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Alex Wilmott
  • By Alex Wilmott
  • Nov 25 2015

Cinema sermons not welcome

Thoughts on the banned Church of England advert

This week saw the Church of England given an x rating in the cinema after its advert, encouraging people to ‘pray’, was banned. The bizarre and slightly cheesy ad sees each line of the Lord’s Prayer spoken (and sometimes sung) by a host of different people including refugees, weightlifters, a farmer, a gospel choir and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who didn’t need an autocue. It comes to an end with the words “Prayer is for Everyone”. However, Digital Cinema Media, who manage advertising in cinemas, said, “It’s not for us”.

“Consumers have never had more power to tune out whatever marketers try to pitch them.” The Marketoonist.com

The company said that due to the nature of cinema’s “captive audience” the ad would target people from other faiths and non-believers, who would be forced to watch something they didn’t agree with. They felt their customer would be evangelized rather than entertained, which is what they pay for when going to the cinema.

In our last blog, reviewing the John Lewis and Sainsbury’s Christmas campaigns, we made the point that when you create an engaging and entertaining ad, people will gladly watch it. And the last time we checked, there was still freedom of speech in this country. But our problem with the COE ad isn’t the message, which they are free to express and we are free to ignore, but their clumsy and arguably lazy approach to marketing. What I’m sure they thought was an edgy and current idea, actually looks quite sad and out of touch.

Brand leaders know full well that in these days of consumer choice, advertisers have to earn the right to be heard. The days of imposing messages just because you have the microphone have long-since departed. And with the average CoE attendance figures currently boasting just 2% of the UK population, this is one lesson that should have really been learnt from the largely-ignored pulpits up and down the country.

The reality is that this ‘Speaker’s Corner’ approach to communications doesn’t even work in Hyde Park anymore, so why would it work in the brutally competitive world of film and television? The church message basically says that if you’re not praying, you should be. But sadly, as genuine as this message may be, it doesn’t stand up on its own. It lacks insight, it lacks charisma, it lacks a sense of ‘story’ but most of all, it lacks an interested audience.

With just 2% of the UK population attending their local parish church, can the CoE really believe that the decision taken by Digital Cinema Media was “Plain silly”? I would argue the silliest aspect to all of this was for the CoE to launch a national advertising campaign without knowing one’s audience and naively expecting things to work out just because they believe they are ‘right’.

People wait in anticipation to see what stories John Lewis and Sainsbury’s will share at Christmas. We know there’ll be an engaging narrative, one that’s drenched in poignancy and entertainment. When we watch the CoE ad (now available on their website), we’re faced with a group of people mumbling the words that used to bore the pants off us in school assemblies.

I was sad to see such a lack of creative insight, storytelling and style in the recent church campaign. And though I was initially downbeat about the decision to axe the ad, I’m in complete agreement with Digital Cinema Media. My career in journalism and communications has taught me that though everyone is born with the right to speak, you have to earn the right to be heard. Or as the Marketoonist reported this week: “Consumers have never had more power to tune out whatever marketers try to pitch them.”

So the message to marketers is, focus on what consumers want to buy, not what you want to sell, and if you wish to engage non-customers, give them a compelling reason to notice you. For the CoE, the challenge is the same as for any other organisation. Everything comes down to the experience on offer. And looking at the rate of church closure in the last 50 years, the bishops should probably give people a better reason to attend their local church before they start telling everyone to pray. After all, even MC hammer approached this issue with more passion than the CoE ad.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, the act of banning the ad has made it all the more interesting - so much so that nearly half a million people have willingly viewed the ad on social media and it didn’t cost the CoE a penny in media costs! (I guess miracles do happen at Christmas after all).