What should we make of the banned CofE Advert?

The Church of England created the above advert as part of the JustPray campaign to encourage prayer. The church had hoped to screen the 60-second ad before the latest Star Wars film, due to be released on 18 December. The advert had been passed, with a U certificate, by the BBFC.

However, three leading UK cinema chains have refused to screen the above advert by the Church of England. Digital Cinema Media, who handle most cinema advertising in the UK, have rejected the advert. They claim to have “a policy not to run advertising connected to personal beliefs, specifically those related to politics or religion. Our members have found that showing such advertisements carries the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences.”

There are several things worth saying here.

First, it is difficult to understand on what basis the advert could be deemed offensive. Simply suggesting that prayer is for everybody is not likely to offend any but the most over-sensitive of secularists and Atheists (for most other religious believer, Christian or otherwise, would agree with the sentiment). As with the overwhelming majority of adverts, they make a case for you to do something (usually purchase a product/service) allowing people to make up their own mind one way or the other. Interestingly, the advert doesn’t even suggest that everyone ought to or must pray. It simply says it is for everyone. It is a fairly benign and inoffensive message if ever there was one.

Second, it is a little rich to hear cinema chains getting on a high horse about that which might offend. I note they are not concerned with screening certain films that might offend some audiences. I am aware some of my friends are likely to find offensive certain of the films I am happy to watch. These same people still go to the cinema but find particular films (which they avoid) offensive. This has never bothered cinema chains before so it seems strange to become overly concerned about this particular advert.

Third, it is interesting to note that the DCM have a policy of not screening any advert “connected to personal belief”. Evidently that is not true because all advertising is connected to personal belief e.g. the belief that the product/service/action displayed is a valuable thing. In fact, at root, advertising is specifically intended to alter personal belief. It is a personal belief that the product is valuable or the action is good or the suggestion is worthwhile. It is also an exercise in seeking to change personal opinions and bring them into line with the advertiser’s own set of personal beliefs (e.g. I think you should buy this thing; this product is definitely the best on the market; you should give money to this charity). It is all linked to personal belief and, if that is the real concern, then DCM should get out of the advertising game altogether.

Fourth, the underlying reason is made clear when DCM state certain adverts carry “the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences”. And, let’s be honest, the offence or upset in and of itself is not the issue for cinemas have rarely given two hoots about such things. What they care about is the potential effect of such offence. In other words, if we upset or offend audiences with this advert we believe many of those people will not attend our cinemas. That belief may or may not be true but, of course, that is the nature of running a profitable, private enterprise. One must make judgement calls as to whether potentially offensive material will make a positive, negative or inconsequential difference to your business.

In the case of certain films, many cinemas make the judgement call that any potential offence will be compensated by those willing to watch and the impact of more widespread publicity/notoriety. When it comes to advertising, the judgement relates to income from the advert versus positive/negative impact on the audience. For the overwhelming majority of adverts, there is no potential for offence and the income registers as a net benefit to the company. It is the archetypal no-brainer for a private cinema chain.

Evidently DCM, or the individual cinema chains themselves, have concluded that the income from the Church of England advert is unlikely to offset the potential blow back from offended audience members no longer patronising their business. Again, whether that judgement is correct is impossible to prove without access to a lot of facts and figures that simply aren’t available to us. Nonetheless, a judgement call has been made and a private business are perfectly within their rights to make it.

This is not necessarily an attack on the Christian worldview. It is not proof positive that everyone is out to get Christians. There may be a case to be made that certain personal beliefs are permitted in wider advertising when the Christian worldview is not (eg. see here, though it ought to be said that this example does not relate to DCM or these cinema chains who may well have applied these principles consistently across the board). Similarly, there may be a case to be made about consistently applying what private companies and charities are or are not allowed to do. It is my personal view that private companies should be allowed to discriminate – in provision of service and acceptance of advertising – however they please. Likewise, the consumer is free to boycott, avoid or protest against a business if they find an action, service, advert, predilection or discrimination unpalatable and unreasonable. That is surely the very heart of liberal free democracy.

This is a private company making a private decision about an advert being screened on private property. It does seem unreasonable (whether they are right or wrong in their judgement) to force a company to run advertising or provide services that they believe will have adverse affects on their business. In my view, the company should be within their rights to deny the Church of England advertising space and it is perfectly acceptable for them to make a business decision about what adverts they choose to run. I equally think we should be free to suggest the decision is predicated on nonsense.

I doubt anybody is likely to boycott the cinema over this, and it is an unnecessary shame for the CofE, but I’m sure they haven’t been hurt by the much wider publicity as a result (see here, here, here and here et al). The advert has been aired, far wider than it would otherwise have been and the cinema chains have done as they pleased. All’s well and all that. Let’s not now turn this into an us-against-them, everyone’s out for the Christians, introspective pity party. It’s not, they aren’t and there’s no need on this.

2 comments

  1. Interestingly I remember screenings of Alpha adverts in cinemas some years ago – people climbing mountains in HD and wondering what life was all about; that didn’t seem to bother the cinema chains at the time.

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  2. Yes, I vaguely remember that too. If I were taking the decision, I’d have screened them. I can’t believe anyone would refuse to go to the cinema simply because this advert was shown beforehand. I think the reasoning behind refusing the screening is pretty weak.

    But, that said, I think DCM are perfectly within their rights to reject it. I was mildly saddened when I heard (but I haven’t seen it confirmed, so it may not be true. I hope it’s not true) that the CofE are planning to start legal proceedings. I just think this is one of those times where it is a shame, and it’s not a decision I would take, but the cinemas have taken it and we should allow them to reject advertising if they want (albeit on spurious grounds).

    Whatever the law, it ought to be applied consistently. If the law is that nobody can discriminate in provision of service, that should be applied consistently and the cinema should screen the advert (just as Christian organisations should have to reciprocate to others). If the law is that discrimination is acceptable on whatever grounds one pleases, and boycotts and consumer pressure are also permissible, then the cinema are within their rights and Christian organisation are also free to selectively offer their services just as others can campaign against them and boycott them if they don’t like it. But whichever way the law chooses to go, it must be applied consistently. I personally favour the latter of the two options.But I am sympathetic to those who feel Christian conscience is forced to comply but those who wish to disbar Christian voices/views are often allowed to do so. I’m not sure the issue is always as some claim but I can see why some feel it.

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