Planning and executing a successful campaign is one of the most difficult tasks for political, business and non-governmental organizations. The main reason for that is the immense amount of promotional messages conveyed to the public, which creates a sense of apathy among the target markets or groups. In fact, inhabitants of Western cities are exposed to hundreds or even thousands of such messages a day; therefore, it is imperative that campaigners will constantly think of new ways to approach the public and to get people’s attention to the cause.
This paper analyses a recent international campaign, which started in England and spread across Europe and North America. The Atheist Bus Campaign was launched by several British atheist organizations, mainly as a response to pro-Christian campaigns and due to what seems as an antagonistic consensus towards atheistic views. This campaign provides an extremely important case study for a rather efficient manner of social campaign with international spread.
The goal of this campaign, which was launched in 2008 by young British writer Ariane Sherine, was to give publicity to atheist ideas using bus advertisements. The initiative was initially discussed in Sherine’s blog and received endorsements from several British celebrities. The main endorsement came from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who is known globally for his preaching for “militant atheism.” The six-months (October 08 until April 09) campaign in the UK had an astonishing fundraising success. From an initial goal of £11,000, the organization managed to raise more than £153k, mainly through its website. Moreover, affiliate campaigns emerged in other countries, including Germany, Austria, Italy, Australia, US and Canada, although it did not do so well outside of the UK. An analysis for the factors of success and failure of the British and international campaigns are suggested below.
2 The Challenges Facing the Campaign
Although the organizers wished to carry on a “peaceful and upbeat” campaign, it is possible to identify several key difficulties, both internal and external:
First and foremost, atheism typically faces strong public resistance, even in secular countries. This resistance comes from religious organizations (especially the Church and other monotheistic religions) and other conservative pressure groups. Moreover, such a campaign may be perceived as offensive, and thus faces the risk of being banned by public advertizing authorities, as happened in several countries such as Italy and Germany.
Second, this private initiative could not receive considerable funding from large organizations. Hence, fundraising must be based on donations from individuals. Given the current economic slowdown, donations are limited, especially for such a controversial issue.
Finally, a major challenge is to receive public awareness and interest of the media for the causes of the campaign. This point is even more problematic when considering the relatively serene promotional tools suggested – advertisements on busses – which are considered as conventional and do not call for interest of the media as strongly as demonstrations and provocations.
3 Strategic and Promotional Goals
Based on the complexity of the issue and the challenges argued above, the Atheist Bus Campaign was based on a positive and slightly humoristic promotional approach and on powerful but short operation of the campaign (see a discussion in the next section). In addition, logistic and PR problems were solved by cooperation with other organizations and by leveraging the external criticism to increase public awareness.
Generally speaking, the campaign aimed to encourage the public debate on what can be defined as the backbone of all monotheistic religions, namely the existence of God. It targeted urban populations, mostly in big cities, and tried to offer an antithesis for the radical messages of certain religious groups. More specifically, the original UK campaign came about as a response to a bus campaign by a London-based Christian organization (Proclaiming Truth in London, www.jesussaid.org), which advocated aggressive approach towards non-believers.
The antithesis was hence not only in regard to the content (the existence of God), but also to the attitude:
While the religious campaign threatened that believing in Christ is to only way to escape “the kingdom of darkness” and death, the Atheist Campaign’s main message was not aggressive at all. Instead, the main idea was to question (but not utterly deny) God’s existence and to offer life without fear of supernatural powers (see a discussion on messages in section 5). In conclusion, the strategic approach was to promote the atheistic notions not by urging people to do something (which will create immediate antagonism), but by suggesting that religion is not the only way to achieve pleasant and satisfying life.
4 Tools and Tactics
Since blogging has a very limited ability to motivate people to act, the campaign’s online fundraising was supported by several influential organizations and celebrities. This was possible thanks to the decision to carry on a limited campaign (as of scope), which can promote the interests of the partner organizations. The campaign used two main media, namely physical presence and online promotion:
The physical presence was conducted through advertisements on buses, in underground stations and with two large LCD screens on Oxford Street in London. Other means of promotion included a sightseeing bus in Germany (focusing on related sites), billboards in several cities (e.g. Vienna) and an affiliate campaign in Italy, which did not deal with God, but promoted the freedom of speech to atheist. One of the partner organizations has also launched a merchandizing line, including t-shirts and bumper stickers.
The online campaign used all the conventional methods, including usage of Facebook, blogging and Twitter, as well as donation sites with additional information, video clips, etc. This helped to emphasize the strong support of individuals in the campaign; the campaign’s Facebook group, for example, has more than 25,000 members (as of August 5th, 2009) and a very active discussion board.
5 Main Messages
Loyal to the young, positive and humoristic approach, the messages varied across nations. The campaign’s main slogan, “There’s probably no god; now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” is an important mark for the organizers’ approach. Examined part by part, we can identify several key featurs:
- “There’s probably no god” – using “probably” instead of “definitely” of simply “There’s no god” avoids the religious approach that God’s presence does not need to be proved. Since there is no hard proof to confirm or deny God, the slogan does not demand that we should “believe” in God’s nonexistence.
- “Now stop worrying” – as discussed above, this serves as an antithesis for the hard-line religious messages, which demand full conformity.
- “Enjoy your life” – this phrase suggests that this life is likely the only life, and thus should be enjoyed.
Other key messages from local campaigns included:
- In the US: “Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness’ sake: “You Can Be Good Without God”
- In Australia: “Atheism – celebrate reason”
- In Italy: “The bad news is that God does not exist. The good news is that you don’t need him;” “The good news is there are millions of atheists in Italy. The excellent news is they believe in freedom of expression”
A very interesting follow-up campaign was launched in Austria, where a popular national narrative accuses the Catholic Church for supporting the radical nationalistic right wing. In addition to translation of the original slogan to Germam, the Austrian campaigners added several messages, such as “Good deeds are humane. It depends only on us” and “God is most probably a Czech pop singer ; Relax, he will not do any harm to you.”
6 Analysis of Results
The Atheist Bus Campaign was not intended to make any tangible change. Its main purposes were generating general public awareness and responding to radical Christian campaigns in the UK with a modest budget of merely £11,000, which were enough for four weeks. However, the response in the UK was surprisingly positive and the word has speared across many other countries.
As a result, the main message of the campaign, namely expressing doubt about religious conventions, could reach the street and was arguably much more influential than any other academic or literary work since Darwin. At this point, it is unclear whether the public debate emerged from the global campaign will increase; but even if not, it gave a case study for further initiatives with similar goals.