For many viewers of the Super Bowl, one ad amid the beer and tax-software and car commercials may be particularly surprising. It might look something like this:
A guitar strums a melancholy tune. Black-and-white photos depicting mothers, fathers, and sons living in what looks to be impoverished Central American towns cycle through. An accented narrator describes a young and poor, but happy, family forced to leave their town. “One day, they heard the head of their country was sending soldiers to their town because he thought they were part of an insurrection,” the narrator says. The photos start to depict scenes of panicked flight through village streets and jungle roads; the faces of the family become anguished. “They were scared, hungry, and exhausted.”
Then the ad takes a turn: “But they were far away from the atrocities taking place … in Bethlehem.” On the screen, words flash in minimalist white: “Jesus was a refugee.”
That specific ad, titled “Refugee,” is one of 17 ads in English and Spanish that have been produced as part of a campaign called “He Gets Us.” For over a year, these ads have run during notable events such as NCAA March Madness games and the Grammys, and have graced billboards in major cities around the country, including in Times Square. The video for one of these ads, called “The Rebel,” has 87 million views on YouTube. They are all designed to send a simple message: Jesus was just like us.
It’s a strangely benign message for an ad campaign without a product or overt political cause to promote. But it’s very well-funded: The 30-second and minute-long “He Gets Us” ad spots that will run during the Super Bowl should amount to a total cost of $20 million, according to Ad Age. And the campaign’s backers have said they plan on spending a total of $1 billion over the next three years.
The campaign is being run by something called The Signatry, a Kansas-based Christian foundation that exists, essentially, to connect donors (and their financial advisors) with causes in order to “inspire and facilitate revolutionary biblical generosity.” According to Ministry Watch, an evangelical watchdog organization that scrutinizes the finances of Christian charities, in 2018, the foundation reported more than $1 billion in contributions. The foundation itself seems to be apolitical and nondenominational.
The list of donors, as far as we know, is a bit more traditionally evangelical. It includes Christianity Today, often called “the flagship magazine of American evangelicalism.” It also includes David Green, the billionaire co-founder of Hobby Lobby who fought the government over contraceptives; he told Glenn Beck in November that he was a donor. (A spokesman for the campaign told Religion News Service that the donors hailed from a variety of Christian denominations.) But we don’t know the full list of donors: According to the campaign, that’s because the people who are funding this don’t want to distract from the message. Christianity Today reported that they were “a small group of wealthy anonymous families.” The ad campaign’s spokespeople told Religion News Service the donors were “like-minded families who desire to see the Jesus of the Bible represented in today’s culture with the same relevance and impact He had 2000 years ago.”
The presence of Green and other more traditional evangelicals among those on the donor list is a bit strange in part because the ads demand so little of their audience. Many more conservative Christians have criticized the ads for treating Jesus like a cool guy rather than humanity’s savior and the son of God.
This is, of course, the point. The ads aren’t telling people to convert to Christianity. They’re just asking for people to check this guy out. And hey, if that leads you to join a church, then that’s just your informed decision, made of your own free will.
In other words, this is an evangelization effort, meant to reach out to people who are wary of organized religion. The campaign makes this explicit on its website by acknowledging that “many associate Christianity with judgementalism, discrimination, and hypocrisy.” The goal: “How might we all rediscover the promise of the love [the story of Jesus] represents?”
According to Religion News Service, the ad group has arranged for volunteers from more than 20,000 churches to respond to questions from viewers through the website. It also features reading plans and a number to text for prayers from volunteers or words of encouragement.
Proselytizing is an important element of evangelical Christianity. Ryan Burge, a political science professor who researches religion and political behavior at Eastern Illinois University, cited a study that showed that around 77 percent of evangelicals had “encouraged others to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.” But Burge described the campaign’s media-blitz approach as “incredibly unusual.”
There’s really very little precedent for it. In the 1980s, the Christian Broadcasting Network pushed a $5 million national campaign promoting a new issue of The Living Bible translation. In the 2010s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ran a campaign to counter stereotypes and misconceptions about the church. In 2004, the United Church of Christ ran a campaign touting their inclusivity. But these were ad campaigns specific to individual churches or sects, and all cost a fraction of the projected costs of He Gets Us.
There’s something else a little odd about this campaign: its politics.
The “Refugee” ad scans as solidly progressive, or at least pro-immigrant. One of the ads, called “The Physician,” tells the story of Jesus as a man who healed people, but relies on the heartbreaking imagery of the early COVID pandemic. Several others, in an effort to appeal to the disaffected, deal with less overtly political themes but valorize groups not often celebrated by the Christian right. One emphasizes that Jesus was born to a teen mom. Another compares his disciples to rebellious urban youths who are ultimately misjudged.
But a few are more politically ambiguous. In an ad called “Outrage,” where it describes a man “turning the other cheek,” the images that flash are largely of white people yelling at people of color. (In the “Justice” section of the “He Gets Us” website, it clarifies that “Jesus channeled his anger in defense of others when it really mattered. When he saw opportunists taking advantage of the poor, he confronted them without hesitation. But he knew how to pick his battles. … By telling this story, we reminded ourselves that even when we’re tested and trolled, we have the option of rising above.”)
Another ad, “The Influencer,” uses imagery from anti-racism protests, and seems to land on the side of the protesters being the Jesus figures. (“The establishment called him an extremist. … They would stop at nothing to shut him up.”) But it also starts off with an image of a Black man hugging a police officer and flashes images of protesters destroying storefronts while a narrator describes the biblical priests’ anger toward Jesus that led to his crucifixion. “Jesus was canceled,” the text reads on the screen.
“He Gets Us” has insisted that they are “not ‘left’ or ‘right,’ ” but the reality is that using fraught terms like “canceled” and images of Black Lives Matter protests invites viewers to try to map partisan politics onto it. And while it invites questions, it can’t help but spur others: Mainly, is this really the best use of a billion dollars in Christian donations? Wouldn’t the more Jesus-like thing to do with that money be to actually work to reduce problems like poverty and homelessness and the institutional failures of the justice system?
But of course, the funders of these ads think they’re doing just that. As one spokesperson of the campaign told Ad Age, “the ‘He Gets Us’ Super Bowl spots will explore how the teachings and example of Jesus demonstrate that radical love, generosity, and kindness have the power to change the world.” This ultimately gets at the real political underpinnings of the campaign: the belief that America will become a much more peaceful, successful, and wholesome place once it has become a more fully Christian nation—a more traditional perspective than the focus on diversity and “radical compassion” and “standing up for the marginalized” implies. On Sunday, $20 million is being placed on that bet.
Correction, Feb. 13, 2023: This post originally misstated that the National Association of Evangelicals was a donor to the campaign. While the NAE has collaborated on the ministry opportunities pertaining to the campaign, it is not a donor.