the description of the commercial being out before they'd intended. That was probably around the time when the original Sojo article was changed, among other things.

It was far and away the most notoriety that this little space had ever received at the time. I hadn't wished to stir something up, as again I didn't know the ad's content was meant to be a secret, especially considering that the campaign's leader had given a description to a nationally-read website. Nevertheless, there was a great uptick in traffic and a lot of discussion here and elsewhere, including some questioning of my motives and who I was.

The culture of the denomination at that time as I experienced it was very divided. Not only did people react strongly one way or the other to this campaign, but around that time was General Synod 25 in Atlanta, complete with its vote in support of marriage equality. So this made for a very charged atmosphere around the UCC for a while. To supporters of what the UCC was doing, people who presented an alternative view were deemed "unloving critics." To dissenters, supporters were "UCC cheerleaders." From what I saw, the space for nuance between these poles was very small. So for a while, to those who supported the Ejector ad, let alone the campaign, I was an "unloving critic," at least by association if nothing else. Given the circumstances, the ad seemed to be open for critique and I wanted to give my thoughts. My opinion on the ad itself hasn't changed much, either. I think that the other two were more well-done and were better reflectors of people's experience.

I sometimes wonder whether there are still some hard feelings over this. It may be that Ron Buford and others who were involved don't even think about this incident any more, or if they do they may not even remember my little contribution to it. Even then, it was UCCTruths that bore the brunt of the pushback. I certainly wasn't a big fan of being painted as an anti-UCC zealot by some, nor did I appreciate the overall sense that I had that any and all criticism of this campaign got you labeled as such. I liked and still like the campaign as a whole…I just saw this commercial as a misstep in its overall goals.

I sometimes imagine sitting down with the former leaders of this campaign--over coffee, of course--and being all like, "Yeah, what was all that about, anyway?" I definitely could have handled some of this better, as I caused some grief that I didn't intend. Among other things, I should have picked up on the strong hint that Buford and others probably wanted the description removed until the big reveal on March 27th of that year. By the time I fully realized that, the ad's release party was long over. I take ownership of that responsibility, and could have saved my entire critique until after.

In the grand scheme of things, this really wasn't a huge deal, but the UCC recalling the release of this ad caused it all to come rushing back, and there's something about this that has always seemed unresolved to me. I love the United Church of Christ and what it strives to be in the American Christian landscape. I hope, at least, that nowadays we as a denomination may be more open to dissenting voices when presented in a constructive and loving spirit. I tried to do that, and regret that it wasn't received that way in this case.

We can do better, myself included. I think we have done better since those days, but we can do better yet.