Atheist buses deny existence of God. So what?

The long promised atheist buses have gone onto the streets of London, touting the message: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. The planners of this campaign faced some criticism from their own side, who wanted a stronger message. But it appears that fears that it might breach advertising codes softened it.

Actually, I’m fairly certain even the message they’ve chosen would breach the normal guidelines applying to products, though, I, for one, will not be complaining.

How’s that, you ask? Essentially, if it were a product, the advertisers would have to prove their claim that ‘God probably doesn’t exist’. But in order to prove this, they would have to find some way of quantifying ‘the probability that God doesn’t exist’. Being as there is no ISO standard on the probability of the existence of a deity, this would be tough to prove. Atheist leaders may be hoping that they get the same dispensation as the phrase ‘probably the best lager in the world’, but that was clearly a joke, and this clearly isn’t.

In reality, they are probably (and I mean a measurable probability) quite safe, because the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) doesn’t intervene on issues of a political nature, and takes a nuanced position on religious offence. More importantly, they aren’t selling a product.

I suspect, though, that half of the aim of this campaign is to spur hordes of Christians (and others) to complain vociferously. If you are a person of faith, let me urge you not to give Richard Dawkins and his crew the satisfaction. In advertising terms, it’s not very probable that this ad will achieve anything other than prompting complaints. For a start, it’s too long: the eye takes in typically 18 letters in one go, which is why bus adverts, bill-boards and newspaper headlines are usually no longer than that. Most advertisers work to the old adage ‘AIDA’, standing for ‘attention, information, decision, action’. A good ad is generally considered to have an attention getter, some informative content, something that makes you decide to buy the product or service, and a call to action. The good folks at the ASA did some research a few years ago, where they discovered that messages which work in the UK are first of all informative, then clever, and, finally, enter popular culture. In my own experience, the three other things which make or break an ad are clarity (do I get the message?), credibility (does it sound believable?), and relevance (do I care?).

The British Humanist Association may be very good at representing its members, but (my personal view) probably not going to be getting calls from other voluntary organisations asking for advice on campaigns. This is an ad which will only appeal to people who already agree with it, and (again my view) quite a few of those will be embarrassed by it. Of course, they won’t be admitting that, and certainly not to me. Well, probably not, any way.

If you’re a Christian, and have been embarrassed in the past at well-meant but unappealing church adverts, take some consolation from the fact that the other side are now facing the same thing.

PS: If you’re interested in actual debate on the existence of God, you can catch the video they shot of me (and others) at the Cambridge Union autumn 2007, on the motion (which was defeated) This House Believes that God is Dead.

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